Earl Scruggs: A Memory

Murphy Henry

When son Chris called tonight, March 28, to tell us Earl Scruggs had died, I knew I would want to write some sort of blog about him, but I had no idea what to write. Then it came to me. Casey and I had gotten to meet Earl and Louise, his wife, one time in their Nashville home. I later wrote about that experience for the University of Virginia alumni magazine. Trusting that I own the copyright for that article, I will reprise a part of it now:

Prelude: Early in the article I mentioned that as part of her application for UVA Casey had submitted an essay about the most exciting day of her life: meeting J.D. Crowe! She wrote that meeting J.D. was the “single greatest day of my life. Until a new single greatest day of my life comes along.”

Meeting J.D. got trumped when Casey and I—all by ourselves— got to visit Earl. In his house.

This is what I wrote:

After we had chatted for a while, Louise asked us if we would like to play Earl’s banjo. Would we? Would a blues lover like to play B.B. King’s beloved Lucille? [His guitar.] Would a fiddler like to play Itzhak Perlman’s Strad? I went first, boldly playing one of my own compositions. I sure wasn’t going to try to out-Earl Earl on one of his tunes. Then I passed the banjo—EARL’S BANJO!!—to Casey. She played a tune or two and then Earl got out the little banjo that he keeps beside his chair and started PLAYING ALONG WITH CASEY!!!

The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a parent [up till that point!] was to sit still and let Casey play the banjo with Earl. I’m sure I earned an extra star in my crown for not wrenching the banjo out of her hands. [I think they played Home Sweet Home and Silver Bells together.] If Casey can maintain her aplomb while playing banjo with Earl Scruggs, I’m sure she’ll do fine facing the rigors of life as a bluegrass musician.

Casey and Earl

Things I didn’t put in the article about visiting Earl: Louise offered us some iced tea, which we accepted. The only problem was, after drinking a tall glass of iced tea, I had to pee. Which meant I had to ask where the bathroom was (embarrassing) and then get up and go there (also embarrassing). And the whole time I’m in there I’m thinking, “I’m using Earl’s bathroom!”

Also when Louise asked us if we’d like to play Earl’s banjo my actual reply was, “I thought you’d never ask!”

Another interesting tidbit: Someone had just donated Mother Maybelle’s guitar to the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum so we were talking a little about her. And this is what floored me. Earl said he’d always admired Mother Maybelle’s playing and had tried to copy what she did on guitar but he could never get his guitar playing to sound like hers! Here is Earl Scruggs, disappointed in himself because his guitar playing—his wonderful, fantastic, gorgeous guitar playing— does not sound like Mother Maybelle’s. (Of course hers was all those adjectives, too.) I wondered at the time, “Does it never stop? Wanting to sound like someone else?”

And just one more thing. Here’s the reason I played one of my own tunes (which was Hazel Creek) for Earl when I had the chance to play his banjo. One year, at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, I’d had a chance to sit at a table in the hotel restaurant with Earl and Louise while they were eating supper. No one else was around. I had them all to myself! And, as part of our conversation, Earl said, “I get so tired of hearing the same old stuff all the time.” Right then and there I vowed to myself that if I EVER got the chance to play in front of Earl I would NOT play one of his tunes, but would play one of my own. And I did. And I am proud to say he perked up, took notice, and asked where that tune came from!

Oh yeah. While we were all sitting there, some man brought over something for Earl to sign. I think it was a license plate, but it might have been a banjo head. Earl graciously signed. The man said to me that he had some of my videos. I thanked him for that. Then the man said to Earl that he was getting all his favorite banjo players to sign. Louise nudged me and said, “You’re a banjo player.” But the man hadn’t asked me to sign! So what could I do? Besides, I knew Louise was just yanking my chain.

And the memories just keep on coming: The year I won the IBMA Print Media Award I got to be in an after-award-show media room where pictures were taken. Earl and Louise were in there too. So, naturally, I had my picture taken with them. But just before MaryE Yeomans took the shot Louise said, “Wait a minute.” Then in an aside to me she said, “I’ve got to hold my stomach in.” I wanted to bust a gut laughing, but of course, I couldn’t. I’ll try to find that picture. Casey also had her picture taken with Earl. I’ll look for that one too.

Murphy with Louise Scruggs

But for now, as you see, we are including a picture of Casey’s son Dalton with the Big Earl poster. The Big Earl was a product of the brilliant yet somewhat twisted mind of the Flint Hill Flash, who wrote an amazing column for Banjo Newsletter for years. Casey’s copy (formerly my copy, I believe) now hangs in her office. I thought it was fitting that we take Dalton’s picture in front of it. I just didn’t know at the time that we would use it in a blog in memory of Earl.

Dalton and Big Earl

Dalton and Big Earl

Rest in peace, Earl. Your banjo playing has inspired so many. Including Casey and me. And perhaps one of these years, Dalton.

Posted in banjo, By Murphy, women in bluegrass on by .

About Red Henry

Began playing mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and banjo in 1967-69. I married Murphy in 1974. We led the Red & Murphy bluegrass band, playing professionally, from 1975-87. Since then I've handled the technical side of Murphy Method cassette, videotape, and DVD production. When you call I usually answer the phone, and I'm normally the one who sends out the orders.

11 thoughts on “Earl Scruggs: A Memory

  1. Tam

    Thankyou for sharing some personal memories Murphy.

    Earl Scruggs will be sorely missed but his music legacy will surely live on.

    May he rest in peace.

  2. Scott

    That was a great article. You and Casey had a great opportunity. He’s in a better place and with the family he loves.

  3. Barbara Adams

    Thanks for sharing the personal experiences you had with Earl and Louise with all of us. But, tell us more details: What was their house like? How big was it? How was it furnished, modern, early American, or what? What was the dining room like, the bathroom, etc. Were there instruments sitting all around? Was there a front porch with rocking chairs? Was there a deck?
    Thanks,

  4. Murphy Henry

    Hi Barbara,
    Wish I could remember anything about Earl’s house but that was a LONG LONG time ago. It was a brick ranch house and, interestingly enough, was very near where Casey used to live in Nashville! (Madison, actually.) We didn’t tour the house (except the bathroom!) and just sat in the living room on a couch with Earl in His Chair to our right and Louise in a chair across from us. I thought at the time that I should write down everything I remembered, everything Earl said, everything Louise said, and perhaps even what the house looked like. But, alas, I was too excited to write. I’m sure if Casey had a spare moment away from mothering, she would write about that same experience but she’s pretty tied up most days!

  5. george

    Hi Murphy and Casey yes & Dalton! Thank you for remembering Earl Scruggs! He is my Hero as well even though I have never met him. But I am so glad to have met you Murphy and Casey as thats not to far from meeting Earl! Thank you!
    george from Alaska!

  6. Victor Sweatman

    Murphy, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. What wonderful memories you and Casey have. Earl Scruggs will always be with us in his music, and his inspiration to all musicians and students alike.
    That big band on the other side will sound a little richer now, and will have a little bit of a bluegrass flavor to it.
    We will miss him, but what a wonderful legacy he has left behind for us.
    Rest in peace, Mr. Bluegrass.

  7. Susanna Buck Register

    The little banjo mentioned in your story was made by my father, Henry Buck, who was an airline pilot and custom banjo maker who became friends with Earl way back in the early 70’s while we lived outside of ATL. Earl was also a pilot, so they enjoyed swapping banjo and airplane pointers and stories. He did some work on Earl’s Granada a couple of times, and had made that little banjo to take on his airline trips with him. Earl saw it, I believe when they ran into each other one time in the Memphis terminal, and Earl loved it, so of course Dad gifted it to him on the spot. That little banjo came in handy when Earl was recuperating from surgery back around ’96. I want to say Earl nicknamed it “Little Man”, and that’s where it stayed, next to his easy chair so that he could pick up and play whenever the mood struck.

    Just thought you might find this interesting…

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