Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Friday, June 17, 2005

Earl Scruggs mentions Steve

Posted 6/15/2005 1:07 PM Updated 6/16/2005 10:54 AM
Earl Scruggs talks Telluride
By Jeff Zillgitt,

Earl and Louise Scruggs have been partners for nearly 50 years — in marriage and business.

At a time when most women were housewives, Louise became the business manager and booking agent for her husband, a banjo virtuoso and one of the most influential bluegrass musicians of all time.

So, when a reporter called the Scruggs household to talk about Earl's performance this weekend at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colo., Louise picked up one phone and Earl picked up another. The result was a unique give-and-take conversation with the duo:

Bluegrass music is synonymous with festivals. Where was the first festival you performed?

Louise: It was back in 1960, but I don't remember what the first one was. Wait, it wasn't even a bluegrass festival. It was the Newport Folk Festival in 1959.

What is it about festivals you enjoy?

Earl: Hearing the other groups. A lot of times, I don't get to see these other groups except at a festival. It's hard to explain.

Why are multi-day music festivals, bluegrass festivals in particular, so popular?

Louise: Most of the ones Earl does, like Telluride and Merlefest, there are all different kinds of music. It's not specifically bluegrass music. We like to hear all kinds of music.

Earl: That's right. You get a little pumped up, if I can use that word, by seeing old friends again and hearing them.

You played Bonnaroo, you're playing Telluride. Those audiences are generally younger. You've never minded playing your music to a younger audience. Why is that?

Earl: It's exciting to get to work with a younger generation and get a group of people not overly exposed to my music. It's an excitement you don't normally experience.

Louise: When the Earl Scruggs Revue was on the road, they played to younger audiences at colleges and with several popular music acts of the time — Loggins and Messina, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.

What drew you to the banjo?

Earl: My father played banjo. I don't remember him playing. He had cancer and died when I was young. But the banjo was always around the house. So was the guitar and autoharp; I played those, too. But the banjo gave me a little more excitement. I enjoyed it more. It was my favorite instrument to satisfy my soul, and I can't say why.

The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville opened a special exhibit dedicated to your career: Banjo Man: The Musical Journey of Earl Scruggs. It runs through June 16, 2006. How did this exhibit come about and what is in it?

Louise: They decided to put the exhibit up, and the both of us are in it. It starts with Earl's beginnings with his first banjo. The first one was …

Earl: An open-back banjo. I remember playing it. After dinner, you'd play it by yourself, you'd play it by the fire.

Louise: It revolves around his whole career — the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, right up until today. It just showcases the things he's done. It contains artifacts, pictures, music, some tapes and TV shows he was on. You can watch and listen. It's very interactive.

Earl: It's lined out really well. First, there's quite a lot about Louise in the exhibit. Her typewriter and desk she used as a kid is there.

What's it like seeing your life right there in front of you?

Earl: Your mind will run away from you when (you) see it laid out like that.

Louise: It's very interesting if you are an Earl fan.

In 2001, you released a CD titled Earl Scruggs and Friends. On the CD, there are guest appearances from Elton John, Steve Martin, Billy Bob Thornton, Sting, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Johnny Cash, Roseanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt and Vince Gill, among others. What prompted you to make a CD with those folks?

Earl: I just enjoy getting together with other musicians. It gives me room to spread out and touch base with other musicians. I just love different types of groups to play with. I've known Steve Martin for years. We used to work shows together in the early '70s. We go back a long way.

Louise: We had a lot of fun with that album. We went to Elton John's studio in Atlanta. He comes in with Earl's box set under his arm. He said he left his box set in England, so he stopped at the record store on the way to the studio. He said, "Do you think Earl would autograph this for me?"

Earl: I signed it with joy.

What do you think about the state of bluegrass music today?

Earl: I think it's better than it ever was. It will continue to grow as long as good music is played.

Do you have a favorite band?

Earl: I enjoy all of them, really. I don't work enough with bluegrass groups today and would hate to single out any because I would leave out some of my favorite ones.

Your contribution to the bluegrass sound is legendary with the "Scruggs style" of picking with three fingers on the banjo. How do you feel about that legacy?

Earl: How that actually happened, I was sitting in a room. I lived in the country, just outside of Shelby, N.C. I picked up the banjo. I was picking away on Reuben and playing with two fingers — thumb and index finger. All of a sudden, I realized I was playing with the middle finger and there was the three-finger style. That's the way I've played ever since.

That's the icing on the cake. It doesn't matter how well you like something. If other people don't like it, it won't fly well. If other people like (it) enough to play it themselves, I can't explain how that makes me feel.

A little over 30 years ago, you, and other bluegrass country musicians got together and helped the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put out the now classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Since then, you've appeared on the second and third volumes of Circle. How did you get together with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?

Louise: Gary and Randy (Earl and Louise's sons) were going to school at Vanderbilt and told us we should see them.

Earl: The first time I remember seeing them, they played here in Nashville. We went to the show, and were really surprised at how much they knew about me.

Louise: We became really good friends with John McEuen (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). When Will the Circle was first discussed, Earl said to John, "Why don't record legends of Nashville like Maybelle Carter and Ray Acuff?" Earl told them about these great artists whose songs were no longer recorded. Earl said, "You guys are a young group. It would be great." They followed through.

Is there any one banjo song you're particularly pleased you wrote?

Earl: It's impossible to pick one. Foggy Mountain Breakdown is so well accepted and played so many different ways. I'll always remember that one.


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