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Story of Earl Scruggs’ ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ is epic. New book breaks it down.

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were the bluegrass duo, Flatt & Scruggs. The story behind their song, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” is the subject of a new book.
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were the bluegrass duo, Flatt & Scruggs. The story behind their song, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” is the subject of a new book.

When Flatt and Scruggs’ instrumental tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was released in March 1950, Billboard magazine acknowledged it with a one-sentence review — if that’s what it can be called.

“Getoff banjo is spotlighted in a fast-moving country stomper,” the review said.

The new book, “Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic,” is about to rectify that, offering a much more proportionate analysis of the song, the artist behind it and the multiple lives it has lived in music and pop culture history. The well-sourced book, at 184 pages, is written by Thomas Goldsmith, a former reporter and editor at The News & Observer and music journalist at The Tennessean.

He has spent years talking to people behind the classic, tracing its journey from a Cincinnati, Ohio, recording studio in late 1949 to its role in the 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” to putting banjos and bluegrass in the national spotlight.

As the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass descends on Raleigh Sept. 24 to 28, the timing is perfect to talk about one of the genre’s most influential musicians and most enduring songs. The book will be published Oct. 7.

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“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is signature Scruggs style, which Goldsmith describes as “very fast, propulsive, ear-catching,” with Scruggs’ right hand picking the banjo like a “jackhammer.” It’s become one of those songs that’s instantly recognizable, even if the listener doesn’t know its name or the artist behind it.

“Earl’s performance on that tune is so striking and rhythmically correct,” Goldsmith tells The N&O in a phone interview. “Just full of drive and enthusiasm. It catches people up in it.”

Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown
“Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of An American Classic” by Thomas Goldsmith University of Illinois Press

Goldsmith explores the controversy and lore behind the tune, including whether Scruggs was the sole author of the song. (Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe, with whom Scruggs and Lester Flatt played before heading out on their own, also claimed he wrote it.) While the exact date the song was written isn’t known, there’s no mistaking its influence on bluegrass and roots music and that it helped propel the popularity of the banjo.

While Scruggs, a native of Cleveland County in North Carolina, recorded it with Flatt on Dec. 11, 1949, it won two Grammy Awards long after it was released in 1950. In 1969, it won for Best Country Performance, and then again in 2002 for a star-studded arrangement that included Steve Martin on banjo, Vince Gill on guitar and two of Scruggs’ sons. It also is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

Scruggs died in 2012 at the age of 88, having talked about the song with Goldsmith extensively in the years before.

In a phone interview, Goldsmith talked to The N&O about how the book came together, his relationship with Scruggs and how after hearing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” hundreds of times, he still doesn’t tire of it. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

Q: We’re about to enter IBMA’s annual bluegrass week. For those who are just getting to know bluegrass, how do you describe Earl Scruggs’ influence?

A: Earl created a style of banjo playing based on traditional methods in North Carolina that became an essential feature of bluegrass. Some people say it’s the essential. It’s rhythmic. It allowed him to take solos. Before that, Bill Monroe, who is usually called the ‘Father of Bluegrass Music,’ had a beat, had jazzy improvisations.

When Earl was added to the band in 1945, that’s when it really took off. It was a combination of the tempo, the drive. The different types of musical influences: the blues, the old-time fiddle music. It came together strong in this mixture that people really loved.

Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs, a North Carolina native, created the Scruggs Roll, a style of playing banjo that has become a standard for musicians to learn. University of Illinois Press

One thing that induced me to write this book, was listening to tapes of the Grand Ole Opry. Scruggs, who was 21 at the time, people are whooping and yelling — what does it take to create that kind of enthusiasm? His influence beyond that, countless of thousands of banjo players learned a really difficult style.

Q: You write that this book began with the idea of bringing together several stories about the best known songs of bluegrass, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Rocky Top” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” How did it become a book on just “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”?

A: I knew Earl Scruggs for a number of years and had talked to him and interviewed him. I’d been to his house for picking parties. When I thought of doing it for a number of songs, he was the person I thought of. I went to his house and talked to him for an hour. His personality was great and really came through. I thought, I could do it just on his tune.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was in “Bonnie & Clyde,” a turning point of American cinema. ... I love bringing together bluegrass music, the growth of television and movies.

I talked to Earl in 2007. I treasured that interview. It fascinated me how much he remembered.

My thesis is sort of that his banjo playing helped preserve country string music. It easily could have died and become very niche, like Dixieland. Instead, it gained broad popularity. There are bluegrass festivals everywhere all over the country. It all sprang from these few people in Nashville, making up a pretty advanced musical style.

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Flatt & Scruggs recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in 1949. It was released in 1950 by Mercury Records. University of Illinois Press

Q: You write “‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ has a melody that made it a hit.” Can you explain that?

A: It’s recognizable because Earl plays it with the Earl Scruggs banjo method. ... It has a minor chord in it that wasn’t prominent at the time in this kind of music. Its exposure in the movie is a big part of that (popularity). ... It was on the jukebox. It’s huge in Japan.

Q: Is this considered a complicated piece of music to learn?

A: It’s not the hardest of Scruggs’ music, but yes it’s difficult. It’s a matter of learning the Scruggs roll: the thumb, the fingers, they go at some insane rate of speed. Within some of those rolls, he made the melody stand out. He manages to make a tune you can kind of hum, not just a flurry of a notes. It has a theme that follows through.

Q: What did the song do for the banjo?

A: At a certain point in musical history, there are innumerable stories about this song sparking others to play. ... Bela Fleck. Jim Mills is a great banjo player. ... The Scruggs style, in general, sparked people to learn how to play banjo and maybe join a bluegrass band. It was part of the growing popularity of bluegrass and traditional music. It manifested in the (2000) film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

Q: Describe your relationship with Scruggs. How did you meet him?

A: My wife and I were at an event in Johnny Cash’s house. [Goldsmith attended as a journalist. June Carter Cash had a new cookbook.] I had heard stories that he had some bad health and was described as reclusive and was not playing out a lot. But there was Earl and his wife, Louise, sitting by themselves. Are people afraid to talk to him?

I went over to them and introduced myself. “I’m from North Carolina.” He was perfectly friendly then. I interviewed him a number of times. We got on the list of people invited to their famous Christmas parties. Earl had a birthday party in January. They were picking parties. ... I got to play with Earl then. They were just folks to me.

Earl Scruggs Thomas Goldsmith
Earl Scruggs with journalist and author Thomas Goldsmith in an undated photo. Goldsmith interviewed Scruggs numerous times, eventually writing a book about Scruggs’ ”Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” University of Illinois Press

Q: Describe the process of researching the book.

A: I was able to talk to another musician, Curly Seckler, who was on the session. Neither he nor Earl remembered a lot about it. Mac Wiseman, who had been in the band before that, had great stories about Earl. I tried to get as many people as close to the source as I could.

There were a lot of rabbit holes to go down. I did a lot of digital reporting. I looked at tons and tons of newspaper articles. There were a lot of stories about this music that were incorrect or just not detailed enough. I went to Cincinnati and to the room where it was recorded. I went to Nashville and talked to people there. I went to Shelby a number of time and went to the house where Earl lived.

Q: What’s the biggest revelation from your research, something you were surprised to learn, or that you’re excited to share?

A: I talked to [”Bonnie & Clyde” co-writer] Robert Benton in New York City. From the very day they started writing [the film], they had “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on and played it the whole time. It’s inspiration — the voice of the movie.

A few other stories [about the use of the song in the film] have degrees of truth. Benton said, “Mine is the Bible.” I read a number of books with sections on “Bonnie & Clyde.” That never came up. ... In the making of the movie in post-production, Benton said they had another score which was perfectly good, but they kept turning to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Q: There is some debate about the use of it in “Bonnie & Clyde” and whether banjo music should accompany the violence. What do you think of its role in the film?

A: I thought it was great at the time. It expresses the motion and intensity of the car chases. ... It seemed to me “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” propelled the authenticity of the music into other realms.

Q: What did Earl Scruggs say about the life of the song?

A: Mainly he said it’s great to have a song like that to get a reaction, and that people remembered it. Any big hit record can be like that. They played it at the Miami Pop Festival of 1968. People wanted to hear it.

Q: Is there anything else you want people to know about the song or Earl Scruggs?

A: Earl was a massively talented, original performer of whom you might be able to count them on two hands, maybe one hand. [Jazz musician] Charlie Parker. Dylan. Sinatra. He really transformed American music in a way very few people have done.

Details

“Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic” will be released Oct. 7. Thomas Goldsmith will have book events across the state. Here are local events:

Sept. 23: 7 p.m., Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh.

Sept. 25-28: International Bluegrass Music Association trade fair, Raleigh. Signing at University of Illinois booth, 2 p.m. Sept. 27.

Sept. 27: 6:30 p.m. music and book signing, Irregardless Cafe, 901 W. Morgan St., Raleigh.

Sept. 28: 7 p.m. Performance with Leroy Savage Band, Backstage Pub, Apex.

IBMA World of Bluegrass

Events will be Sept. 24-28 in downtown Raleigh, the Raleigh Convention Center, Red Hat Amphitheater, the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts and other venues around downtown. Includes the IBMA Business Conference; the Bluegrass Ramble music showcase; the International Bluegrass Music Awards; and Wide Open Bluegrass. Many events are free, though some are ticketed or require convention registration. worldofbluegrass.org

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Features Editor Jessica Banov oversees coverage of entertainment, the arts, food and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.
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