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Nothing has hit me quite this hard since that fall morning in 2007, the morning I got in my car and turned on the radio to hear Porter Wagoner’s classic “Green, Green Grass Of Home.” I had assured myself that since I was starting my day off with Porter, it was sure to be a red letter day. As the last few notes of the song drifted off the airwaves, the DJ’s voice was solemn as he announced that one of country music’s last great gems had died.
I could feel the tears brimming in my eyes. It felt like I had lost a beloved family member that came to visit every Friday night (in reruns, of course) on my family’s television screen. The feeling wasn’t much different last week when I learned that the greatest banjo picker of all time, Earl Scruggs, was gone.
They called him “the boy who made the banjo talk.” Born in Depression-era North Carolina he began playing the banjo at only 4 years old. The story goes that after an argument with his older brother, he sat alone in his bedroom picking “Lonesome Reuben” with three fingers instead of two. Earl had been trying to master the three finger style popular to banjo players in North Carolina.
And master it he did. And copy it they all did.
In the mid 1940s, Earl quit school and joined up with the “father” of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. It was then that he met Lester Flatt. The two stayed on with Monroe long enough to appear on some of his biggest recordings including “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.”
In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs split from the Bluegrass Boys and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. Together, the two brought bluegrass music to a wider audience with one of the most recognizable instrumentals ever – the Scurggs penned “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which appeared in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.” “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett,” the theme to the 1960s television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the theme song for the secret to the fluffiest biscuits around Martha White Flour.
The two split in 1969, but Earl carried on with the Earl Scruggs Revue for many years afterward.
I owe the makings of my lifelong love affair with banjos to Earl Scruggs. I think I was a natural born bluegrass fan, but Scruggs made a banjo lover out of me.
Any time I was lucky enough to have someone around to listen to Flatt and Scruggs with me, when Earl would take a break on his five string my question was always the same – “Isn’t that the prettiest thing you’ve ever heard in your life?”
Earl was different from Porter. He wasn’t flashy and never seemed like a big talker, but when his fingers met the strings of a banjo with such effortless precision, he was the rhinestone of bluegrass musicians.
A few years back country singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall wrote and recorded a song called “One Of Those Days (When I Miss Lester Flatt).”
In the first verse Tom talks about the rock ‘n roll playing on the radio, a party to which he doesn’t belong. He explains that he’s a little too country and comes from a different school. “It’s not a sad feeling, just a matter of fact, it’s one of those days when I miss Lester Flatt.”
And that’s how I feel today, about Lester, Earl and bluegrass in general. One thing’s for certain, the music of our homeland will never be the same again.