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Local History

Earl Scruggs

 Legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs performed at the Ozark Empire Fair in August 1965. His appearance came at the height of his popularity in the band “Flatt and Scurggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.” Scruggs and his musical partner Lester Flatt had performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs’ banjo playing revolutionized the sound of Bluegrass music and he left Monroe to form the new band with Flatt in 1948. Monroe took their departure personally and did not speak to them for over 20 years.

Flatt and Scruggs enjoyed tremendous commercial success, perhaps most notably when “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was used as the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” As evidenced by his banjo playing, Scruggs was a musical innovator who began adding new instruments to the group in the late 1960s. Flatt resisted these changes and the duo broke up in 1969. Flatt remained popular in Bluegrass music with his new band the “Nashville Grass” while Scruggs toured with the “Earl Scruggs Revue.” They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985.

For a collection of their greatest hits, see The Essential Flatt & Scruggs

Scruggs, His Banjo Both High Strung,”
Springfield (Mo.) Daily News, August 13, 1965, page 35.

"Watching Earl Scruggs “pick and flail” with his familiar gap-toothed, corny smile yesterday at the Ozark Empire Fair, few people in the audience would have guessed that off-stage he was as high strung as his banjo.

"Yesterday’s performance here was Scrugg’s first in three weeks; he has been recuperating from an eight-day stay in the hospital with a stomach ulcer. Does he consider such troubles an occupational hazard? “Well, since I got out of the hospital,” he said yesterday, “I’ve been talkin’ with a lot of people, and you know there’s more people with ulcers in all professions than I ever dreamed of.” Still, Scruggs allowed that “all that travelin’ and irregular eatin’ probably don’t do it any good.”

"And his temperament itself hasn’t help either. For, corny or not, Earl Scruggs is a sensitive artist, one whose hard-driving three-finger picking technique has brought him to recognition among serious music critics as a virtuoso on the five-string banjo.

He and his easier going partner, Lester Flatt (both their names are real) are the acknowledged kings of a field of music they originated some 20 years ago -- Bluegrass. “We’ve been playin’ pretty much the same stuff ever since we started,” Scruggs said, sitting behind the stage in his group’s special air-conditioned bus.

Envelopes and postcards lay several inches thick on the floor and drifted in the corners. The three “Foggy Mountain Boys,” who play with Flatt and Scruggs, were opening fan mail and keeping track of the money and addresses of those who were sending for souvenir copies of a songbook the group is selling. “The maid ain’t come yet today,” Scruggs grinned.

"The group makes an average of four road appearances a week, returning to Nashville, Tenn., Saturday nights for the weekly “Grand Ole Opry” performance. Their families stay in Nashville. How has business held up in light of the rush of interest in folk music the last few years? “It hasn’t damaged us,” Scruggs said. “Matter of fact, I’d say it’s stimulated us, especially in metropolitan areas. We now do a great deal more work at universities and colleges than we did before. We’ve worked from Berkeley to Boston.”

"The five man group usually appears by itself, sometimes sharing the bill with other country and western stars (as yesterday when Sheb Wolley, Slim Wilson, and other former Ozark Jubilee members appeared), and sometimes with popular folk singers like Joan Baez.

"Scruggs was born in North Carolina. He began playing the banjo when he was five, and at the age of 10 he had developed a unique style of picking that has become nationally known as “Scruggs style.” He introduced this technique on the Opry in 1945 and he and Flatt, Tennessee born guitarist and vocalist got together shortly after that. The Foggy Mountain Boys were formed in 1948.

"That was when Scruggs bought the banjo he still plays. “I bought it in a South Carolina pawn shop in 1948,” he said “and it was older’n me when I got it. I’ve run across a lot of other ones since then, but none sound better than this one. A banjo’s like a violin, I guess. The real old ones sound best.”

"The group uses no electrical amplification besides microphones. Their instruments include five-string-banjo, guitar, fiddle, bass, and Dobro (a sort of twangy forerunner of the electric guitar.) Is it proper to refer to the music as Bluegrass? “Well, not really,” Flatt answered. “Blue grass is in Kentucky and Earl’s pickin’ style [MS illegible] they first started callin our music Bluegrass, we didn’t appreciate it too much. But now we’re branded. [MS illegible] We don’t care what they call it as long as they listen to it.”

What does Scruggs think about what seems a rash of tragic accidents among Opry stars in the last few years, topped off by Roy Acuff’s recent serious auto injury? “I guess we have had our share of bad luck the last three or four years,” he said, paring his nails with a jackknife, “but somebody said something the other day that seemed sensible to me: He said it wasn’t so hard to understand it when think about how the population has been growin’ and the traffic has been getting’ worse, and how much travellin’ we do in our job. I guess we’re probably doin’ about as well as any other business, as far as the law of averages.”

"The two short performances by Flatt, Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys held the audiences spellbound yesterday with pure artistry and variety of their talent. Though still a little under the weather from his illness, Scruggs came through in fine style with two themes familiar to modern TV viewers. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverley Hillbillies,” and “Petticoat Junction.” The mournful sound of Buck Grave’s (“Uncle Josh’s”) dobra went over big as he twanged out “A Maiden’s Prayer,” and feet tapped to the walking rhythm of Scrugg’s “Cannonball Blues.”

"Bass fiddle player Junior Tulock (Cousin Jake) was a hit with his comedy routine, and there weren’t any flies on Paul Warren and his fiddle. Also in the show were Slim Wilson and his group, Wooley, the Jubilee Promenaders, and others.

"All received spirited applause, but the hit of the show, as expected was Scruggs and his dynamic banjo. Just before showtime, Lanky Shep Wooley, familiar as a star of “Rawhide,” ducked into the bus and flopped into a seat. Wooley has been touring with his singing and strumming act since he quit “Rawhide,” and is working on a pilot show for a possible new western series of which he will be the star, “The Big Land.”

" “Know what you need to do to heal those ulcers, Earl?” he asked. “You need to develop an “I don’t give a hang attitude. That’ll cure ya.” But an “I don’t give a hang” attitude, to the gratitude of countless devoted Bluegrass fans across the country, is something Earl Scruggs doesn’t seem capable of."

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