March 28, 2012 marks a very sad date in the world of music, and maybe even in the world. It was the day we lost a music pioneer and innovator, a true gentleman, and good friend. It was the day that Earl Eugene Scruggs passed away.
As it relates to music, I don't think we'd be where we are today, enjoying the popularity of bluegrass, if it wasn't for Earl. And, I don't think the excitement of building instruments - a hobby and interest particular to bluegrass participants more so than any other form of music - would exist at its current level of intensity if it wasn't for Earl. At least, it wouldn't for me. To this I attribute two key points: 1) I'm not sure that Monroe's music would have reached the masses if it wasn't for the contribution of Earl's banjo playing; and, 2) the mechanical nature of the banjo and its ease of assembly and disassembly led to allowing almost anyone to become a luthier.
My relationship with Earl began when I first heard the album Flatt and Scruggs: Songs of the Famous Carter Family (1961). The record became my banjo teacher, and I wore deep grooves in its surface by repeatedly picking up the arm so I could move it back to replay a lick, only to watch the arm slide off my picks and hear the needle attack the record with an ugly screetching sound.
In mid-1974, Earl was playing at the Community Theater in Morristown, New Jersey, and I spent a few hours interviewing him for a Pickin' Magazine article. That followed with another article a few years later after interviewing him at his home in Madison, Tennessee. When I started Frets Magazine in 1979, I wrote another article (cover story, July 1980 issue), and I also invited Earl to be on the Frets Advisory Board. A second Frets cover story followed in July 1981, featuring Earl and Rodney Dillard. During that interview, I asked Earl if he would write a monthly Q&A column for Frets. He was uncertain if he'd have the knack or the time to devote to answering questions, but I assured both he and his wife Louise that we'd find a way to make it very easy. His column began in the August 1981 issue of Frets and became the most popular monthly column in Frets history.
With his agreement to be a columnist, I became a somewhat regular traveller to his home in Madison, about 20 miles north of Nashville, sitting with him to review our readers' questions and taking photos of various hand and finger positions he wanted to highlight. Working on his Q&A column provided the incredible opportunity to develop our relationship, which led to many more projects. During the following years, Louise invited me to write the liner notes for Earl's album American Made World Played, which I accepted with great honor. And, I was equally honored when Earl agreed to write a section on how to amplify the banjo for my book, How to Set Up The Best Sounding Banjo.
Somewhere along the way, Earl was readying to record Chariots of Fire and was frustrated that the winding on the low D string (which he had a de-tuner on just for that instrumental) prevented it from sliding easily over the nut and coming back to pitch. Almost as an extension of his de-tuner idea, he asked if I could make him a special brass nut with a tiny roller on the 4th string, and it solved the problem.
The Earl Scruggs model Gibson banjo was an exciting adventure, and Earl had a lot of input into the structure, set-up, woods, and colors. My consulting duties with Gibson at the time had me working on new product development, and after the successful release of the Gibson F5L mandolin (which I think many of you know I spearheaded), I sparked the idea for a reissue of Gibson's early banjos beginning with an Earl Scruggs model. Bruce Bolen, Gibson's VP of artist relations, assigned me to be Earl's liaison. The interaction with Earl and the chance to work with him on a project of that magnitude, listen to his objectives about the ideal banjo, and garner his input and guidance was a very rewarding experience. (In this photo, Earl and I take a minute to pose with the first prototype of the Earl Scruggs Model banjo, taken by Bruce Bolen at the Gibson Nashville plant in 1986.)
Over the years our relationship blossomed, and I looked forward to every visit. I was enriched and in awe of how sharp both Earl and Louise were, how well they understood the music business, how totally humble they were, how much they respected and supported other musicians, how warm they were to be with, and just how humbly and graciously Earl wore the robes of a king.
While his playing may have slowed down a bit with age, his mind and musical acuity didn't falter at all. I had the great pleasure of being at his home in January to celebrate his 88th birthday. (Earl didn't usually like to think about his birthdays.) After the cake cutting, everyone gathered in his living room for a wonderful jam. Going around the circle, to my left, were John McEuen, Gary Scruggs, Rob Ickes, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, and a guitarist and a few fiddle players I didn't know. Earl was to my immediate right. I didn't bring a banjo with me on the plane because I was confident there would be a banjo at Earl's for me to play. After we played our first instrumental - and there was a LOT of volume in that room - Earl leaned over to me and pointedly said, "Second string." Barely being able to hear him in the commotion, I leaned to him and said, "What?" He looked at me again and in a now more decisive tone said, "Second string!" Sheepishly, I retuned my second string, and for the rest of the evening I ensured that my banjo was in tune. His fingers may have slowed down a trifle, but his ears were more precise than any tuner in that room.
Earl's passing is a great loss. He was a musical genius. He created a style and technique that is haunting, innovative, intricate, and dauntless. The staccato voice of his banjo was so intriguing and the tone so special that everyone - musician and non-musician alike - cocked an ear to listen to the joyous sound of his 5-string banjo. The quality of his sound was beyond just that of his banjo; his unique attack and timing made almost any banjo he played sound like his. Of one thing I am certain, bluegrass music would not be what it is today without him, and the flame he ignited will continue to burn forever.
His pioneering adventures with the banjo made Earl the gold standard for countless musicians worldwide and a familiar name to many who don't even know all he did. And there isn't a single banjo player out there who hasn't said, "I want a banjo that sounds like Earl's."
The news of Earl's passing hit me very hard. I was at a dinner meeting when I got the news and had to fight with everything I could muster to hold back my feelings until dinner was over. On the way home, I stopped to gas up my truck and went inside the station to grab a chocolate bar to help settle my nerves. I reached into my pocket to pull out some change, and that's when it really hit me - in the pile of coins were my finger picks, the way I have always carried them for 50 years, not for Earl, but because of Earl.
The pain of his loss continues as I write this, as I am sure it will for years. For the many who had the opportunity to jam with him, talk to him, have their picture taken with him, and more, those memories will undoubtely be among the most precious and valuable treasures.