A Story About Earl

Casey Henry

I wrote this story for Pickers In A Jam, the newsletter of the Banjo In The Hollow bluegrass club back in 1998 after seeing Earl play for the first time. I thought this would be an appropriate time to pull it out of the vault:

 

"Now gather in close here, children, and I'll tell you a nice story before you have to go to bed," the wizened old lady said to the brood of young kids she was proud to call her grandchildren. "It happened back in the year of nineteen and ninety-eight, nigh on

to sixty years ago, when I was a mere twenty years old. Rumors had been flying around like mad that the father of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs, would be playing in person at a festival in Ohio. It was the only show he had played in years so all his fans and disciples made plans to make the trek over, no matter what the trouble or expense. People came from all over the United States and the world. Folks from Australia, England, and even Japan flew in for the great event. I went myself, along with your great-grandmother Murphy. It took us ten long hours to drive over."

 

A little hand tugged at her sleeve, "Grandmother, last time you said it was eight hours."

 

"Well," she replied, "It may have been eight, or six, I don't rightly recall. Anyway, my mother and I drove over on Thursday to enjoy the festival and wait for Earl to appear on Saturday. I set my tent up, like the die-hard festival traveller I was back then, while Murphy got a hotel room, succumbing to the lure of hot and cold running water and a soft bed. Camping was rough because tents back then weren't air conditioned like they are now days. As soon as the sun hit it in the morning the inside turned into a sauna and

didn't cool off one but until the sun went down at night. To make matters worse the whole campground was over-run with mosquitoes as big as quarters"

 

Once again a hand tugged at her sleeve, "Grandmother, last time you said they were as big as nickels."

 

"Well," she replied, "It may have been nickels, or dimes, I don't rightly recall. But the point is that they were so brutal it didn't matter how big they were. I had so many bites by Saturday that I couldn't tell which were new and which had been there since Thursday. But I would endure anything to see Earl.

 

"There were two good days of music before Saturday and we all enjoyed them, although everyone was clearly waiting for Earl. We got to see the legendary Del McCoury Band."

 

"The REAL Del McCoury band?"

 

“That's right. The very one with Del's sons Ronnie and Rob and Mike Bub and Jason Carter. That was even before his grandson Jake started playing with him. It was the band that people now so often put in the same class with Flatt and Scruggs as some of the best

bluegrass bands ever. We got to see the Osborne Brothers, Larry Stephenson, the Lewis Family, Bill Emerson, the Seldom Scene, Tony Rice--the father of modern bluegrass guitar--and little Ryan Holladay."

 

"The TV star?"

 

“The same one. Only then he wasn't but four or five and already singing and picking the fire out of the banjo. There were more banjo pickers at this festival than is safe to have in one place at the same time. Everyone was picking banjos and talking banjos all day and all night. One fellow had a Granada he let me pick. It was just like candy it was so sweet. Then on Saturday someone came up to him and asked if he wanted to buy another old

Granada."

 

"Don't be silly, Grandmother," the kids giggled. "Nobody just walks up and asks you if you want to buy a Granada."

 

"Well it happened this time. That was more Granadas than I'd ever played before in my life.

 

"So everyone bided their time, picked, and slapped at mosquitoes while we waited for Earl. On Saturday, long about seven o'clock, we were all standing around, flapping our jaws while we waited for the Seldom Scene to finish their sound check. All the sudden the whole crowd stood up and started cheering. I looked over to my right and here comes two shining black busses rolling in, right through the middle of the crowd, behind a police escort with lights all a-flashing. It was Earl. Those busses took their own sweet time driving around to the back of the stage and every soul in the park stood gawking, giving the bus a standing ovation, even the Seldom Scene who stood on stage waiting to play.

 

"They parked right behind the stage, over to the left-hand side so that we could stare at them and imagine what Earl was doing for the two hours until he took the stage. They had set up huge projector screens on each side of the stage and had a person working a video camera up on a platform so that we would all have a clear view and close-ups of Earl's hands.

 

"As that fateful hour approached, people began filling in their seats until there was not an empty space to be found. You could feel the excitement building as the minutes ticked closer and closer to the appointed hour. At a little past nine-thirty Darrel Adkins stepped on stage to introduce the band, not that they needed an introduction. 'Please welcome to the stage,' he said, 'Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas, Glen Duncan, Gary Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, and EARL SCRUGGS!' The crowd, myself included leapt to its feet and

cheered as they kicked off with 'Nashville Skyline Rag' and then went right into 'Salty Dog Blues.'

 

"Earl's playing was solid and he seemed comfortable up on stage, not nervous a bit after all those years. But, even more exciting than the music was the experience of getting to see Earl in person, the way so many millions have, with the banjo slung over his shoulder, leaning into the mike to catch the baritone part on the trios. He played all his classic tunes like 'Flint Hill Special.' I could feel the audience hold its breath as he neared

the end thinking, 'Is he going to hit the ending?' We all cheered, whistled, clapped, and yelled as Earl nailed it one more time. 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,' 'Reuben,' 'Cripple Creek,' 'Dig A Hole In The Meadow,' 'Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow,' the hits tumbled out

one after another. My favorite part, though, was when Earl put down the banjo and picked up the guitar, like he did so often with the Foggy Mountain Boys. I know you've seen pictures of Earl with the guitar up to his ear, playing into the vocal mike. Well, I actually got to see it and the moment couldn't have been more magical.

 

"Earl played for an hour and a half, and then came back for an encore. After the encore Earl, Louise, and the rest of the band came back onto the stage without their instruments so that we could take all the pictures we wanted. Everybody in the audience that night took a story home and told it to their friends and kids just like I'm telling this to you. It is an experience that I have treasured down through the years and I hope that, if you ever get a chance to see a legend in person, you will remember, record, and pass the memory on so that others can enjoy it and learn from it just as you did.

 

"Now go to bed and dream of Lester, Earl and all the Foggy Mountain Boys and next time you're down at your grocers pick up some Martha White, Pet Milk. You'll be might glad you did. Good night everybody."

4 thoughts on “A Story About Earl

  1. Murphy Henry

    Great to read that story again…and to remember the Event! If I remember correctly (and I’m not rightly sure I do) I went to the festival not only to see Earl but mostly because I didn’t want you, Casey, going all the way to Ohio BY YOURSELF for the festival. Of course, I did “let” you camp by yourself so I couldn’t have been too worried….But the whole weekend was really fun! And Earl was Awesome!

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