So many top musicians flocked to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Tuesday (Jan. 6) to celebrate Earl Scruggs’ 80th birthday, Vince Gill proclaimed, “Anything recorded on Music Row today won’t be very good.” Scruggs and his wife and manager, Louise, were on hand with musician sons Randy and Gary to bask in the adulation.
Gill was but one of many luminaries who took the speaker’s stand to praise the musical contributions of the North Carolina-born banjoist. Scruggs developed and perfected the three-finger “roll” (and other adornments) that transformed the five-string banjo from essentially a rhythm instrument into a fluid and emphatic carrier of melodies. In so doing, he gave Bill Monroe’s burgeoning bluegrass style of country music its most recognizable sound. Scruggs played in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band from 1945 to 1948, when he and fellow bandsman, Lester Flatt, left to form the Foggy Mountain Boys.
The birthday celebration kicked off a series of Hall of Fame tributes to Scruggs, which will run through 2006. On Sept. 7, 14, 21 and 28 of this year, Scruggs will perform at the Hall of Fall as its official artist in residence. An Earl and Louise Scruggs exhibit will open Nov. 15. The Hall of Fame also plans to issue a DVD of segments from the Flatt & Scruggs syndicated television series and an accompanying album. Martha White, the flour company which sponsored the TV series as well as Flatt & Scruggs’ concert tours, will also be the corporate sponsor of the forthcoming Scruggs exhibit.
When people first heard Scruggs’ distinctive picking, Gill said, their reaction was, “What is that? I’ve got to find that.” He recited a partial list of the performers Scruggs has recorded with, including Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Don Henley, Sting, Dan Fogelberg, King Curtis and Elton John. “So he’s played with kings and queens,” Gill cracked. In the end, he observed, Scruggs’ musical open-mindedness was “his greatest gift of all.”
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen sent his regards and a proclamation through David Bennett, executive director of the state’s Film, Entertainment and Music Commission. Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell delivered his congratulations — and a miniature engraved banjo — personally. Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Foundation (which oversees the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum), read greetings to Scruggs from President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Tenessee (who told of having his picture taken with Scruggs when he was 4 years old), U.S. Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina, BMI President and CEO Frances Preston, Don Henley, Doc Watson and Dolly Parton. “I’ll bet we could still get down,” Parton wrote to Scruggs. “Getting back up would be the problem.”
Porter Wagoner, Scruggs’ fellow Country Music Hall of Member, recalled working with Flatt & Scruggs and called the Foggy Mountain Boys “the greatest band in the history of bluegrass music.” Wagoner continued, “Earl is to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He’s the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.” The cheering crowd seemed to agree. Hall of Famers Charlie Louvin, Brenda Lee and former Grand Ole Opry manager E. W. “Bud” Wendell were also in the audience.
Charlie Derrington, general manager of Gibson’s Original Acoustic Instruments Division, said that Scruggs entry into the musical scene marked a “tipping point,” after which everything changed musically. He credited him with inciting an enormous interest in banjo playing. “Every banjo we sold after 1946,” he said, “can be traced to [this] one man.” Gibson CEO Henry Juskiewicz and Derrington presented Scruggs with a custom-made banjo with his portrait painted on the resonator. “That’s like writing home for five [dollars] and getting 10,” said Scruggs as he accepted the gift.
Dwight Yoakam sang “Happy Birthday” to Scruggs via a videoclip from “sunny California.” Actor/singer Billy Bob Thornton sent a hilarious, if long-winded, audio account — delivered in his Sling Blade voice — about his love of the Flatt & Scruggs’ Beverly Hillbillies theme and of his recording “Ring of Fire” in Nashville.
The birthday party’s organizers showed a portion of the Flatt & Scruggs TV show from 1961 in which Scruggs plays his breakneck composition, “Ground Speed,” while fiddler Paul Warren, dobroist Josh Graves and bassist Jake Tullock each take an instrumental break at the band’s single microphone.
The party ended when some of the world’s best musicians paraded to the stage to sing “Happy Birthday” and then play Scruggs’ signature tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Among the pickers were Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Kix Brooks, Alison Krauss, Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Randy Scruggs, Jim Lauderdale, John Jorgenson, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Rob Ickes, Jerry Douglas, Jon Randall, Rob McCoury and Jack Clement.
“I want to say one thing,” said Scruggs, when the music died away. “These are the cream of the crop, these pickers back here. I enjoyed every lick.” After that, the pickers and partygoers adjourned from the Ford Theater to the Hall of Fame’s entrance area to feast on a life-size banjo-shaped birthday cake.