Earl Scruggs: The Sound

My story is like many others.

I first heard the sound in the 60’s as a poor mountaineer missed his shot
and struck oil. I listened, watched, and was amazed at the sound in in the 70’s, as 4 guys were beginning an ill-fated canoe trip. And the sound kept turning up. It was in the hit songs “Squeeze Box” (The Who), and “Long Tall Glasses” (Leo Sayer). The 70’s were laden with country rock when I was in college, led by Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, etc. But capturing my fascination just as much were the jam bands of the day, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat and others. Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing transported many of us, often with the aid of other things, to euphoric states of mind, and I later learned that Jerry had cut his teeth on the sound as a folk artist prior to becoming a rocker, and had revisited the passion as evidenced by the incredibly important album Old and In the Way.

It was 1976 and I had heard enough.

I wanted to make the sound.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

I got a 5-string open-back banjo with the name “Lero” on the headstock from a man named Mr. Patrick who lived in East Glenville, NY, and took a couple lessons from him that didn’t go very far because Mr. Patrick was playing a tenor banjo as I sat there with my 5-string. So I took it off to college and my roommates and I would mess around with it.

I was living in Lake Placid in 1977-78, doing the night audit for a hotel, when I really began to chase the sound. There was Munn’s Music store in nearby Saranac Lake that showcased a beautiful Vega banjo in the window. Munn’s was where I found the book “Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo.” I had remembered the Beverly Hillbillies, and Bonnie and Clyde, and here was that proverbial first step of a thousand mile journey.

Joyfully, I began a life-long self-teaching effort with Earl’s book and wearing out the Scruggs’s album Dueling’ Banjos (which was really the first recording from the Earl Scruggs Revue). I worked on the sound every chance I got, often with no audio aid; a copy of Foggy Mountain Banjo album was still months away. The book became my road map and Earl’s life story was interesting and inspiring.

The summer of ’78 I discovered the whole bluegrass concept. There was the Essex County Bluegrass Festival, where I sat and picked the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with other players for the first time. What a kick! I knew I was where I’d be for a long time. Later that summer Earl and the Revue played SPAC. The blend of country, rock, bluegrass, and folk sounded like the best of all musical worlds delivered through one tight band with the man, and the sound, at the center.

The next couple of years led to many cool banjo/bluegrass discoveries; Bill Keith, Bill Monroe, and all of the first generation guys; the Banjo Newsletter, (which my parents had found); a class at RIT in banjo-making; and playing in my first band in 1980, to name a few.

In 2004, I saw Earl again, with his Family and Friends Band, at Grey Fox. He’d played the “Salty Dog Blues” and “Nashville Skyline Rag” in the rain, which interrupted the set. Later I was by his Town car, with Glenn Duncan at the wheel, as Earl was signing autographs on a number of different substrates from inside the car; Gary Scruggs would hand the items in, Earl’d sign’em and hand ‘em back. I waited around with my album cover, but had to settle for Gary’s autograph instead.

When the Shanachie DVDs began to be released in 2007, it was emotional, miraculous. Here was the stuff we thought we’d never get a look at. Breath-taking footage of Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys on Martha White’s Grand Old Opry TV shows from the late ’50s to early ’60s. The missing video component of Scruggs had been captured at its best. Now the study on Earl’s technique could go further, thanks to Bill and Katherine Graham, who found the old films and the crackerjack film restoration team that brought them back to life. I waited with great anticipation for each successive release, pre-ordering, so as to receive each video as soon as possible. I’d put them on the player, having concealed the song list from myself, so as to be completely surprised by each selection.

Fast forward to the morning of March 29, 2012. In a semi-conscious state at about 6:10 AM, I heard the sound in the form of the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” intro on the radio. As always, it commanded my ear and got me listening. What I heard next was the fateful news of Earl’s passing. I stumbled through the morning routine, probably should have stayed home, but I just had too long a day ahead of me. What I was able to do however, being a teacher, was take my banjo to school, share my sense of loss with my high school audiences, and play them a little of the sound. We also checked out some Earl pics (no pun intended) and Foggy Mountain Boys songs on YouTube.

Banjo players see Earl as the family member many of us never got to meet. We’ve listened to, read, and shared all that we can find, and easily agree that without him, we would have had different lives. He showed us all about the sound, and he inspires us to never be done learning. Earl never was. And to take the sound as far as we can. Earl always did.

Well done, Mr. Earl. Thanks for the sound.

Rest in peace.

Mac Petrequin

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