Earl Scruggs, the greatest banjo player ever.
Earl Scruggs passed away on March 28, 2012 at age 88.
I’m not going to pretend that I know a whole heap about Earl. I first learned about the god of banjo from my college roommate, the great Banjo Mike, banjer player in the 2nd Avenue Mountain Boys of NYC. (Haven’t seen ‘em live yet, but their vids rule) Wise beyond his years, he introduced this rookie of society to one of the greatest talents ever, playing numerous purchased and pirated tracks to an eager ear. It was my great privilege to accompany Banjo while practicing some classics, forever cementing bluegrass music into my soul.
A while back, I had the opportunity to see Earl at a desolate New England venue. Due to a dire financial situation and utter stupidity and lack of foresight, I declined making the road trip to see Mr. Scruggs live. I was told that this may be one of the last times I could witness a legend in person, and indeed it was, as I learned of his passing this very evening.
Almost immediately, I had to start up “The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show” on Netflix Instant Watch, to clumsily attempt to honor his spirit. Halfway through, I’m on the verge of tears. Let me try to describe what a baller this dude was:
First off, these guys really like Martha White Flour, and want you to like it too. It makes great cornbread, and I’m convinced that it’s the best goddamned cornbread in the nation. They make evaporated milk too, and they teach you to cook better than Rachael Ray does.
Okay, now on to the real shit. This show doesn’t mess around like all these new fangled network TV rip-offs that over dramatize everything, and contain really shitty commercials every 10 minutes. This show is the complete opposite. The emcee introduces Lester, who immediately intros the song and shoots the camera over to Earl, who absolutely RIPS his banjo strings apart playing the first tune. This guy was so good, they named a style of pickin’ after him. He never misses a fret, bends a note too far, or breaks a string. You may as well think you’re listening to a studio track, but guess what? They are all playing LIVE, without the benefit of modern technology, masking inconsistency and lack of practice.
Lester rocks at the rhythm, the supporting band members bring the house down, but Earl stands out above all. What’s more amazing, is the manner in which he carries himself. The man is more stone faced than Tim Duncan, and works his craft even better. But unlike Timmy, you can see in Earl’s face how much he has dedicated himself to music. He picks the guitar in episode one of the show, and while he’s probably just making sure the reverberation sounds just right, watching him put his ear to the body of the acoustic is a magical moment.
Just now, Earl seems to have broken out in early version of a tune aptly named “Earl’s Breakdown” (YouTube video below). I know it’s an early version, since Banjo played me a newer live-er version where he re-tunes the thing mid-song. Lester accuses him of being mad at his banjer. I bet he is. It must be caused by being forced to play the traditional slow ass country and religious tracks popular in the 50’s.
Wow, they”re really wrapping up episode two in style. The Martha White Flour theme song flows right into John Henry, with Earl calmly owning the bluegrass genra’ with a skilled, simple, and perfect banjer sequence.
I swear I’ll introduce every future house guest to a viewing of this magical show featuring the immortal Earl Scruggs, to honor his legacy and try to keep the spirit of Earl and bluegrass music alive. (Even if it costs me my precious stock of Basil Hayden bourbon) You’ll be remembered Earl. Because I’m a city slicker, I’ll be moaning your praises as I hit the ground after my first ever shot of moonshine. After I come to, the next one will also be in your honor. I’ll try to make some birds pass out while I’m at it.
Hat’s off to you Earl. A million thanks to your enormous contribution to our world.