(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The new Earl Scruggs exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is a fitting and timely tribute to one of the most important and influential artists in country music history. Banjo Man: The Musical Journey of Earl Scruggs, which opens Friday (March 4), traces his life and career over the past six decades through historical mementos, videos, photographs, musical instruments, awards, recordings, posters and stage outfits.
Two objects in a very telling exhibit case are a little child-sized desk (with a toy metal typewriter resting on it) and an old and very worn banjo. Those two symbols represent the lives together of Earl and Louise Scruggs. The handmade poplar banjo belonged to Scruggs’ father. The desk and the toy typewriter were Christmas presents that young Louise asked for and received when she was 7 years old. From childhood on, he studied banjo; she studied business.
In an industry where female vocalists were identified as “girl singers” for decades — and occasionally still are, as I heard on WSM Nashville just tonight — women have always faced an uphill struggle. Women attempting to make it, much less succeed, in the actual business of country music have been few but mighty. BMI’s Frances Preston, the CMA’s Jo Walker-Meador, Sony Music’s Donna Hilley, ASCAP’s Connie Bradley, record executive Evelyn Shriver and the multi-talented Hazel Smith are some who come to mind. And I am sure I am leaving some out, to whom I apologize. But Louise Scruggs is my sermon today.
Louise Certain Scruggs was a pioneer businesswoman in Nashville. “Certain” was not only her name, it was her quiet destiny. As a stoic and determined fighter for her man and his work, Earl Scruggs and his musical missions were her mission in life, and she managed and booked and set Earl Scruggs’ various musical careers as few have been cast. Along the way, Louise Scruggs became one of the most important behind-the-scenes power-broking women in country music history. As manager and booker for Earl Scruggs and his many musical incarnations, she elevated him far beyond country music’s (as well as Nashville’s) limited aspirations. She was also country music’s first woman manager or booker. Booking and management in country were often afterthoughts. Or were rife with incompetence and downright criminality.
From sewing her son Steve’s sequined denim jacket as a surprise present for a TV appearance to carefully arranging such prestigious bookings as New York City’s Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival, her efforts over the years for Flatt & Scruggs and later the Earl Scruggs Revue were crucial in the spread of bluegrass and country outside the immediate country music audience. In the earliest days of the folk music boom, she had Flatt & Scruggs out on the road with the young Joan Baez. The Newport Folk Festival was the most prominent such event anywhere. Lester Flatt initially refused to go and play for those “hippies,” so Earl went without him and was a sensation. Flatt joined him the next year. To play Carnegie Hall was a landmark event for a country band. Their live album at New York’s Carnegie Hall was a significant work. And the later album recorded live at Vanderbilt University in Nashville was no less important.
When Louise got Flatt & Scruggs onto the college campus circuit in the 1950s and 1960s, she helped turn them into the equivalent of modern-day rock stars. Putting Scruggs into San Francisco’s counter-cultural Avalon Ballroom and at huge multi-genre events such as the Miami Pop Festival were milestones in country awareness.
She also launched Flatt & Scruggs’ music into the worlds of television and movies. Louise originally rejected overtures from Paul Henning, the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, to provide music for the show. She felt the show’s image would be bad for country music. Henning flew to Nashville and convinced her that it would not. And the Flatt & Scruggs theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” with lyrics by Henning, for the television show went into history. It was released as a single at Louise’s insistence and became a No. 1 hit. And that led to Warren Beatty approaching Louise for music when he was preparing to shoot the movie Bonnie & Clyde. Earl Scruggs’ composition “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became the theme of the movie.
Louise was also the first person in Nashville to get Bob Dylan’s first album and she recognized his significance early on. Flatt & Scruggs early on covered Dylan songs with considerable success. Her attention to detail is legendary. For early Flatt & Scruggs albums, she enlisted the artist Thomas B. Allen to create original paintings for the covers, lending them an original and unique look that stood out in record stores. He ended up painting 17 Flatt & Scruggs album covers. Did I mention Louise also co-wrote several songs recorded by Flatt & Scruggs? She guided Scruggs to the epochal recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, to all of his solo and collaborative work. And she continues to guide his unique career.
If anything, Louise Scruggs deserves her own tribute.