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  • Like a lot of kids who grew up in rural Texas during the late 30’s and 40’s, my father and his family would gather around the radio every Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on clear channel 650, WSM radio, broadcasting from Nashville, Tennessee. Since he is now 86 years old, he has shared hundreds of stories about the pickers and singers who made their way to the Ryman stage for their Saturday night shows.

    This live country music show was listened to by working class families across the country. Many of these musicians who became famous from this show – Uncle Dave Macon, the Delmore Brothers, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and others – had devoted fans (including my dad) who would later show up for their gigs at school gymnasiums, VFW halls and on flatbed trucks that were set up on the town square of small communities.

    Most people credit Monroe with discovering and popularizing bluegrass music, which featured non-amplified guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos and the type of vocal harmonies that can only be described as spiritual. However, this genre had been around a long time before he ever tuned up his mandolin. It came from the Appalachian Mountains and was spawned by the folk songs of the Scotch-Irish settlers who carved out a home from this hardscrabble environment.

    It was in this environment that the late banjo virtuoso, Earl Scruggs, evolved. As a member of Monroe’s band, he changed the way his instrument was played. The old timers like Stringbean, Grandpa Jones and Uncle Dave used a “claw hammer” style of plucking the strings, but when Earl Scruggs came along with his five-string banjo he INVENTED the smooth, three-finger roll of picking that had never been used before. This dramatically changed the tempo of a bluegrass song. Later, when he joined forces with Lester Flatt they changed the way the world thought about this uniquely American music.

    After his death on March 28, 2012, some of the people who were influenced by Scruggs were asked to give their thoughts on what made him great. They talked a little about his groundbreaking style of picking and some talked about his bringing in the younger demographic to a decidedly rustic genre of music. However, everyone made it a point of saying what a sweet man Earl Scruggs was. I can personally attest to this.

    When my brother, sister and I were elementary school aged, my dad took his passion for hillbilly music and the Grand Ole Opry, packed us all up and headed from Texas to Nashville to see the show. I’ll never forget being at the pre-Opry Friday night show that was also held at the Ryman auditorium and having WSM announcer Ralph Emory escort Earl Scruggs into the audience to meet all of us hayseeds who had come to the show.

    They walked by where my family was sitting and Mr. Scruggs shook my hand and asked if I knew how to play the banjo. At the age of about 7 or 8, I sincerely said, “No. Not yet anyway.” Then he played a little riff and the entire crowd went nuts. Needless to say, I didn’t really know who Earl Scruggs was until the next night when Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs headlined the “Martha White Flour” show on the Grand Ole Opry.

    When the band started to crank up “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and Earl Scruggs flawlessly coaxed that amazing sound from his banjo, I was mesmerized. I have been ever since.

    Photographer and copyright of photo unknown. Distributed to fans during the 1950's as a momento of the Flatt & Scruggs show.
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