Whatever you’ve accomplished in your life, chances are you didn’t make history at age 10. But Earl Scruggs, the late great banjo master and North Carolina native, did.
Scruggs began playing banjo at 4 and six years later figured out the three-finger technique that came to bear his name: “Scruggs style.”
Scruggs himself has been gone since 2012, when he died at age 88. But you hear his influence everywhere in bluegrass. And at the Earl Scruggs Center in his old hometown of Shelby, you can see the instrument he used to make history.
“Yeah, we have what we call ‘the Ah Ha Moment’ – the banjo he figured out his three-finger technique on,” says Scruggs Center curator Annmarie Reiley-Kay. “It was a banjo his father owned. He and his brother were having an argument, he went into his room, and that’s where it came to him.”
That banjo is one of the prized displays at the Scruggs Center, which occupies the old Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Shelby – a 10,000-square-foot facility that does a fine job of telling the story of Scruggs in particular and bluegrass in general, as well as the time and place that produced him. Built for $6.5 million, the museum has a collection of 17,000 artifacts that rotate through the exhibits.
It’s an essential spot for bluegrass aficionados, many of whom are flocking to North Carolina this week for the World of Bluegrass festival in Raleigh.
As much as any other musician of the 20th century, Scruggs took bluegrass to the masses after playing a key role in inventing the style. Just 11 years after figuring out his signature style of banjo, Scruggs was onstage with Bill Monroe at the “Grand Ole Opry” in December 1945 – the show widely acknowledged as the birth of bluegrass.
Three years later, Scruggs and Lester Flatt left Monroe’s band to strike out on their own. They had a massive crossover pop hit with “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme in the early 1960s, and their signature instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” figured prominently in 1967’s Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Scruggs went on to become a major crossover figure with the rock generation, too. He led the country-rock ensemble Earl Scruggs & Friends through the 1970s – and used a banjo strap emblazoned with peace signs during the Vietnam War, a bold move for a musician with a largely conservative listening audience.
Petting Zoo, Pickin’ Party
You can try your hand at picking Scruggs-style at the museum’s second-floor “Petting Zoo,” which has five Deering banjos set out for anyone to use. Even nonmusicians can participate in the “Pickin’ Party” on the “Common Threads” table downstairs. It’s like a table-sized iPad that up to two dozen people can use at once to watch videos, read historical bios and virtually strum along on banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle or bass on a selection of songs (“Little Sadie,” “Salty Dog” or “Oh, Lonesome Me”).
The museum issues headphones you can plug into various displays, such as one showing the differences between the Akonting, a fretless African “pre-banjo” made from a gourd; the open-back banjo common to the old-time era; and the modern resonator banjo heard in most bluegrass today.
A series of radios offers programming from the 1930s to the ’50s, including Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Elvis Presley and Depression-era speeches by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And there are TV sets with the obligatory clips from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” plus Martha White Flour commercials from “The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show,” circa 1961.
For those needing a primer in various playing techniques, there’s also the “Banjo Breakdown,” which demonstrates the picking mechanics of the three major styles of banjo: Clawhammer or “frailing” from old-time; two-finger, which is actually thumb and index finger; and three-finger, which adds the middle finger. Played fast, three-finger “Scruggs style” is what we think of as bluegrass today. But maybe the display’s best feature is a dial to slow it down to see how it’s done.
‘I’ve got it’
Cherryville musician Darin Aldridge, a whiz on multiple instruments and co-leader of the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards-nominated duo Darin & Brooke Aldridge, made two of the three “Banjo Breakdown” displays (which were filmed from inside special clear instruments).
“A lot of people played this two-finger style until Earl came along,” Aldridge says. “He locked himself in his room and when he figured it out, he came out and told his brother Horace, ‘I’ve got it.’
“Earl and Horace, when they’d play together, they’d start out this way” – here Darin and Brooke stand back to back – “and then they’d both walk away, playing while walking through the house. If they were still in time when they came back together, they were keeping good time.”