The strings behind the strings

Louise and Earl Scruggs kiss as he boards a bus
photo courtesy of the
Country Music Hall of Fame
He saw the light: At his wife’s urging, banjo genius Earl Scruggs forsook hardcore bluegrass circles for the college circuit beginning in 1959.

Before Jack White sowed a fresh crop of country fans by producing Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, and before Rick Rubin and his Grammy-sprinkled American Recordings saved Johnny Cash with a new “Personal Jesus,” the single-mindedly determined Louise Certain Scruggs (yes, that’s her real maiden name) gave college kids country music.

She won’t call it bluegrass. Even though her husband Earl’s driving, syncopated banjo roll revolutionized the genre, becoming the standard for subsequent generations of players, Mrs. Scruggs doesn’t use the grass-word gladly — she finds it, she says, too confining.

“You get put into a corner, and then you can’t get out of it,” she lamented in a recent phone interview with Mountain Xpress.

Officially starting in 1955, Mrs. Scruggs became the first female booking agent and manager in country music — and her talented husband reaped the rewards of her own prowess for business. In 1959, she encouraged Earl to play the blossoming Newport Folk Festival — an untested venue for bluegrass players.

More often than not, says Mrs. Scruggs, music bookers who’d worked with Earl prior to her involvement would still call up and insist on speaking to her husband.

“I’d say, ‘You have to go through me anyway — we may as well do this right now and get it over with,'” she recalls. “Earl told me, ‘Remember, you’re the only woman in town doing this — just don’t let someone take advantage of you’ … so I always tried to hold a hard line.”

Hordes of Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, icon status across all genres, and now a vast new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame later, theirs can be considered one of the most vital partnerships in the annals of modern music.

Busting out of bluegrass

Earl Scruggs was already making history when he met his future wife. With Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, his theretofore unique, history-altering three-finger method of banjo picking meant that he didn’t stay a sideman long. He and Lester Flatt formed Flatt & Scruggs, gaining fame on the folk and college circuit in the 1960s. It was Mrs. Scruggs who insisted the duo take the Beverly Hillbillies theme song they’d been tapped to record and release it as a single; it was, of course, a hit. After that came the Earl Scruggs Revue, a band that ventured even further a-fringe, recording with the “newgrass” upstarts of the ’70s and other experimental players of that era.

“When they took the Revue on the road, they worked 90 percent college dates,” Mrs. Scruggs told The Tennessean‘s Peter Cooper in February. “They’d play auditoriums with the Byrds, Loggins & Messina and the Grateful Dead. That’s an entirely different direction. I wasn’t concentrating on bluegrass.”

She still isn’t. “Doing guest spots instead of playing hardcore bluegrass is what [Earl] has endeavored to do since the Revue. It was an entirely different direction from what he had been accustomed to playing in the past,” she says to Xpress.

“My purpose,” she adds, “was to elevate his banjo-playing style to a higher level. … He didn’t want to stay inside the parameters of what was called ‘bluegrass,’ and so he’s had the ability to play with a lot of different stylists.”

Interestingly, and like a polished newgrass jam, the couple’s parallel ambitions seem to have fused somewhat over the years.

“I never did like to get classified,” she muses now.

Berklee, the Blowfish and other lessons

Family tragedy and an injured back slowed Earl down in the ’80s, but by late in the next decade, Louise had him recording with a new crop of heavy hitters: Earl Scruggs and Friends (MCA, 2001) included sit-ins with Billy Bob Thornton, Elton John and Melissa Etheridge, among many other celebrities.

Scruggs will appear several times throughout this weekend’s MerleFest — he was, in fact, the first musician invited by Doc Watson to play the inaugural event 17 years ago. At this, the Southeast’s largest family-style roots-music festival, Scruggs will play as part of “Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys Reunion” — but also as a special guest of Irish stalwarts the Chieftains.

Two months ago, Scruggs won a Grammy for his “Earl’s Breakdown” instrumental (he originally wrote and recorded it in 1951, and re-recorded it for Trilogy, a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band DVD). Two weeks ago, Scruggs was featured in articles in the Wall Street Journal and in the Washington Post. The 81-year-old banjo player, who recently received an honorary doctorate from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, will also headline Bonnaroo and Telluride this year.

Just as Louise Scruggs refused to let Earl stay chained to one genre, MerleFest, in a more natural progression, has itself spilled its boundaries in its 15-plus years. Not always to everyone’s liking, the Doc Watson lovefest has swelled from just an extra-big picking circle to an 80,000-person-strong, multi-stage gala. MerleFest today is a typically free-form Americana festival where jam bands, neo-vaudeville novelty acts and the occasional head-scratching mainstream band (remember Hootie and the Blowfish in 1999?) all enjoy stage time.

Of course, roots music still has its say. Apart from legends like Watson and Scruggs, any number of new old-time acts (most of them hailing from unlikely metropolises) and barely-drinking-age bluegrass boys surround the MerleFest mic each spring. And, thanks to Jack White, comeback queen Loretta Lynn, who plays MerleFest on Thursday, will this year embody the other end of that spectrum.

As for the up-and-coming old-timers, Jack Tottle, who directs East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass and Country Music Program, doesn’t see anything wrong with groups from cement-bound cities embracing mountain-flavored music. After all, according to Louise Scruggs, it was the college kids in the New York City folk scene who first clamored to see Earl at Newport. “Huge amounts of them,” she remembers, “were banjo players.”

“Bluegrass today,” Tottle points out, “combines elements from [its early] era with elements that have been added over the years from musicians from many different backgrounds.”

He continues: “There will always be people who try out elements of bluegrass within some other context, just as bluegrass musicians have incorporated elements of old-time string-band music, blues, jazz, black and white traditional folk music and gospel singing — even classical music and rock and roll.”

Expressing herself with typical hard sense, Scruggs says she, too, approves of the festival’s new faces. “That’s the reason MerleFest has grown,” she says matter-of-factly. “They have managed to not book the same thing every time — they’ve diversified it. That’s why it’s so successful.”

But Tottle warns: “Pale imitations in music don’t tend to survive. If [new] groups … come up with something of lasting musical value, their music will likely continue in some form. If not — unless they hit upon something with remarkable commercial appeal — they’ll probably fade away.”

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