Andy Bing’s Bluegrass Blog – Week 3 – The Fifth Child

Earl Scruggs
Last week’s post argued that Bill Monroe is rightfully called the “Father of Bluegrass,” although there were other country string bands active during the early 1940s, and other musicians, especially banjoist Earl Scruggs, played an important part in the creation of the music we know as bluegrass. Bill’s pre-Scruggs 1940 and 1941 recordings, his first with the Blue Grass Boys, already contained several of the essential elements of bluegrass. These included Bill’s hot, driving mandolin style, fast breakdown fiddling by fiddle virtuosos like Art Wooten and Tommy Magness, and Bill’s powerful vocals, augmented by the other singers in his band. Bill was the catalyst, who combined these elements to create a new band sound that was substantially different from the prevailing country string band sound of the time.

Dave (Stringbean) Akeman
But Bill wasn’t finished building his hot new band. Bill later said that he had heard the banjo back in Kentucky and wanted that sound along with the fiddle and the other instruments. At some point in the early 1940s, Bill sought to hire Snuffy Jenkins, a pioneer of the three finger style of playing the five string banjo, who influenced both Scruggs and Don Reno. But Jenkins turned him down, and Bill instead hired old timey banjoist Dave Akeman, a comedian known as “String Beans” (as Bill always referred to him thereafter) or later more commonly, as “Stringbean.”

Stringbean is best known to my generation as an original cast member of the CBS television music and comedy show “Hee Haw” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but he made his reputation with Monroe during the war years. Bill, whose show in those days included comedy, hired Akeman as much for his comic skills as his banjo prowess. Unlike Jenkins, Akeman did not play in the hot three finger style, but he endeared himself to posterity with his banjo playing on some of Monroe’s iconic early 1945 recordings, which were Bill’s first since the 1941 sessions. On “True Life Blues,” Akeman played the first banjo solo heard on a Bill Monroe recording. He also soloed on Bill’s hot mandolin blues, “Blue Grass Special.”

Stringbean left the Blue Grass Boys in late 1945. Earlier, in 1943, Bill had auditioned and offered to hire Don Reno, a hot five string banjoist who played in the three finger style, but Reno had already enlisted and the Army accepted him. So in late 1945, Bill auditioned Earl Scruggs, a young man from North Carolina. Scruggs played a much fancier and more driving style than Stringbean. Vocalist and guitarist Lester Flatt, who initially didn’t want another banjo player in the band, heard Scruggs and was captivated, telling Bill to hire Scruggs whatever it cost. Bill too was impressed, and Earl joined the band.

With a group that consisted of himself, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts, Bill now had the “Original Bluegrass Band.” There is no doubt that Earl Scruggs contributed greatly to Bill’s sound and to the popularity of Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in the second half of the 1940s. The five string banjo, played in what quickly came to be known as the “Scruggs style,” was the final instrumental voice (in Bill’s words, the “fifth child”) of the bluegrass sound. Earl’s banjo was an immediate hit with Opry audiences, and he often played banjo choruses after every verse of tunes like “Molly and Tenbrooks.” Opry MC George D. Hay, the “Solemn Old Judge,” took to introducing the band as “Bill and Earl with his fancy five string banjo.” Bluegrass was off to the races.

But all this happened under Bill’s direction. When Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys, he was 21 and Bill was 34. Although Earl had already been playing professionally for several years, there was no doubt which of the two was then the music veteran. In Bill’s band, with its superb sense of rhythm, Earl continued to hone and refine his playing. His stylistic growth can be heard by comparing the earliest recordings of this version of the Blue Grass Boys with the first recordings Earl made with Lester Flatt after the two left Monroe in 1948 and formed their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. It was Bill who guided his band members, including Earl, using their various talents to create the sound that he wanted. That sound, with important instrumental, vocal, and songwriting contributions by all the band members, later became known as bluegrass. And that’s why Bill Monroe is properly known as the Father of Bluegrass.

4 Responses

  • Nice article that I think accurately clarifies the “Father of Bluegrass” question. I just want to add one interesting note about why Stringbean was hired as Monroe’s first banjo player. During WWII Bill Monroe added to his show’s attraction by having his band and a few ringers take on the local baseball team in every town they played in. Bill loved baseball in spite of his poor eyesight. He also loved to COMPETE. Stringbean was an EXCELLENT baseball player and it was a strong part of his utility to Monroe! 1970s Blue Grass Boy banjoist Butch Robins has written of innocently accepting a suggestion from Monroe for a game of catch. Bill’s bus always had gloves and a ball aboard. Butch agreed to “catch” and on the first pitch Monroe bowled him over backwards into a cement wall! By 1950 Monroe had a separate bus or truck carrying a full team of salaried Tennessee high school baseball all-stars each summer, just to play the locals in every town the Blue Grass Boys entertained. Mac Wiseman remembered that during his year with Monroe (1949), Monroe’s ball team won 85% of their games.

  • I want to applaud Andy’s history of bluegrass series. Andy’s column adds a whole lot of interest, and a bit of class to the HVBA weekly newsletter as well. I appreciate the time and effort Andy must put in to write his narrative: doing research, writing, and the rewriting, the work that is necessary to produce a quality product. Keep up the good work Andy. You have at least one follower who appreciates and looks forward to the upcoming installments.
    Thank you,
    – Bill

  • Thank you very much Dick, Bill, and Steve. I appreciate your kind words and I am pleased that you are enjoying the columns. I enjoy writing about bluegrass-there are so many great stories. As one example, thanks to Dick for explaining above that Stringbean’s baseball skills were an important reason that Bill hired him, and for the details about Bill’s baseball teams of the 1940s. So String was the complete Blue Grass Boy-he was funny, a good ball player, and he played the banjo!

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