Earl Scruggs on Country Music, and His Role in It

Melissa Block talks with banjo legend Earl Scruggs about the release of a new DVD, The Best of the Flatt & Scruggs TV Show. The famous duo pioneered television's country-variety format. Their success in what was then a new medium was instrumental in extending the popularity of country music.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In the '50s and '60s, around suppertime, Blue Grass pioneers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would be in people's living rooms. On televisions throughout the South in "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Here's "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show" brought to you by Martha White meals. Meals that Martha White hot dried flour, corn meal and cake mixes, and (Unintelligible) company.

BLOCK: Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys have been doing a daily early morning radio show. Also sponsored by Martha White on WSM in Nashville. Then in 1955, television gave them a new opportunity. Now, several of those shows have been released for the first time on DVD. Earl Scruggs talked with me about those first days on television.

Mr. EARL SCRUGGS (Host, "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show"): On TV show, it would be late in the day, like 6:30 to 7:00. That way we can do a 30-minute television show and go out 40, 50, 60 miles and do a personal appearance after the show.

BLOCK: It seems that of the shows that I've watched, they all start the same way. The announcer comes out and always introduces Lester Flatt as the old boy who does all the talking.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

Unidentified Man #1: And now here's...

BLOCK: And he usually tries to throw a joke in there to sort of loosen things up.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

Mr. LESTER FLATT (Host, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry"): Don't get your dandruff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, Lester Flatt.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah, the too(ph) comic(ph) (Unintelligible). Yeah, and he was great. And he liked to come on with a little excitement - nothing wrong with that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

Mr. FLATT: We got a new record out...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLATT: ...and already the (Unintelligible) who have money, and let's try to (Unintelligible). It's called "I Just Think."

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

BLOCK: It would be very uncommon, I guess, to hear you saying anything. You're singing backup at times but you're not singing lead and you're still not talking, I think.

Mr. SCRUGGS: No singing for me.

BLOCK: And would you ever take the mic and speak?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Very little. That's not my corner to be in. So I don't have to -it's up to the professionals for that. Still do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

FLATTS AND SCRUGGS (Singers): (Singing) Just think. I gotta sing.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Let me tell you a story on - they had a boom mic. Back in those days, they didn't want to see a mic. It would be lined up. And the boom-mic guy, he didn't know one from the other and you can see it. Yeah, you know, that he had aimed whatever's name is on the other side, you know. And that just tore me up. I'm not going to get mixed like that, so we felt people knew there had to be a mic somewhere, so a lot of the - tried to hide it, just steady (Unintelligible) - and we put them on the show just like we had a schoolhouse.

BLOCK: It is called "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show." But you're not in the Opry stage. It looks like you're in sort of a stage set that's looking like a country grocery store. You see these fake hands hanging in the window.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, they call it a backdrop, you know?

BLOCK: And that's the Martha White idea there?

Mr. SCRUGGS: That's right.

BLOCK: And in the middle of these shows, there would be two cooking demonstration commercials from Martha White...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. Alice German(ph) was the cooking lady that - oh, she was great too.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

Ms. ALICE GERMAN (Cooking Lady in "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry"): That's right, Tommy(ph). You don't need the fifth(ph) to make good biscuits with Martha White hot rise flour.

Unidentified Man #2: Just add shortening and milk to make perfect biscuits. No risky pinches of salt, soda or baking powder.

BLOCK: I like at the end after these commercials and these demonstrations that the band, Flatt and Scruggs band comes back and does the little jingle.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

FLATT AND SCRUGGS: (Singing) How you bake this big, big...

BLOCK: I hear Lester Flatt, and then you hear the four of you, chivying in with your lines.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry")

FLATTS AND SCRUGGS: (Singing) The one all-purpose flour...

BLOCK: The one all-purpose flour.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Not quite surprising flour. It's got hot rise for goodness sake.

BLOCK: Sounds like the kind of thing that must stay in your mind for a long time?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah, '68 we went to Japan and we do the Martha White jingle over there. It was just as popular as anything else we were doing.

Unidentified Man #3: Well, Scruggs, if you're ready let's do a little thinking. Let's go.

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

BLOCK: You know, looking at these Martha White TV shows from the early 1960s, these aren't just real variety shows just for entertainment. I mean there are number of times when they're showing close-ups of your fingers on the banjo -all the finger-picking - and it seems like they really want people to understand the musicianship. It's not just for fun.

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, they thought it would be something different to bring close-up of things while you're just doing a straight instrumental break.

BLOCK: And I bet there were banjo and guitar players, watching these - trying to figure out just how you were doing what you were doing.

Mr. SCRUGGS: They sure were, knocking their 45. But it's not mainly about the banjo pickers playing - later told Scruggs to stop picking, and started catching on real well. And when the television came out, they want the show with the cameras on in television.

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

BLOCK: Would you have people come up to you at concerts and say I've been studying and watching and I still can't figure out how you're doing it?

Mr. SCRUGGS: In the end, that's the highest form of flattery, when somebody likes your music well enough to try and play like you. What I really appreciate, I sure do.

BLOCK: Well, Earl Scruggs, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "I Just Think")

BLOCK: Earl Scruggs talking with us from Nashville. Two volumes of "The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show" are now out on DVD.

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