Earl Scruggs, On Life — And Banjo Picking Earl Scruggs' name is almost synonymous with the banjo. And for a good reason, too — he helped pioneer Bluegrass music with his three-finger banjo picking technique, now known as "Scruggs Style."

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Earl Scruggs, one of the most important players in the history of bluegrass, has a new CD. Last year, he returned to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, where he first played in 1945 for a concert with a variety of bluegrass musicians, including his sons, Gary and Randy. The live recording of that concert has just come out on Rounder Records. It's called "Earl Scruggs: The Ultimate Collection / Live at the Ryman."

Scruggs is known in part as the banjo player who perfected the three-finger picking technique that became standard in bluegrass. In 1945, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's band, the group that virtually invented bluegrass. In 1948, Scruggs and guitar player Lester Flatt left to form their own group. Flatt and Scruggs 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 movie "Bonnie and Clyde." They also crossed over by playing the theme for the TV series, "The Beverly Hillbillies." In 1969, Earl Scruggs and his sons, Gary and Randy, formed their own band, the Earl Scruggs Review. Scruggs has been inducted into Country Music's Hall of Fame. In a moment, we'll hear Terry's 2003 interview with Scruggs. First, let's hear the track "Earl's Breakdown" from his new album.

(Soundbite of song "Earl's Breakdown")

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 16, 2003)

TERRY 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?

Mr. EARL SCRUGGS (Bluegrass Music Pioneer; Banjo Player): 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 the 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?

Mr. 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, 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?

Mr. 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 a 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...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

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?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, we - I guess - the old days, you have one main room, you 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 - 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: So, did you think, like, oh my God, this is a breakthrough, or did you just not make, you know, much of it at the moment?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, my brother said I came out of the room saying I got it, I got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCRUGGS: So, I didn't know what I had, but he said that's what I was saying.

GROSS: 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?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. 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.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: A lot of banjo players before you would tell comic monologues or sing comic songs with banjo accompaniment.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And 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.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you realize that you were a departure from that, a departure from the kind of comic tradition of banjo playing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I used to just try to - stood - 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. But all my interest was just in picking, not only tunes, but songs behind the singers, not only the lead part, but doing a backup; you know what I mean by backup?

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Playing a alto or something to support the singer. So, that's where my interest was, was just a lead picker with the banjo but also a supporter with the banjo.

GROSS: What was life on the road like with Bill Monroe?

Mr. SCRUGGS: It was terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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 from 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. 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.

GROSS: Now, it was in the Bill Monroe band that you met guitarist Lester Flatt, who became...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Your long musical partner. What were your first impressions of him when you first heard him play and sing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I liked his singing and his playing fit in good with that style of music, and we played 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 maybe interesting things that you don't care for. So, anyway, Lester and I got along with each other, roomed together, and so, we did that and - 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.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs and Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Earl Scruggs. When we left off, Scruggs was recalling how he and Lester Flatt formed the Foggy Mountain Boys.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 16, 2003)

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.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: During that period you recorded what became one of your best known songs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is there a story behind the song?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Why, it's just 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"?

Mr. SCRUGGS: He called and wanted me to write a tune for...

GROSS: Who called?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Warren Beatty...

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. SCRUGGS: 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. 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 they 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?

Mr. 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: 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...

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

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?

Mr. 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)

Mr. SCRUGGS: But I thought it's pretty cleverly written.

GROSS: So, did you get, like, a lifetime supply of free Martha White Flour?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, no. Oh, no. They would probably have done that, but I got a lifetime award with Martha White, a great company, and they helped us just more than I could total up, I guess.

GROSS: Now, why did you and Lester Flatt split up?

Mr. 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 in on them. Even though they are my boys, I thought some of the best musicians I'd ever played with, because they had grown up listening to me. They knew everything that I did and could play it. Plus, they knew younger people's material, new material, and still they kind of made it sound like they were a Scruggs boy when they played it. So, it was a great outlet for me to start working with my boys.

GROSS: There is a Gibson banjo that is named for you; it's called The Earl.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: It has a portrait of you on it.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And your signature. Do you play one of those Gibsons, or do you play something else?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, yeah, I play a Gibson banjo.

GROSS: Is it an Earl?

Mr. 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?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah, same banjo.

GROSS: Same banjo. Now, what do you love so much about this banjo? Is it just a sentimental attachment, or is there something special about the sound?

Mr. 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.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs' new CD is called, "Earl Scruggs: The Ultimate Collection / Live at the Ryman." I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "The Ballad of Jed Clampett")

Mr. JERRY SCOGGINS: (Singing) Come and listen to the story about a man named Jed, A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed. Then one day he was shootin' at some food, When up from through ground came a-bubblin' crude...

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