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American Routes Shortcuts: Earl Scruggs

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Earl Scruggs

The late Earl Scruggs was the definitive bluegrass banjo player of the 20th century.  From his distinctive three finger roll technique to influential years with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, and later the Earl Scruggs Revue.  He's also written famous tunes like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Flint Hill Special.”  Scruggs had a long journey from his birthplace in Flint Hill, North Carolina, where he worked in the textile mills to his arrival in 1945 at the Grand Ole Opry's Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.  It's at that venerable church of country music that Earl and his sons, Gary and Randy, recorded a retrospective concert in 2008.  We began with Earl's best family memory at Ryman: seeing a young woman who locked eyes with him from the audience.  She would become Earl's wife and manager of many years: the late Louise Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs: They didn't have no place to meet people, and just behind the auditorium was a small parking lot. That's where I met Louise. We were like one the rest of our lives. Dated until we got married and lived together as long as she lived.

[music]

Nick Spitzer: Now not everybody realizes that you played guitar early on in life and here you are still playing guitar, you know, right on the stage of the Ryman. Yet everyone thinks of you as always the banjo man.

ES: Yeah, I like the guitar. I was raised with picking every day, you would kinda get tired of one and just favor the other one for a while, and, you know, everybody has their heroes, and my hero was the Carter Family, especially Maybelle with her guitar, but the banjo really came first. Something I can be more creative with would be the banjo.

[music]

NS: You reach back into the Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, the sound, Earl, when you do “Earl's Breakdown.” What makes it “Earl's Breakdown” as opposed to somebody else's breakdown?

ES: That's a difficult situation when you write an instrumental is what you're gonna call it. The easy one to call it was like the fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special.” You can relate to it being a train song, but just a breakdown tune is just another hoedown, so whatcha gonna name it, you know? And it just came around the time I called that one “Earl's Breakdown” for no other reason than just to name it.

[music]

ES: When Lester Flatt and I first organized to name a band, how can you name a band that makes any sense? The Carter Family had a tune called “Foggy Mountain Top,” and I thought, "We'll just call our band the Foggy Mountain Boys," and so that's how it started. And used “Foggy Mountain Top” for the theme. Couldn't miss.

[music]

NS: So “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” that song, of course, became its own kind of icon in the Bonnie & Clyde film. How did that one end up as part of a movie soundtrack?

ES: What's his name? Warren Beatty, he called one day and wanted me to write a score for a movie, and a day or two after that he called and said, "Forget about me wanting you to write a score," said, "I found what I want." And he had found our first recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

NS: Your old, original “Foggy Mountain Breakdown?”

ES: The very first cut.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.