The secrets of Earl Scruggs's life, finally revealed

 
 

“Did anyone tell you about the statue?” the nice woman at the museum asked me. I shook my head. She pointed back at the life-size man, wearing a Stetson and carrying a Gibson banjo, a depiction of the most famous banjo player of all time. “That statue is actually wearing all of Earl Scruggs’s clothes. Everything, from his suit to his tie to his wedding band, are his real personal items. They hung them on a metal frame and then covered them in resin.” I look back at the statue, an anaemic grey colour, and wonder what Louise, his wife and tough-minded manager, would have thought. I suspect she’d at least have vetoed the wedding ring.

The Earl Scruggs Center, a tribute to Shelby’s most famous son, is house in the old Cleveland County Courthouse, slap bang in the middle of town. Downstairs, the museum includes some nice artefacts like the fiddle Scruggs’s father used to play in the morning to get the kids out of bed (Scruggs didn’t remember much else about his dad, who died when he was five). But the day I visited, the real action was all upstairs, in the auditorium. You could hear the music tumbling down the old courthouse stairs.

A band of musicians, including Darin and Brooke Aldridge, and members of Scruggs’s family, had gathered for a jam to launch a new book, Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon, the first biography of the man who pioneered bluegrass banjo, and who passed away five years ago. I’m just about to start my copy, but here are the few things I learned from my trip round the museum, and from my chat with the book’s authors, David L Russell and Gordon Castelnero:

1 Scruggs didn't necessarily invent the three-finger picking for which he’s famous, and which became the defining sound of bluegrass banjo. Everyone talks about the ‘eureka’ moment when he had a fight with his brother, went to sulk in his room and suddenly discovered how to play a three-finger roll, but there seems to be a good bit of evidence that other people who were experimenting with that style too. Still, he sure did it better than anyone else.

2 Banjo players seemed to live pretty rackety lives. Charlie Poole died after a 13 week alcohol binge. And this guy, Smith Hammett, died in a violent brawl…

 
 

3 Lester Flatt, Scruggs’s musical partner, used to get jealous at all the attention Scruggs got for his banjo playing. (Fiddle players are so insecure). And Scruggs once turned down a major recurring role on a new TV show because he knew it would upset Flatt.

4 Scruggs seemed barely aware of his own legacy. He was, said Russell and Castelnero, an incredibly humble man, more so than they could ever have expected, and he wasn’t precious – he’d play with anyone and everyone.

5 He wanted banjo music to evolve. He wasn’t interested in playing the standards, and keeping bluegrass music as a pure tradition. That’s how he ended up playing in his sons’ garage band.

One more thing I learned, on my journey back, was that at the J&S Cafeteria, blue jello is considered an appetizer, and if you want to eat vegetables you’d better be prepared for them to come with a layer of marshmallow on top.

And here's a nice little piece about Scruggs's importance to bluegrass, published in the New Yorker the week he died.