Earl Scruggs Exhibit Tells Three Stories

Banjo Innovator Has Powerful Presence at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Like the man himself, the exhibit that honors Earl Scruggs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum seems modest and withdrawn. Titled Banjo Man: The Musical Journey of Earl Scruggs, it sits in a small, out-of-the-way corner room on the museum’s third floor, just off the elevator landing. The display is so compact and filled with artifacts that even a dozen people make it feel crowded. But for lovers of country and bluegrass music, it has the aura of a shrine.

Essentially, the exhibit tells three stories: Scruggs’ pivotal role in the creation of what is now called “bluegrass” via his torrential, three-finger picking style that elevated the banjo to a lead instrument; his break from traditional bluegrass in 1969 to create the country-rock Earl Scruggs Revue with sons Randy, Gary and Steve; and the heretofore unsung importance of Scruggs’ wife, Louise, as his manager and chief publicist after their marriage in 1948.

Emblazoned on the wall leading into the exhibit are two quotations that summarize Scruggs’ importance as a musical innovator. The first is by Scruggs’ fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member, Porter Wagoner, who says, “Earl is to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball — the best there ever was and the best there ever will be.” Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, who was inspired to take up the instrument after hearing Scruggs play on The Beverly Hillbillies theme, notes, “No matter how established we are at our own different specialties, we’re all still trying to sound like Earl.”

A native of North Carolina, Scruggs had already developed his distinctive shower-of-notes banjo “roll” by the time he joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in late 1945. In 1948, he and bandmate Lester Flatt left Monroe to form their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Over the next 21 years, Flatt & Scruggs set the gold standard for bluegrass music, even outstripping Monroe in influence through their weekly television show, incessant touring and prominence in such pop culture vehicles as The Beverly Hillbillies television series and the 1967 hit movie, Bonnie & Clyde. The exhibit chronicles all these triumphs.

As might be expected, there are lots of historic instruments on display, including a five-string banjo that belonged to Scruggs’ father; a 000-45 Martin guitar that Scruggs played just as fluidly as his banjo; son Randy’s Ibanez electric guitar and son Gary’s 12-string Gibson guitar; and the customized “Earl” banjo that Gibson created in 2004 for Scruggs’ 80th birthday that boasts a hand-painted portrait of the master on the back of the resonator.

The walls are festooned with pictures of Scruggs and famous fellow musicians at various stages of his career and with historic handbills and posters that advertise shows by the Foggy Mountain Boys and the Revue. There are two continuously playing television monitors that show snippets of Scruggs performing on various shows. Among them are two Grand Ole Opry clips from 1961 and 1962; the 1971 Earl Scruggs: His Family & Friends special (in which he explains his departure from bluegrass); a 1962 Beverly Hillbillies appearance; the 1971 CMA Awards Show; a 1977 Austin City Limits; and the 2003 PBS special, The Three Pickers, with Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson.

There are also two sound stations at which visitors can sample recordings by Flatt & Scruggs and the Revue. Because the exhibit space is so small, however, the competing sounds often bleed into each other.

Illustrating Louise Scruggs’ story are a toy typewriter she got for Christmas when she was a young girl and even then aspiring to go into business, a picture of her kissing Earl as he leans out of the door of his bus and a copy of one of her publicity pitches. Related items include a Cashbox ad that features a publicity photo of Flatt & Scruggs onto which she has penciled “hippie” hair and beards to mark the duo’s 1967 cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s pop hit, “Nashville Cats,” and an Elton John-inspired denim jacket and glittery platform shoes she made as Christmas presents for son Steve. (Steve Scruggs died in 1992.)

Every artifact is interesting and instructive but especially noteworthy are a copy of the 1962 single, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which became Flatt & Scruggs’ sole No. 1 hit, along with facsimile script pages from Flatt & Scruggs’ last appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies and Scruggs’ 2001 Grammy for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

The exhibit will remain open through June 2006.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.