Earl Scruggs’ Memorial Service

Chris Henry

We knew that if we were going to get a good seat for Earl's service at the Ryman Auditorium, getting there early was going to be a good idea. My girlfriend Sarah and I got there a little over an hour before 2pm, when it was scheduled to begin. I saw many bluegrass folks in a line for the friends and family entrance, and so we got in line behind our buddy David Grier and his father, Lamar, who was a banjo picker with Bill Monroe in the 60s. I had never met Lamar, but I have been hanging out a lot with David in the last year, picking and recording, so it was good to meet his dad.

About fifteen minutes later, the doors opened and we filed in and signed the guestbook. The floor was just starting to be filled with the people who were closer to Earl, and the balcony was open to the general public. After saying hello to Pete and Kitsy Kuykendall, and to Dan Hays, we got a seat right in front of the Griers. It was great because we had about an hour to wait, and between the Griers and Barbara Lamb (a great fiddler), there was enough levity to allow the time to pass quickly amongst the excellent people watching. The Griers were really funny to listen to. My favorite exchange was when banjo player Lamar kidded to his son David, "You're probably going to like this today, it'll be mostly banjo music." Guitar-player David fired back, "But when that G-Run comes in it's going to be like heaven!" On the pew next to the left, was Shawn Camp, and to the right on the next row was Alan O'Bryant and Sam Bush. It was good to see so many musicians there to honor the creator of the Big Twang. There were about ten very nice flower arrangements on the stage and Earl's banjo was standing up in the middle of the front of the stage while his closed casket was on the floor out front.

Eddie Stubbs was presiding and did a great job of setting the dignified tone of the event. He was playing the parts of MC, preacher, and reminiscer. Earl's regular preacher had not been able to attend because he was sick, so Eddie had the job of reading some Bible verses on comfort and talking about what a wonderful gift from God Earl was. Since so many of Earl's career highlights had come at the Ryman, the family thought it would be the perfect place to have his memorial, and they wanted it to be broadcast live on WSM 650, the radio station that had catapulted Earl into international stardom in the middle and late 40s.

Del McCoury and his band were the first folks to come out and sing. He was the first to talk about what an inspiration Earl was to him. They went into Take me in a Lifeboat, and you could really tell the were putting their whole hearts into the music. As Del's high tenor reverberated into the rafters of the Ryman, we were all beginning to realize the show was going to be special in that all the artists would be wanting to do their very best for Earl. All of the performances received standing ovations.

The next song was sung by Ricky Skaggs and the Whites. Ricky, who is so comfortable talking to an audience, told about when he was eight years old, and picking backstage at the Opry, how Earl had listened to him play and sing, and then invited his dad to bring him down to the television station for an audition to be on one of the Martha White Flatt and Scruggs shows. Ricky said "He didn't have to do that, but he did." One great example of a kind gesture that impacted country music in a large way with the beginning of Ricky's professional career. Ricky asked for a show of hands to see how many banjo pickers were in the audience. As so many hands went up he commented about how God had planted so many seeds with the gift of Earl's music. They sang Gone Home and I could definitely feel the spirit of the music all over when they sang the harmonies.

Bela Fleck came out after the Whites and did a solo banjo number. It was in a minor key and made use of the tuners in an interesting way. Afterwords, Bela read from his IPad some words he had written about Earl's influence on him. He talked about "hearing the truth" for the first time as a young kid in Queens. He told a couple of great stories. The first was about Earl driving at night through Atlanta back in the day that there were exactly 90 stoplights going through the city. The rest of the band was asleep when Earl started seeing sparks coming off of a dragging tailpipe. He pulled over and got a tow truck to come. After the tow truck driver asked Earl to get in and steer the car as it was towed backwards, the rest of the band started to wake up. Earl took the opportunity to pretend he was sleeping, and slumped over the wheel! The second was about himself speeding through Nashville one day and getting pulled over. The officer came up to the window and recognized Bela. After a brief exchange, the officer asked Bela who the greatest banjo player in the world was. He answered Earl Scruggs. The officer said, "That's right, now drive a little slower around here from now on." The audience roared with laughter.

There was some video played of the Foggy Mountain Boys, demonstrating Earl's unsurpassed creative and technical ability. It was good to see some clips of those old Martha White shows.

Charlie Daniels came out and spoke very nicely about getting his start in Nashville with the Earl Scruggs Revue. The reverence and respect with which he spoke was delivered with dignity and eloquence.

EmmyLou Harris sang a song and payed her respects.

John McEuen came out and spoke about his experiences with Earl. He said after he got the nerve to ask Earl to record on what would become the Circle album, he couldn't sleep the whole night because he was so excited. John played a clawhammer version of Soldiers Joy, and then Jim Mills and Mike Bub joined him on the instrumental Carolina Traveler.

Eddie Stubbs delivered a wonderful eulogy that included talking about his love of family; how he attended his son's baseball games; his religious commitment to Christianity; a wonderful personal memory of Earl telling Eddie he loved Lester; tidbits about Earl's love for food; and how many medical problems Earl had had, including two bad automobile accidents and a plane crash. Eddie said that one time Earl asked him if he had been playing his fiddle, and Eddie replied that he had not been and was so out of practice he would be embarrassed to play it in Earl's company. Earl replied "Well I'm the same way, why don't you come over and we'll practice!" Just another example of his humility and friendly good nature. After a quadruple bypass, Earl's diet needed to change, but one time at a party he found some good salty peanuts on the table and he told Eddie as he was in between Louise's line of sight to the table, "You stay right there, I don't want Louise to see!" Eddie also related another time at a party that Earl said to him "I better get a piece of that pie just in case someone might ask me my opinion about it."

Marty Stuart came out and played a little of You are my Flower on the guitar. For my money, there's no more beautiful piece of music in bluegrass than that tune. Marty talked with his usual good humor and candor about going to do a soundtrack for a movie with Johnny Cash. Johnny asked him who would be a good fit for the banjo, and Marty suggested Earl. The movie company was from out west and so there was some disparity between the two styles of production, in that the westerners weren't familiar with the Tennessee way and pace of doing things, and vice-versa. At one point while Earl was standing in front of a vending machine with a milk in one hand and a honey-bun in the other, the director flew out of the studio in an extremely agitated manner saying "The banjo player! The banjo player! We need the banjo player!" To which Earl calmly replied "If I see 'im, I'll tell 'im you're looking." Again the audience rolled with laughter.

Marty had a great trio singing with him, as well as Del McCoury adding some powerful G-runs on his rhythm guitar. Who Will Sing for Me was the number that Marty led using some classic vintage Lester Flatt style intonation in his voice. He was placing the notes slightly flat in a way that brings out a captivating and dynamic energy - a technique seldom heard in today's world of auto tune and American Idol. It was great.

The final song was introduced by Vince Gill. He was accompanied by Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, and a piano player. In a very emotional way that brought tears welling up in his eyes, Vince spoke about how he had come to write the song and how the circumstances were similar in that his mom had to "lay down" a son as did the Scruggs family. He was able to pull through his emotions and sing very well.

At this point some closing words were spoken by Eddie, who did a wonderful job with the ceremony. On the ends of the middle pews was a banjo guard: Kristin Scott Benson, Bela, Trishka, O'Banyon, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Noam Pikelny, Ned Lubereki, Dave Talbot, Charlie Cushman, Mike Bub, Tim O'Brien, and many others held their banjos in front of their faces like bluegrass marines as Earl's casket was moved outside. As the casket passed, the adjacent rows of guards crossed the necks of the their banjos. It was a beautiful and perfect way for Earl to make his farewell. His banjo was then carried out of the mother church - from the place where Earl had changed the world and brought the five string banjo with "lightning in a bottle" to millions of listeners. It was a true celebration and fitting memorial for a person who picked and sang with grace, brought joy to millions, lived with humility, and was well loved.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Earl Scruggs’ Memorial Service

  1. Steve (in Japan)

    Thanks for being there, Chris, and giving us the details of Earl Scruggs’ memorial service.

  2. Murphy Henry

    Great blog, Chris. Thank you! I felt like I was right there. Love the part about the banjo salute! And your astute comments on Marty’s singing. So true! Signed, your affectionate Momma

  3. Patty

    Thanks, Chris, for beautifully describing what we all heard on WSM Sunday. Bill Evans also described the banjo salute on his Facebook page. And, it was good to get more details about Bela’s piece. I only saw Earl once, 4 years ago, at the Ryman. So happy I had that opportunity.

  4. Rush Burkhardt

    Thank you, very much, for your “view” of Earl Scrugg’s Memorial Service! The warmth and honor of that assemblage was well represented for those of us unable to be there to say “Goodbye” to a well-respected man…who was also a banjo player!

    Rush Burkhardt
    Fripp Island, SC

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