Tag Archives: earl scruggs

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



"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."

Red Henry

You know, there are some things in early bluegrass recordings that are impossible to beat. One of our favorites is on Flatt and Scruggs's early version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, where the whole band (except for Earl) is playing the "wrong" chord.

Let's review the chords in FMB: you start out with eight beats of G, and then you go to an E chord for a certain number of beats. Nowadays, most folks change to an E-minor chord for four beats, to match what the banjo is playing. That's how Murphy teaches it, because it's what almost everybody plays now. But on that old Flatt & Scruggs record, the band plays SIX beats of E-MAJOR! It's a wild and woolly sound. It's incredible. It's a hair-raising moment. It's lions and tigers and bears...

Murphy and I have played FMB with that 6-beat E-major chord for over 30 years. The first time we played FMB that way was at Diamond Jim's, a bar in Gainesville Florida. When we heard how the E-major sounded, we both about fell off the stage. Oh, my.

Not many other people play Foggy Mountain Breakdown that way. However, Christopher and I found a couple of people who do, when we were playing for a party in Baltimore last Saturday night. I was playing mandolin. Chris was playing guitar. Our band for the evening was a couple of outstanding area musicians, Mike Mumford on banjo and Ira Gitlin on bass. And guess what? When Mike kicked off FMB and hit that first E chord, EVERYBODY went to the E-major chord. For six beats. Automatically. It was a wild and woolly sound. It was incredible.

Listen back to that old Flatt & Scruggs record a few times, and then try it yourself. It's great. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Just got finished with Logan’s lesson. I’ve got him on a pretty strong diet of Earl Scruggs’ classics and for tonight he was supposed to learn “Groundspeed.” Of course he hates it. (He’s never heard Earl’s version so he hasn’t got the sound in his head and he can’t hear the melody. And I couldn’t find a CD with "Groundspeed" on it in my collection.)

Right before he started to play, I remembered that Red was going to glue Logan’s fifth string tuner in because it keeps falling out, and Logan has a gig coming up next week. (This is the village raising the child...) So I gave Logan’s banjo to Red, and let Logan play Dalton’s banjo. As I handed it to him I said, “Dalton never played ‘Groundspeed', so it’s not in this banjo.” Quick as a wink Logan replied, “So if I screw up, it’s not my fault. It’s the banjo’s fault.”

Bada bing! Good one, Logan!

If I’d been thinking as quick as Logan, I would have taken the banjo back, played “Groundspeed” on it, and then handed it back to Logan and said, “It’s in there now. Get it out!”

Actually, he didn’t do too badly. His biggest problem was that syncopated D lick. I told him it was related to the D lick we use in “John Hardy,” and that they are interchangeable, so we spent some time interchanging them. And then we spent some time just playing the “Groundspeed” D lick over and over, together, while Bob Van played a D chord—with alternating bass strings—on the guitar. After two or three minutes of that, Logan was beginning to get the feel of it. It is truly an awesome lick and I’m sure that once Logan has command of it, he’ll just learn to love it. Which is what Lester Flatt said about “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” The group didn’t like it too well to begin with, but after it sold a couple of million copies, they just learned to love it!

By the way, Happy Birthday to my cute little Mama. She turns 85 today!

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

Happy Birthday to You,

Happy Birthday to You,

Happy Birthday dear Earl,

Happy Birthday to you!!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today is the big day, Earl's birthday. Born in the year of '24, that makes him 86 and still going strong. I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect where we would be without Earl. Without Earl, Don Reno might have ended up as Bill Monroe's banjo player when he got back from the Army and bluegrass would look entirely different. Would it even exist!?? Without Earl, Ralph Stanley might never have learned the three-finger roll. Without Earl I might have ended up becoming a doctor, like I had fully intended to do until I started playing the banjo. Heck, I might not even exist, since my parents met at a bluegrass festival! Yikes. So let me say a big huge thank you to Earl for everything that you did and continue to do. The world is a better place for having you and your banjo in it!

So tell us, loyal readers, where you you be without Earl?

Red Henry

Red Henry

We often have beginning banjo students ask, "What's the difference between a flathead banjo and an archtop? Do I need an archtop if I want to sound like Ralph Stanley, and a flathead if I want to sound like Earl?" When they ask this, they're referring to the kind of tone-ring the banjo has. That's the big metal part that sits right under the plastic banjo head, on top of the banjo's wooden shell.

Well, the truth is that in one way, it isn't a simple question to answer. The best of the old Gibson flathead banjos had a characteristic powerful, low-end resonance that Earl took advantage of when he played, and which helped make his much-admired sound. But we have to remember that it was Earl playing, and he'd have sounded like himself whether the banjo had a flathead tone ring, an archtop one, or no tone ring at all (as when he was playing with Bill Monroe in 1945-7 and used a banjo with just a little tone hoop). In all those situations, he still sounded and sounds like Earl.

Some folks like to have an archtop banjo so they can "sound more like Ralph Stanley." Frankly, it is fun to play 'Little Maggie' and 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' and hear that higher timbre come out of the banjo. But you don't need an archtop tone ring to make it that way, because (1) banjos like Murphy's Stelling have plenty of high end to go with the low end flathead sound, and (2) you can adjust your hand position on any banjo to get more of that high end out of it.

That sounds complicated. What's the answer? Well, it's simple. If you want to play a particular kind of banjo music, LISTEN to it and PLAY THAT SOUND. It doesn't matter what design of banjo you have, as long as it's a decent-quality instrument. The better the banjo the better you'll sound, generally speaking, but you can certainly play Earl's music on an archtop banjo, as Little Roy Lewis did for years, and you can certainly play Ralph's music on a flathead as some pickers (like myself) have done for a long time. So what makes the difference? What makes the difference is YOU. You need to LISTEN over and over to the music you want to play, and play not just the notes, but the SOUND.


Casey Henry

Casey Henry

We promised you, those of you who read the TMM newsletter anyway, some discussion of Earl's tunes and the trials and tribulations we went through to learn them. This is the first post in what will hopefully be a series on that topic.

But first, in my last post I mentioned I was working on a "Greensleeves" arrangement for someone who wanted a custom lesson of it. I got it worked out, recorded it, and here it is if you'd like to hear it.

The first break of Earl's I tried to learn just by listening to it was "Doin' My Time." (It was either that or "Head Over Heels," I can't remember which now. But for the sake of the story, I'm going with "Doin My Time.") Murphy may have steered me in that direction because the break is so straightforward, but I was listening to it on a CD player at full speed, NOT on my record player that slows down to 16 r.p.m. I kept listening to the beginning of the kickoff over and over. I could tell that it started with a slide, so I played the only slide lick that came to mind, which was a slide from 2-3 on the third string, followed by a 2-1-5 forward roll.

That didn't sound exactly right, so I was stumped. So then my mom prodded me along a little. "What's another slide lick that you know?" Hmmm. Um. OH! The Cripple Creek lick. Duh. I played it and that was it!! What I played sounded just like what Earl played on the record!! Well, not just like, but you know what I mean.

The excitement of that moment has blotted out the process of learning the rest of the break. I did learn it, and mostly by ear, at least until the end, when I suspect I had considerable help. It sure was convenient to have a Scruggs expert in the same house while I was learning. Well, really two Scruggs experts, because Red could have answered my questions just as handily as Murphy did.

That first taste of figuring out a break by ear got me hooked. I didn't need an intermediary. I could just listen to it and figure out what Earl did!! Sure it wasn't easy, but I would definitely remember it forever after working so hard to tease out every note in the roll. For future attempts I did make use of my record player, and it was awfully nice of my parents to let me use their albums. I'm sure they had some qualms about putting them into the hands of a sixteen year old armed with a turntable and a needle. But the LPs survived to play another day, and my Scruggs knowledge grew exponentially.

Casey HenryIn the last couple weeks, with two of my more advanced students, we've been looking at a particular backup lick that Earl uses sometimes. It's found on medium-to-slow tempo songs and is done with two-finger chords on the first and second strings way up the neck. (Here is where tab would come in handy. I could just show it to you and say--this lick!). One thing I sometimes have trouble with is finding the perfect example of a lick I want to teach. It can be a lick I use all the time, yet I'm not sure what song it came out of originally. For these backup licks I actually found three songs, which I'll share, first of all so that you can go listen to it, second of all so next time I want to teach it I can come and look and see what songs I used!

1.) "He Took Your Place" - The lick comes in on the second verse, 1:08 on the counter. This is the earliest example, from 1955, which was pre-dobro in Flatt and Scruggs, so you can hear the banjo really well.

2.) "On My Mind" - Earl uses the lick in the second half of the chorus, starting at 1:08, and again at 2:29. Now there's dobro in the band and therefore less banjo backup.

3.) "Crying My Heart Out Over You" - Two short uses here at 0:53 and 2:18.

Casey(Yes, I went back and counted!) My tip for today is this: keep up with your old material!! With one of my students, who has been coming to lessons for at least six years now, I've been doing a thorough review of old material for the last couple of months. Now, in six years you are going to cover a lot of stuff. And, indeed, we have lots and lots of songs on the list. If you don't keep a list of the songs you've learned, you should. It is easy to let something slip through the cracks. Lots of his songs slipped through the cracks, so we've been going back and relearning lots of things that he would have remembered had he been a bit more conscientious about practicing.

I know that it is hard to keep up with the things that you don't use often. I have that same problem myself. But as a banjo player you should absolutely be able to kick into any and all of Earl Scruggs's tunes at the drop of a hat, even if you don't play them often with others. It's one thing to let an obscure fiddle tune fall out of practice, but it is unpardonable to let "Fireball Mail" fall out of practice. In theory all the tunes that you've learned should be treated equally, but in reality, some are more equal than others!

Casey HenryThis is quite possibly the best version of Jingle Bells ever! Check out Earl's syncopation on the melody, and he does some pretty nifty backup, too! You can hear the banjo great all the way through.