EARL SCRUGGS: Bach and Beethoven In One
by Norman Warwick
Author Emma John talks to Americana UK’s Rick Bayles about her experiences in the Appalachian Mountains and gives readers an opportunity to win a copy of her acclaimed book, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. The book, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is about her experiences as she tried to turn herself from a classically trained violinist into a champion bluegrass fiddler. It’s a book that’s made quite an impact on a few of writers in the genre after it was reviewed on line, and when I came across her tribute to Earl Scruggs elsewhere I found myself tripping across the keyboard to a whole new world.
Not only has music-loving author Emma happily given an interview to wonderful on-line site, Americana UK, that I suspect most of my readers will have known about for a lot longer than I have. In fact, I only discovered it by accident on my googled globe-trotting when researching her yesterday for that proposed piece that has now become the Ëarl Scruggs second-half of this article.
I came across an interview opened by an Americana UK journalist asking the successful author what made her decide, as a a successful journalist, to start writing books?
´Actually, it was my first trip to North Carolina that started it. My mentor Stephen Fay, who was my first ever editor and a prestigious journalist, had been telling me it was ‘about time’ I wrote a book, which is a rite of passage for many in our profession. But I had absolutely no inclination because there was generally nothing I was interested enough in to write about. I went to North Carolina on a four-week break from work, having taken my fiddle intending to learn some bluegrass. Within the first week, I was so consumed and fascinated by the music, its history, and its culture, that I just knew I had to write a book.
Her first book, ‘Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket’, had been about Emma´s fascination with England’s Cricket Team of the nineteen nineties, but why, she was asked had she chosen that as the subject of thefirst book?
´Well, as a follow-on from the first question, I had come back from North Carolina and started writing some chapters of a book about bluegrass, and I was loving expressing myself in that long-form narrative. But no agent or publisher would touch it! Music and travel are two of the worst-selling genres in publishing and I just could not get any interest in it. A friend of mine, the children’s author Rob Biddulph, saw I was getting frustrated and told me to put it aside and try something else. I said ‘well what else would I write about?’ And he said ‘cricket! You love cricket!’ I went to bed that night and the entire concept of ‘Following On’ presented itself to me without me having to think about it. It was like magic´.
´So, the one thing that made me listen to bluegrass was how tricky it was. I am not someone who grew up listening to a lot of popular music, and country music of any kind was unknown to me. But around 2010 a couple of my friends started playing banjo and guitar together, inspired by ‘Mumford and Sons’ popularity. They knew I could play the violin and asked me to lay some fiddle lines over what they were doing. I listened to the country songs they were playing and gave it a go. It was pretty enjoyable, and my banjo playing friend started talking about ‘bluegrass’, which I assumed (wrongly) was what we were playing. Hence the North Carolina trip. It was only when I got there and saw my first bluegrass jam in action, how fast it was, how intense, how exhibitionist, that I realised I was way out of my depth, and honestly, I think that’s what got me hooked.
Emma had trained as a classical musician but didn´t find it easy to simply ´adapt´ to bluegrass.
´So difficult. Every piece of my classical background, the fact that I was trained to sight-read, not improvise, the perfectionism inherent in that style of playing, the lack of ‘groove’, made the transition incredibly hard. It made me cry with frustration more than once´.
By her own admission she was very much a London girl when she decided to delve into the culture of the Appalachian Mountains; what were the most difficult aspects of change that she had to deal with, Americana UK wondered and just how much did she feel like a fish out of water?
´I feel like my Appalachian friends would answer this better than me! They’d probably say that I was pretty game and brave about throwing myself into everything, from the jamming to the socialising to the competitive nature of the music. But honestly, my biggest problem was just slowing down to the pace of life and learning to accept everyone at face value. My London inclination is to walk fast, keep my eyes down, not speak to strangers in the street… whereas Southerners just love to interact with strangers, any time anywhere. I was suspicious and on my guard for a long while before I realised that everyone just wanted to help me.
Funnily enough I hadn´t known about myself until that first trip to North Carolina, that I actually enjoyed putting myself into these difficult situations. I hadn´t actually realised that I) enjoy challenging myself on a cultural level. It was the first time I’d travelled solo, and it was revelatory, I met and befriended so many people, I got to know the place so much faster. As a direct result, I started travel writing and now that’s a big part of my job, alongside the sport and the music. And it has opened up the world to me!´
The characters she spoke to for her book all seemed welcoming and helpful and Americana UK asked if she had been expecting that.
´Definitely not. My only cultural touchstones from the American South were Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I was expecting a lot of bars to fall quiet when I walked into them, and a lot of mumbling in accents I couldn’t understand. Actually, even after a couple of years some of the accents were still incomprehensible to me´.
The most important thing is nuance and understanding of the American cultural divide. It is powerfully strong, and dangerous, but it can also melt away on a human level. Playing bluegrass with Trump supporters doesn’t mean you forgive their politics but it does mean you stop seeing them as the enemy. Also, there are plenty of Southerners with more liberal outlooks than me! Many of those who champion Appalachian culture the most are incredibly left-leaning, it’s mining country and has a fierce spirit of solidarity.
I’ve recently spoken to many musicians since the start of the covid outbreak and it’s just devastating for them. Many of them only ever got by hand to mouth in the gigging economy, these are people who might record CDs, but never expect to sell them, and certainly will never make money from streaming (not that any artist really does). Bluegrass was already a niche subgenre with a long history of sending musicians to the poorhouse, so the pandemic will be brutal for them. Social jamming is the heart of the community too, so there are so many musicians who have been feeling isolated and like their greatest joy in life has been taken away. On the upside, they’ve spent a lot of time writing new material, and bluegrass can suffer from being reliant on the standards.
When she spent a couple of months studying bluegrass in North Carolina, Emma learned that there is one tune you never ask a banjo player to play for you. Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Earl Scruggs’s most famous instrumental, is a tune so familiar, so oft-played, that even suggesting it at a jam will mark you out as an idiot know-nothing newcomer. It’s the equivalent, says Emma, of self-identifying as a Trekkie, when the correct term is Trekker.
´If you know one banjo tune – well, if you only know one – it’s probably Duelling Banjos, and you probably heard it in the film Deliverance, or in one of the endless pastiches you can now watch on YouTube (Emma´s favourite is this one from Father Ted).
But if you know two, then the other one, I will bet you now, was written by Earl Scruggs. He was the most influential banjo player there has ever been: he was banjo’s Bach, Beethoven and Bob Dylan all rolled into one. He pioneered the three-finger style of picking responsible for the sound you hear whenever you think of the instrument’s fleet-fingered, jangling sound. Until then, banjo was played in the traditional “clawhammer” style – Scruggs’s use of the third finger allowed him to play the driving arpeggios that we associate with banjo music today.
And it was his virtuosity that brought banjo to the forefront of the newly emergent country music of the 1940s, where it had previously been an instrument of accompaniment (just like the guitar, or, as they say in the mountains, gee-tar). That new music was bluegrass, and Scruggs made banjo its defining sound. As the comedian Steve Martin wrote last year, in a tribute to his bluegrass mentor: “Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix.” Scruggs’s legacy is a sound that Martin could describe in just one word: “Unmistakable”.
I visited Shelby, where Scruggs was born, on my bluegrass travels. It wasn’t the most thrilling place to visit: a typical main strip where you must drive from one parking lot to the next to go shopping; one popular annual event, however, is its festival of liver mush. But it knows its place on the map, and that’s why the first thing you see when you enter its city limits is the sign proclaiming “Birthplace of Earl Scruggs”.
On the ´subsequent death of Earl Scruggs, at the age of 88 in Nashville on March 28th 2012 from natural causes, Emma wrote movingly that:
´Today everyone in that town who owns a banjo will be out picking on their porch paying tribute. And, I suspect, for once, there will be an amnesty on Foggy Mountain Breakdown´.
Look out for our bluegrass reading and listening week special in March 2022 when we will dedicate a week to bluegrass music and commemorate the ten years since the death of Earl Scruggs.
SidetrackswAnd Detours Joined Up Bluegrass will be a week-long festival that will please not only those already familiar with the genre but also those who simply wish to know more about it. We will look at the origins and history of the music and its typical instrumentation, as well as at the records that track its trajectory and at acts currently looking like they will take the music forward. Finally, in memory of Earl Scruggs we will talk to a man inspired by his music to teach himself the banjo, and how he did so.
Sidetracks And Detours Joined Up Bluegrass Festival. March 2022,
The prime source for this article was a piece written by Emma John, for The Guardian
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