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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012). Requiescat in Pace.

Even though I grew up in Virginia, I didn't grow up with bluegrass music.  My mother favored contemporary Christian music and my father would usually tune to the "easy listening" music on WRVA.  My parents' record collection, which was rather small, consisted of a box of 45s with songs like Ricky Nelson's Stood Up, Broken Hearted Again, Gene Pitney's If I Didn't Have a Dime (To Play the Jukebox), and Percy Faith's Theme from A Summer Place.  The 33s featured artists like Don Ho, and Don MacLean   Inexplicably, there was a copy of 101 Strings Play the Beatles, even though the actual Beatles made no appearance in my parents' record collection.  The only banjos in the record cabinet were buried in 1960s folk scare groups like The Brothers Four and the Serendipity Singers. [REVISION 3/30/12:  My mother, who just read this posting wants me to point out that she and my father didn't actually buy most of their records, but that they were given to my father by a friend of his who worked at a radio station and would pass along things that weren't being played.  Perhaps this explains a lot... ]

On weekday afternoons, though, the sound of the banjo came blazing into the house, with the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.  "That's Flatt and Scruggs," my father told me, but there was no further information forthcoming.

Later, I would fall in love with the iconic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," not knowing that the man who played the banjo on the recording was the man who, along with his Foggy Mountain Boys, pretty much invented bluegrass music.  Only later would I learn that FMB had become the bane of banjo pickers everywhere, since it is the one tune, aside from Dueling Banjos, that absolutely everyone knows to ask for.  Still, I love it.

That happy, rollicking banjo that Earl played made me want to play banjo, too, though my taste in music led toward the mellower tone of open-back banjos and the old-time style of clawhammer, instead of the three-finger picking style that Earl Scruggs invented.  Even so, I've always loved to listen to Earl and to those who play "Scruggs style," and have dreamed of getting yet another banjo, a resonator banjo like Earl's, and learning how to play at least a bit of that three-fingered magic.

Last night, I was at the extremely cool Jalopy Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn (NY Times article about the place here), playing banjo with friends.  This morning, I woke up to the news that Earl Scruggs had passed away and I've been thinking that last night's musical adventure was a fitting tribute to a man whose genius so completely transformed American music.

Farewell, Earl.  You will will be missed.

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Farewell Blues

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