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