march 2012

rowan‘Earl Really Lived a Life, Y’know?’

Peter Rowan Remembers Earl Scruggs

Now a bonafide bluegrass legend himself, Peter Rowan became a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in March 1965, when he was 23 years old. After leaving Monroe in the spring of ’67, he formed Earth Opera with David Grisman and opened for the Doors; in 1969, he joined Seatrain, which featured former Kweskin Jug Band fiddler Richard Greene and had a Top 50 single in “13 Questions.” Four years later, in 1973, he teamed with Greene, Grisman, former Blue Grass Boys banjo player Bill Keith and guitarist Clarence White (formerly of the Kentucky Colonels and then fresh from a three-album tenure with the Byrds) in Muleskinner, progressive bluegrass pioneers that released one studio and one live album. Coincident with Muleskinner’s founding, Rowan, Grisman and Greene collaborated with Jerry Garcia and John Kahn in the roots-oriented Old and In the Way, which lasted but one year. Rowan then joined with his brothers in a rock band for three years, and since then has pursued bluegrass full time, as a solo artist and as a guest on other artists’ projects. His memories of Earl Scruggs are inextricably linked to his reflections of Bill Monroe, even though Scruggs had lone since taken his leave of Monroe by the time Rowan was hired as the Boys’ guitarist. But even in telling tales of Monroe, Rowan always circles back to the remarkable musicianship of Earl Scruggs.

Earl’s sense of timing was something that always held the bar pretty high for everybody, in any kind of music. His timing was impeccable, beautiful. It was always a pleasure to hear him lay into the rhythm when he played. When I say “timing,” I mean the space between the notes. That was something. But there were so many greats—Don Reno; unknowns like Porter Church; people who were famous in the Washington, D.C. area like Walter Hensley, people like that. But they all looked up to Earl as the number one guy; nobody would ever doubt that, because he showed the way.

Did you ever talk to Bill Monroe about Earl Scruggs?

Well, there was a legendary rift, a kind of rivalry, because Bill never fired those guys. They left to form their own band, Flatt and Scruggs. And he would ask them after if they would fill in at times if he didn’t have people, and they turned him down. That’s what the thing was about. Then of course it just stuck in his craw that the Grand Ole Opry would hire his old band—a classic situation.

From the Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions project, Earl Scruggs teams up with the Chieftains on ‘Sally Goodin’’ (2002)

Every time we were at the Opry, more often than not Flatt and Scruggs were in town. I remember backstage it was just walk by each other and don’t say anything. People mostly thought Bill was kind of jealous of their success, but that wasn’t true. He said in an interview after Lester passed away—this was much later, now, somewhere while Bill was still out there, maybe late 80s—he thought it was a shame that Earl wasn’t out there playing the way Bill had presented him. You know, Earl was playing with his family. Bill often thought that the way he presented people was in their best light, and he thought that the way he presented Earl was in his best light, in terms of the subtlety and beauty of what Earl did as a member of the Blue Grass Boys. Of course that was some of the best he ever did, and he did great with Flatt and Scruggs too, but you could say in the Flatt and Scruggs period, after their initial bluegrass thing, later on it became highly produced and it was almost a kind of classical or mannered period for them. It was highly produced. I always preferred the part of bluegrass where you could hear the interweaving, where somebody would trail off on a note and somebody would come in on that note or play off of that note.

But Earl never let up—what he did always became clearer and clearer. I think Bill Monroe felt that he had heard the potential in Earl and wanted to bring him out as that person; well, the way he put it was, “Earl needs to go out and play what the people really want to hear from him.” I think that’s fair to say, because when you get drums and pianos and everything else the banjo doesn’t quite have that floating quality that bluegrass per se has—it’s all strings, so the banjo can really do its dance in that context. That was a fortunate piece of history that it all came together, and for sure Earl had his uniqueness.

The other night the Steep Canyon Rangers were in New York playing Joe’s Pub, and you know they’re from North Carolina too. This was the day after Earl’s passing, actually. It was great to be waiting out in the hall outside the dressing room before they let the audience into the venue. We all stood out there being quite entertained by the banjo player Graham Sharp warming up on the other side of the doors with a great version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” solo banjo. He didn’t play it onstage, but the Rangers did offer a tribute to Earl in which Graham mentioned not only the North Carolina roots the Rangers share with Earl but also Snuffy Jenkins, the man who is most credited with developing the three-finger style that Earl took to a whole other level. I think Snuffy is getting mentioned more in the wake of Earl’s death than he has in several decades.

I’ve never heard Snuffy Jenkins’ music but the North Carolina Ramblers, those early bands, the Tar Heels, have three-finger style banjo, but they didn’t have the emphasis on the roll. I think, to be fair, without Bill Monroe there would have been no place for the banjo to find a home. Especially if you played it before Earl—Earl was aware of Bill Monroe, he was aware that Stringbean had already been in the band, so here was a young kid who brought a new fire to the instrument. The question does remain, did Bill sort of help him turn the beat around to become a driving kind of banjo instead of a play-along kind of banjo, or did Earl come to the band with that idea fully developed? That’s something we’ll never know. It could have been a little bit of both, or it could have just been that Earl figured out the beat could begin on the finger part of the roll rather than the thumb part of the roll. There’s been a lot of banjo players playing a roll, but what a perfect place for Earl to be—if he’d been with Roy Acuff it wouldn’t have been the same.

From the documentary Earl Scruggs: The Bluegrass Legend, Doc and Merle Watson join Earl and his sons Gary and Steve for some fine picking at Doc’s home.

But Monroe, he was progressive musically, and bluegrass, wonderfully, is still a progressive music. There’s still stuff to do in it, and a lot of it is going to be forgotten just because people will only remember certain things. Like when we rehearsed with Bill Monroe, he would just sit and listen to us, and read his mail and toss his royalty checks into his hat. And at the very end he would pick up his mandolin and say, “Boys, I want you to learn this.” And he’s play an old Scottish dance step called the Schottische. [Ed. Note: the schottische dance originated in Bohemia in the Victorian era and spread to many other European countries, as well as to Spain and Portugal and to Brazil, in South America, as well. In Scotland it evolved into the Highland Schottische, a fusion of the standard schottische and the reel.] It was more important that we learned how the rhythm turned on the kind of jig-like triplets that were in that song, because that’s part of the technique of bluegrass, but nobody plays it anymore; nobody’s interested in playing a schottische. A lot of the mandolin players have discovered a lot of these tricks that Bill did early on but never did later on, although they were always in his music. It had just become part of the subtlety of it.

I’ve seen Bill work with banjo players. I think the only guy who came into the band fully formed in the sense that Earl did was Bill Keith. Bill had figured it out to degree to where Bill Monroe felt he didn’t have to steer him in the right direction. But I’ve heard him steer other players in the right direction. When I was in the band there were at least two banjo players—Don Lineberger, a left-handed banjo player, and he played Scruggs style but he also had some Bill Keith melodic style in there. He listened very intently to how Bill Monroe would describe a tune by singing it. That’s how he taught—he’d sing what he wanted somebody to play. He’d do it over and over again.

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, with Peter Rowan (guitar) and on banjo Don Lineberger, whom Peter Rowan remembers ‘played Scruggs style but he also had some Bill Keith melodic style in there.’

Now we were Blue Grass Boys and in the middle of my time there there was a turnover in the band. We got Richard Greene on fiddle in there. I was looking for somebody who had the fire of Scotty Stoneman, and word came down that Richard Greene had really gotten after it; and then Lamar Greer, who was a great banjo player from the DC area. Of course Earl was the lead man in all of banjo. Flatt and Scruggs also had a Saturday morning TV show, and Richard Greene and I went down a couple of times and hung out at the TV show. Being 22-, 23-years-old, we hung out with Flatt and Scruggs not knowing we were breaking any taboos, but knowing it was the job of our generation to not let those rivalries be so momentous. So we’d hang out there. Earl, right away, said, “It’s a pleasure to have you boys here.” He knew it was no accident that we ended up there. We’re coming out of respect and love of the music, and to see those guys work was incredible.

Of course I grew up in Boston and my first bluegrass experience was the Lilly Brothers from West Virginia, and Everett Lilly had already worked with Flatt and Scruggs. They didn’t have that metaphysical interest in the music in the same way that we did, because we were the younger generation. If you asked Everett how it was working with Flatt and Scruggs, we’re thinking we’re holding them in such high esteem that it was funny to hear somebody say, “Oh, they were good boys to travel with.” It was obvious, you know, that Earl played the banjo. And the greatness was obvious. But we being hipsters of the time were killing ourselves over the musical things that helped validate bluegrass to be as important in our mind as jazz. Something as sophisticated as that. People like Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler were able to articulate why it was important music on a musical level, not just yee-haw it’s bluegrass, you know.

When Earl went out with his sons as the Earl Scruggs Revue, you were moving to the cutting edge of the new progressive bluegrass. Did you like what he was doing with the boys in the Revue?

Here’s the thing. We did a show with them—I was in Seatrain and we were in Kentucky, somewhere in a big building, and it was so much sound that the subtlety of the banjo, to my ear, was lost. Earl was always great. But the clarity and the amount of spaciousness that bluegrass at its best can open up, it was a little lost, I thought. That’s not fair to say in terms of remembering Earl, but musically I thought it was a lot of stuff going on. Earl was giving what he had to give to his kids. But there was one son who passed on, Steve [Ed. Note: on September 23, 1992, Earl Scruggs’ youngest son Steve, then age 34, killed his wife, Elizabeth, and then turned the gun on himself.] Now Steve played piano, and when he followed Earl on a piano solo, it was like the light was shining on a direction that could have been about the melodic expansion—based on Earl’s banjo playing and Steve’s piano, there was a lot of really, really good stuff there. He was a bright spark of light.

You know, Earl always treated me like he knew me. They were always friendly guys. If I felt like I really didn’t know Earl and came up and said, “Hi, Earl, it’s Peter Rowan,” Earl would say, “Pete, I know who you are.” He was really nice and humble that way.

Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, backstage at the Opry; Scruggs and sons Gary and Randy perform onstage in this scene from the documentary Earl Scruggs: The Bluegrass Legend.

We had a Blue Grass Boys reunion at Merlefest about five years ago, and were doing “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” where the vocal structure is a blues, so it’s a little bit based on lines being held, whereas the banjo solo section is in a more organized time. Anyway, it’s different from the vocal in terms of the length of its line. And after we’d gone through it there was a little bit of wondering in my mind where the solo was going to go officially. I asked Earl, “Shall we do the length of the vocal for the banjo solo? What structure would you like?” And he said (drawls slowly), “Well, follow the leader is all I know.” And that was like, “We are in the same school.” Earl was just a delight—that’s the only time I ever really got to play with him.

What were your first thoughts upon hearing of Earl’s passing?

“Follow the leader is all I know.” That was my thought. Because that said it all.

The thing is, of course, death is death and you feel a loss but Earl really lived a life, you know. I saw him slowing down over the years, and you always wish you’d reached out more. But you just can’t keep up with the entire planet. I’ve seen enough loss to be accepting of it, but I don’t think Earl left any stone unturned in his love and in his life. He seemed to me to be very, very shy, but I don’t know if that was the result of those accidents he had—plane accident, he got injured a few times [Ed. Note: In 1957 Earl Scruggs began flying his own plane to some of his concerts; he was piloting the plane in 1975 when it crashed. Surgery was performed on his wrist and ankle and he required several months of recuperation.] Like Monroe; like Hemingway—people that are out there blazing a trail always bang into things.

Really, when I heard that he had died, my thought was Earl will never die. He’s one of the immortals.

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