DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: The great bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs perfected the three-finger style of banjo picking that became standard in bluegrass. Country singer Porter Wagoner once said: Earl Scruggs was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball.
Scruggs was half of the duo completed by guitarist Lester Flatt responsible for such bluegrass standards as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies." Earl Scruggs died in Nashville Wednesday at age 88.
In 1945, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's band, the band that virtually invented bluegrass. In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe to form their own group and became one of the most popular acts in country music. Their hit "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" became even more famous when it was used on the soundtrack of the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde."
In 1969, Earl Scruggs formed his own band, the Earl Scruggs Review, with his sons Gary and Randy. Terry Gross spoke with Earl Scruggs in 2003. He had just released a new CD called "The Three Pickers," which also featured Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. Here's a song from that album, "Feast Here Tonight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAST HERE TONIGHT")
DOC WATSON, RICKY SKAGGS, EARL SCRUGGS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Earl Scruggs, welcome to FRESH AIR.
EARL SCRUGGS: Thank you.
GROSS: Now, you grew up during the Depression. Your father died when you were four. How did your family make a living when he died?
SCRUGGS: He was a farmer also, so I stayed on the farm until I got old enough to get a job in the factory. On the farm, you work from daylight till dark, and in the factory you work eight hours, so I thought that was great.
GROSS: Right. Who did you hear play banjo before you started playing yourself? I mean, I've read that there was no radio in your house when you were growing up.
GROSS: So, who did you hear? How did you hear them?
SCRUGGS: We had a banjo in our home. My father played old-style banjo, so we had a banjo there. And my brother Horace had a guitar, and so we just started playing just old tunes that we'd heard before. And then a little later, we got a Sears and Roebuck radio and started listening to some - mainly "The Grand Ole Opry" and some programs like that.
But as far as the style of banjo that I play, nobody had played it before me. And the only thing that is different from my playing from what I'd heard is I had a three-finger roll; it's later been called Scruggs style. But it seemed to help me to play slow tunes as well as up-tempo tunes. Most of the banjo playing in the old days were hoedown-type tunes, up-tempo tunes.
GROSS: So, could you put into words what your style of picking is, the three-finger style?
SCRUGGS: Well, it's just what you hear. It involves - it's a little misleading to say three fingers - it's actually two fingers, middle and index finger and your thumb. And it's kind of - some of the roll will go, if you number your thumb one, the index two, and the middle finger three, it's like one, two, three roll over and over.
But to do a tune, it's like trying to say every word with the same exact - same amount of syllables in the word, you've got to alternate the roll some to make the tune flow.
GROSS: Since you didn't have a radio when you were very young and you didn't have a record player...
GROSS: And so, you're just, like, hearing, you know, the musicians who may have been, you know, living where you were, how did you come up with your style of playing, with your style of picking?
SCRUGGS: Oh, we - I guess - the old days, you have one main room, you'd have - you take company to when they come that you don't use every day. So, I was in what we called the front room with the banjo one day. And I was in the mode where if somebody had asked me what I was thinking about - and I bet you'd been in that mode yourself - you couldn't tell them what you was thinking about; you was just kind of sitting in there.
And I was picking the banjo, and I was playing a tune that I still play today called "Rubin." And when I realized what I was doing, I was playing the way that I play now. It was like having a dream and wake up you was actually playing the tune. So, that was the mode I was in and what I was doing when I learned exactly what I am doing today.
GROSS: Now, you joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1945. This was the group that basically created the sound that's become known as bluegrass. When you joined the band, could you hear that something different was happening there?
SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. He had - nobody had this style of banjo in the group, and he just did the type of tunes that would make the banjo sound good. So, it was a good shot to start with because he had "The Grand Ole Opry" exposure, and he give me a lot of exposure when I went to work with him and got immediate attention because nobody had heard that kind of banjo-picking, so it caught on real fast with the public.
GROSS: Why don't we hear one of your recordings with Bill Monroe from 1947? This is one of the famous ones, "Bluegrass Breakdown," with Bill Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt, guitar, my guest Earl Scruggs, banjo, recorded in 1947.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUEGRASS BREAKDOWN")
GROSS: Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys recorded in 1947 with my guest Earl Scruggs on banjo. You're considered one of the first banjo players to be a serious musician and to not be a comic with a banjo.
GROSS: A lot of banjo players before you would tell comic monologues or sing comic songs with banjo accompaniment. In fact, there's a story that may be apocryphal that Uncle Dave Macon, the banjo player, said after hearing you the first time, he ain't one damn bit funny.
GROSS: Did you realize that you were a departure from that, a departure from the kind of comic tradition of banjo playing?
SCRUGGS: Well, I used to just try to study and see if there was some kind of routine I want to do as being a comedian because every banjo player in the world - very few, but they all were comedians and kind of used the banjo as a prop to get into their comedy routine.
But all my interest was just in picking, not only tunes, but songs behind the singers, not only in the lead part but doing a backup. You know what I mean by backup? Playing a alto or something to support the singer. So that's where my interest was, was as a lead picker with the banjo but also a supporter with the banjo.
GROSS: What was life on the road like with Bill Monroe?
SCRUGGS: It was terrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCRUGGS: If I hadn't have been 21 years old and full of energy that just came off on a farm and thread mill, where I could - you know, I thought to do an hour show on the road was a pushover compared to eight hours in the mill or sun up to sun down on the farm. And music was my love, so to get into a group that had good singing and playing, and Bill had that, especially good singing and had a good fiddle player.
So I went in, and it just seemed to make a full band, especially for that style of music. That was long before anybody had tagged it as bluegrass, it was just country music. But it really made an outstanding group for that day and time especially.
GROSS: But why did you hate traveling so much with the band?
SCRUGGS: Why did I hate it? It was because we did it 24 hours a day, practically. Back then, there was only two-lane highways, and he traveled in a '41 Chevrolet car, and we'd leave after the Opry on Saturday night and maybe work down South Georgia. It was about as far as you could get for a Sunday afternoon show, and on down to Miami some place for Monday or Tuesday, and worked till about Thursday and start working back to Nashville.
So, it was just - you'd only be in Nashville long enough to do "The Grand Ole Opry" and to get a change of clothes and pack your suitcase and head out again. I was single at the time. So I was living in the hotel, and I had one suitcase, and so it - I had to really work on it to keep clean clothes for every night doing a show on the road.
BIANCULLI: Musician Earl Scruggs, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs, who died Wednesday at the age of 88.
GROSS: Now, it was in the Bill Monroe band that you met guitarist Lester Flatt, who became your long musical partner. What were your first impressions of him when you first heard him play and sing?
SCRUGGS: Well, I liked his singing, and his playing fit in good with that style of music, and we palled around together. You know, in a group, you kind of find one or two guys that you like better than the other part of the group or the other may be interested in things that you don't care for.
So, anyway, Lester and I got along with each other and roomed together, and so we did that for two and a half, three years. And that's when - really, we never had talked about starting a show ourselves. But I had made up my mind that I was going to just get off the road.
So, I worked two weeks' notice, and when I started to leave that night, Lester turned in his notice. And while he's working his notice, he gave me a call over in North Carolina and said why don't we get on the radio station over close to your home and try it as a group ourselves. So, that's how we got started with the Foggy Mountain Boys.
GROSS: Now, you started recording - you and Lester Flatt started recording in, I think it was 1948, and for the first couple of years, you recorded for Mercury Records. During that period you recorded what became one of your best known songs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
GROSS: Is there a story behind the song?
SCRUGGS: Why, it's just a simple song that I probably wrote in 10 or 15 minutes, and it - and I've written several other tunes and had some pretty big hits but nothing like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." You'll have a ringer, as I call it, one that might make a hit with just about everybody and so "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was one of them, and it got a lot of support like in the film "Bonnie and Clyde" movie.
They used it as a chase song, and that supported that tune a lot. So the tune did a lot for not only me, but it did a lot for situations like that in the movie like "Bonnie and Clyde."
GROSS: How did "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" end up being used in the movie "Bonnie and Clyde"?
SCRUGGS: He called and wanted me to write a tune for...
GROSS: Who called?
SCRUGGS: Warren Beatty, who wrote and starred in the show. And so he called back - I think I'm quoting this exactly the way it was - in a few days and he said he didn't want me to write anything because he'd found a tune that he thought fit what he wanted.
See, we recorded that tune before they got what I say good equipment, I mean, just plain everyday microphones in the radio station and no - to start making tunes sound fuller or something. It was just raw material that, I mean, it didn't have no echo chamber or anything on it.
So, that's what Warren Beatty heard in that tune. So he didn't want to try to record another tune because he thought that the equipment that they had then was probably - would give it a more modern tune than what we had recorded, which turned out to be "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the sound that we got then.
GROSS: So, are you saying that he used the original recording, and he didn't want you to rerecord it?
SCRUGGS: Yeah. They took the Mercury recording, and that was it.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that original recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"? And this is Lester Flatt and my guest Earl Scruggs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOGGY MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN")
GROSS: That's the original recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was later used in "Bonnie and Clyde," featuring Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo. My guest is Earl Scruggs.
Now, you mentioned what - when you got off the road with Bill Monroe, what you wanted to do was a radio show, and first you did one in Bristol. Then in 1953, you ended up doing a radio show in Nashville at a station there, and...
SCRUGGS: WSM, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, and it was, I think, a 15-minute program every morning at 5:45, which is pretty darn early to have to perform.
SCRUGGS: Yeah. We'd come in 2 o'clock. And go to bed and get up at 4 to try to get awake enough to do a live radio program, but that was your bread and butter in those days. By that I mean we made our real - really our living by the roadwork that we did. We'd go out and do shows and charge admission and get a percentage of that and also some flat rates, too. But that just put us to working in better - bigger auditoriums and bigger crowds.
GROSS: The show was sponsored by Martha White Flour.
GROSS: And I understand, the jingle for that became pretty well-known, and you were even requested to play it at some of your concerts. I've never heard it. How did it go?
SCRUGGS: (Singing) Now you make bright with Martha White, goodness gracious, good in light, Martha White. For the finest biscuits, cakes and pies, it's Martha White self-rising flour.
And the group says...
(Singing) The one all purpose flour. Get Martha White for self-rising flour. It's got hot rise...
Hot rise was actually a baking soda that went into the bread that would - it makes bread rise, you know that yourself, being a lady. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCRUGGS: But I thought it's pretty cleverly written.
GROSS: So, did you get, like, a lifetime supply of free Martha White Flour?
SCRUGGS: Oh, no. Oh, no. They would probably have done that, but I got a lifetime of work with Martha White. It was a great company, and they helped us just more than I could total up, I guess.
GROSS: How long did that show last?
SCRUGGS: I wish my wife was in here, she could tell you better than me, but it lasted for a lot of years, and then we went into television. Television came in in about 1955. So they put us - we started transcribing the morning show, the radio show, and we'd sleep late, but we'd have to do a live television show at a different city each night.
And the reason I say a live television, that was before they had cameras to film you with. So we'd leave 4 o'clock Monday morning to go to - down in Georgia, had two cities in Georgia, Atlanta being one, and let's see, Wednesday was Florence, South Carolina. Thursday was Huntington, West Virginia. Friday was Jackson, Tennessee, down in west Tennessee. And Saturday back at WSM television and do the "Grand Ole Opry" on Saturday night. And for working on Sunday, we were free until 4 o'clock Monday morning, and we started that 2,500 mile tour again.
BIANCULLI: Banjo player Earl Scruggs, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. He died Wednesday in Nashville at age 88. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Earl Scruggs in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2003 interview with bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs. He died Wednesday at age 88.
Scruggs already had been a celebrated country artist for decades when he and Lester Flatt scored big with two massive crossover hits. One was featured in the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" and the other in a TV show whose theme song invited us to come listen to a story about a man named Jed.
GROSS: I want to ask you about another crossover hit that you had, and this, of course, was the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Ballad of Jed Clampett"...
GROSS: ...which got you like the number one record on the country music charts.
GROSS: It crossed over to the pop charts. And of course it was on TV every week for years.
GROSS: And it's still on a lot in reruns. How were you asked to write the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies"?
SCRUGGS: I didn't write the theme.
GROSS: I mean to record the theme. Yeah.
SCRUGGS: Yeah. Well, well, I wish my wife was in here because she does all my business things and she could tell you exactly how it came about. But we had done a show...
GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you. She's in the control room listening to the interview, right?
GROSS: Why don't we invite her in and she can tell us the story about the phone call? How's that?
SCRUGGS: She's on her way in, so just hold that question.
GROSS: OK. Great.
SCRUGGS: She'll be in in a little bit. Now, Louise, say something. See if she can...
LOUISE SCRUGGS: Hello?
GROSS: Oh, that's much better.
SCRUGGS: One, two, three.
SCRUGGS: I can hear you in my headphones too. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: OK. Is this Louise Scruggs?
SCRUGGS: Yes, it is.
GROSS: OK. Well, can you tell us the story about the phone call inviting your husband to record the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies"?
SCRUGGS: Well, Mr. Paul Henning, who wrote and directed "The Beverly Hillbillies" show, called before, of course, before it went on the air. He had written the show, and he called and wanted Earl and Lester to do the theme music. And I turned it down at first because of the word Beverly Hillbillies. I didn't know what connotation that was going to take with country people and didn't want to offend them. So he said, well, the premise of this show is that the Beverly Hillbillies are going to always be outsmarting the city slickers.
So anyway, we talked about that two or three times, and he ended up sending the film, the pilot, to Nashville for us to see. And after we looked at it, we thought, OK, that looks all right. So they went ahead and recorded it, and while they were doing the theme music, I said to Perry Botkin, who was the music director at the time, I think that would make a great single. And so I called Mr. Henning and I said, what do you think if they, about them recording that for a single for Columbia Records? And he said, I think it's a great idea. So I spoke to their A&R director, Mr. Don Law, who was doing their records at the time, and so they recorded it three weeks later. And then on - it was released in October, and December 8, 1962, it hit number one in Billboard.
GROSS: On the country chart?
SCRUGGS: Yeah. Right. And it was up in the pop chart too.
GROSS: Louise Scruggs, you handled the business end of Flatt and Scruggs. How did the theme song from "The Beverly Hillbillies" affect business for the band?
SCRUGGS: Well, I started getting - after the show started airing, I started getting calls for them for dates and concerts. And within about a month I had been booked up for a year in advance.
SCRUGGS: So it was tremendous. Eventually ended up being shown in 76 countries around the world. So what it did, actually, insofar as spreading country music, it helped country music and it helped, well, the banjo in particular, because Earl gets mail from people all over the world.
GROSS: Well, Louise Scruggs, thank you for stopping in for part of the interview. We really appreciate it. Earl Scruggs, you're still there?
SCRUGGS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Great. So you and Lester Flatt do not sing on the theme at all, right?
SCRUGGS: No. We just did the music part.
GROSS: Just the music. Right. Good. OK.
SCRUGGS: Jerry Scoggins, a West Coast person, did the vocal on the theme that you hear on "The Beverly Hillbillies." We did record it for Columbia Records but that was later.
GROSS: And when you recorded it, you sang it?
SCRUGGS: Lester did. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And why don't we hear the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" with Lester Flatt and my guest, Earl Scruggs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT")
LESTER FLATT: Well, the first thing you know...
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is banjo player Earl Scruggs.
Now, why did you at Lester Flatt split up?
SCRUGGS: Well, the biggest thing for me, see, I had three boys coming along - Gary, Randy, and Steve was my youngest boy - and they were good musicians. And, as a matter of fact, Randy had been recording with Lester and me as far as the guitar work ever since he was seven or eight years old. So I just had a band in my home. And one of the biggest thrills a person will ever get is to go on stage with his children, especially if they're good musicians, and I'll have to brag on them, even though they are my boys, I thought some of the best musicians I'd ever played with. So it was a great outlet for me to start working with my boys.
GROSS: Did you stay close with Lester Flatt? And what kind of terms were you on when he died in 1979?
SCRUGGS: We were friends. I just didn't see him that much because I was on the road so much and in the direction we were going and he, of course he kept a show himself and he worked as long as he was able to work, really. Yeah. So I always and still today - though he's been dead for several years - I still have a warm spot in my heart and cherish the days that we worked and traveled together.
GROSS: There is a Gibson banjo that is named for you - it's called The Earl?
GROSS: It has a portrait of you on it.
GROSS: And your signature. Is it a lot of fun to have, you know, a banjo that's dedicated to you, that bears your name and likeness?
SCRUGGS: It is. And as a matter of fact, they're making five different models with my name on it, from the plain banjo, which they're all basically the same banjo. What runs up the cost is like gold-plating and engraving and things of that nature.
GROSS: Do you play one of those Gibsons, or do you play something else?
SCRUGGS: Well, yeah, I play a Gibson banjo.
GROSS: Is it an Earl?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCRUGGS: Well, basically it is. I'm playing a banjo that I've been playing since back in the late '40s, I guess, early '50s. But it's still basic - they're still making basically the same banjo they were making way back there.
GROSS: When you say you're still playing the same banjo, do you mean it's literally the same instrument or that it's the same model?
SCRUGGS: Yeah, same banjo.
GROSS: Same banjo. So do you have to get a like redone occasionally?
SCRUGGS: Well, the only thing you're going to wear out on the banjo is the head. The head is, used to be skin but now it's plastic; they will wear out on you. And the strings, outside of that, you can play one for a thousand years, unless you got it broken some way.
GROSS: Now, what do you love so much about this banjo? Is it just a sentimental attachment, or is there something special about the sound?
SCRUGGS: Well, it produces the sound that my ears are looking for. Maybe I've just gotten used to it, but I like the sound that I get out of that particular banjo. I feel at home with it when I take it out of the case and start, you know - there's no - when you start with another instrument, they all have their feel, and playing the same instrument, you know what it's going to feel like when you take it out of the case and start to perform.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
SCRUGGS: Been my pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Banjo player Earl Scruggs, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. He died Wednesday at age 88.