A New NC Festival Hails The Progressive Side Of Earl Scruggs
On Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, Asheville bluegrass band Fireside Collective lived up to its name, pulling together a conflagration of music-making with a community of guest musicians. “We got a lot of folks up here folks, and this is intimate!” said emcee Tom Pittman of area radio station WNCW from the gazebo stage as hundreds of fans jockeyed for a view. He acknowledged guest stars Alison Brown (banjo) and Jerry Douglas (dobro) and even a whole other band - the guys from Unspoken Tradition - crowding around the microphones. Then the music roared to life with the blues “T For Texas,” the first cut on the 1972 album Live At Kansas State by the Earl Scruggs Revue. The set list from that album unfolded over an exciting hour, with sit-ins by Chatham County Line, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and Balsam Range. The song-by-song run-down paid tribute to a classic album from the newgrass side of roots music and a key chapter from an epic career being remembered and celebrated over two and a half days at the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Polk County, NC.
The banjo icon, raised in Flint Hill, NC near the bigger town of Shelby in Cleveland County, changed the world through a career in three acts. After sparking the original sound of bluegrass with Bill Monroe in the 1940s, Earl Scruggs split off with Lester Flatt to form the most successful and widely heard bluegrass band of the 50s and 60s. Around 1970, after Flatt & Scruggs broke up, he formed the bluegrass-rock fusion Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons. Then Earl became an elder statesman and patriarch of American roots music until his death in 2012. Shelby’s Earl Scruggs Center opened in 2014 as a vessel for this legacy, and this festival is its first major effort beyond its Shelby property to celebrate Scruggs and the music he inspired.
“We started talking about this four years ago,” said Scruggs Center Executive Director Mary Beth Martin on Saturday. “WNCW approached us and said that they would like to be a part of a festival to celebrate music in this region, and they felt like honoring Earl would be the right thing to do.” That led to a formal partnership between WNCW’s owner, Isothermal Community College in Spindale, the Scruggs Center and the festival venue, the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Claire Armbruster, former talent coordinator for North Carolina’s long running Merlefest, came on board as a producer. She told WMOT that the lineup in some ways suggested itself. “We really needed to have Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester here, because of their strong connections to Earl,” she says. “We felt like it would kind of put us on the map, in terms of what people in this region might be interested in. And we needed some star power, because it’s a first year event.”
Scruggs Fest had to be postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid, but all involved persisted and kicked off a sunny weekend with two stages of non-stop music around lunch time on Friday. A crowd of as many as 3,000 came to see a premium lineup of artists inspired by Earl Scruggs, from solo songwriters to grass-rock fusion. As a fan of the western North Carolina roots music ecosystem, this event felt too historic and rich to miss, so I made the 5.5 hour trip. (In full disclosure, I worked as a freelance film producer for the Scruggs Center prior to its opening nearly a decade ago and I remain a champion of its work, though I do not have any professional connection to it now.)
The artistry that Armbruster spoke of was more in keeping with the Scruggs Revue era of Earl’s career than with his first 25 years refining the bluegrass archetype. While the Earls of Leicester are a Flatt & Scruggs homage supergroup, the rest of the band lineup came in varying shades of progressive string band and bluegrass music. The music officially started on the large Flint Hill Stage with the acoustic duo of Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, dazzling on dobro and acoustic guitar respectively. Their accelerating “Black Mountain Rag” conjured up the spirit of North Carolinian Doc Watson, and they blazed with traded solos on their go-to closer, the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of The Devil.” Also that afternoon came Molly Tuttle leading her band Golden Highway largely on material from her exceptional 2022 album Crooked Tree. The nuances of their extended jams on songs like “Castilleja” and John Hartford’s “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie” rang true through the excellent PA system.
Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart tour has been one of 2022’s hottest tickets thanks to its rotating cast of top tier instrumentalists. The latest iteration hit the stage during golden hour on Friday afternoon, including Bryan Sutton on guitar, Billy Contreras on fiddle and Justin Moses on just about every instrument, as needed. For example, Moses joined a thrilling four-fiddle fusillade with Contreras, Sam Bush and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on “Baptist Pumpkin Farm” and a triple banjo section with Fleck and Wes Corbett for the enthralling tune “Strider.” Sam Bush returned at night’s end to close out Saturday on the Flint Hill Stage leading his always trusty and joyful band.
The smaller Foggy Mountain Stage was home to the more traditional artists of the weekend. Laura Boosinger and Josh Goforth offered comforting duos on banjo, guitar and vocals that conjured North Carolin’s Blue Sky Boys and other pre-war pioneers. Later, I was especially taken with the Chatham Rabbits, the central NC married duo of Sarah and Austin McCombie. They’ve just released their third studio album (If You See Me Riding By), and the material made a showcase of contemporary Carolina original folk music. I was pleased to hear my favorite song from it, a flashback to the depression era horseback librarians who helped Appalachians read called “Abigail.” This stage also became the venue for hard bopping late-night sets by the Jon Stickley Trio, Acoustic Syndicate, Town Mountain and Chatham County Line, all regional stars that should be part of any roots music fan’s diet.
Besides the Scruggs Revue album hour, highlights of Saturday included harmony saturated, award-winning bluegrass from Balsam Range and a solo set by Jerry Douglas, the only person on earth who can be mesmerizing with a single solo dobro (though he did use a backing track on a couple of occasions to great effect). Alison Brown led her banjo jazz band that included fiddler Darol Anger in a lovely sundown set. And that set up one of the most meaningful performances of the weekend. In 1972, Earl Scruggs agreed to record with the young country-rock Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which led to the masterpiece Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Now 50 years later, the Dirt Band is still cooking with original and impossibly youthful members Jeff Hanna on lead vocals and Jimmie Fadden on drums and harmonica. Between opening with Scruggs favorite “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and ending 90 minutes later with “The Weight,” they proved they’re an exceptional and nimble live band with no weak spots. Hanna sounded amazing singing and twinning guitars with his son Jaime, while fellow younger member Ross Holmes got a lot of solo fiddle freedom. Leftover Salmon took the baton to jam until 11:30 in its Saturday closing set.
I drove home Sunday morning and missed the festival’s shortest day. It opened with a bluegrass gospel brunch set helmed by Darin & Brooke Aldridge, followed by Becky Buller, Dom Flemons and Chatham County Line on the main stage. It was the one day patrons had to contend with some rain. But all told, the first Scruggs Fest was a meaningful marriage of regional artistry, story and venue. That said, I hope that organizers lean harder into old-time bluegrass in the future, because western NC is full of talent and fans who might not be as fond of the heavy jamgrass diet. Programming Jon Stickly Trio fully against the very similar Sam Bush Band felt like a conflict for example, where an old-time band could have catered to more tastes.
The event was a big win for the Tryon Equestrian Center, which proved an ideal venue given its experience parking, moving, feeding and entertaining a lot of people. Its central plaza offered several full-service restaurants as alternatives to the food trucks. The esthetic is more mountain cabin than luxury Kentucky horse palace, so that was reassuring. And the wild, high-tech surface of the main stage arena, a kind of hybrid of sand and felt, was great to walk around and set up a folding chair. There’s also a funky bar made out of a grain silo off in one corner that hosted picking sessions, offering visions of future hangs.
It is a pity that Earl Scruggs passed away just a couple of years before the Center in his name opened in Shelby. Likewise, son Gary Scruggs, who made it possible for Earl’s name to be the anchor of this festival, died last December. He and the late Randy and Steve Scruggs, not to mention Earl’s pioneering wife Louise, would have, in their quiet ways, been impressed by this tribute to the most influential bluegrass musician in history.