‘Reclaiming Jan. 6’ At The Ryman For Earl Scruggs At 100 Years Old
From the golden era Grand Ole Opry to epic concerts of my Nashville years - Levon Helm’s Ramble and Down From The Mountain come to mind - the Ryman Auditorium is the place for multi-artist country music extravaganzas. We can add to those historic events Saturday night’s celebration of Earl Scruggs on the occasion of his 100th birthday. On the very stage where the banjo legend helped usher the bluegrass sound into existence, this three-hour tribute showcased foundational music played by many of the greatest living practitioners of the genre, including a whole bunch of banjo players.
Some months ago, Jerry Douglas’s manager told the world-famous Dobro player that he’d rented the Ryman on Jan 6, 2024 to mark Earl’s centenary, and handed it off to Douglas to be host and music director. Experienced producer that he is, Douglas matched his top-tier musical network with a passion for Earl Scruggs music that started in his toddler-hood in Ohio. He crafted a night in several acts that tracked Earl’s evolution as a visionary and world-changing American musician. “Not one of the people on stage tonight would be here without Earl Scruggs,” Douglas said as he welcomed the sold-out crowd. He saluted Earl’s late great wife Louise, his powerhouse manager, and their sons Gary, Randy and Steve, who’ve all passed away after important musical careers.
Jerry Douglas also made a sideways acknowledgement of the other, less blessed American anniversary being marked on Saturday when he said (to rousing applause), “this is our chance to take back January 6th and remind the world what this really is - Earl Scruggs’s Birthday.” The event also served as a fund-raiser for the Earl Scruggs Center near Earl’s boyhood home in Shelby, NC, where, in full disclosure, I have done extensive freelance video production work. The Center, a public museum about southern music and Earl’s role in bluegrass, has helped revitalize its region and spawned the Earl Scruggs Music Festival, which takes place on Labor Day Weekend.
The most moving remarks of the night though came at the outset from Earl himself, as his granddaughter Lindsey Scruggs read a date book entry from Christmas of 1973, exactly 50 years ago, in which Earl noted the joy in his life and his prayers for the health of his family and the world. The banjo is rarely a tear-jerking instrument, but Earl was a sentimental spirit. That gave way to Abigail Washburn, solo at center stage, performing some of the Appalachian ballads that Earl heard growing up and that made the old-time foundation of bluegrass music. We knew the picking was going to be good all night, but this thoughtful opening set a tone of gratitude and love that elevated the event to an appropriately reverent level.
The first major segment of the night was built around the Del McCoury Band plus mandolin maestro Sam Bush, as various banjo masters cycled through on songs from the foundational Blue Grass Boys repertoire, including Jim Mills, Alison Brown, and Tony Trischka. The other highlight of the first set was a suite of fiddle-banjo duos featuring the apex predators of their instruments in 2023, including Stuart Duncan with his old friend Alison Brown, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and Gena Britt, Michael Cleveland and Béla Fleck, and the absolute fire of Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman, who’d soon be back on stage after the break.
Tommy Goldsmith, a Nashville and North Carolina-based writer and musician, author of the definitive Earl biography, visited the podium throughout the night with historical notes to make sure we were all on the same page. For the uninitiated, Grand Ole Opry artist Bill Monroe spent a few years shifting personnel around in his band the Blue Grass Boys during the WWII years before auditioning a 21-year-old from Shelby, NC with a unique and dynamic three-finger banjo sound. Earl’s crowd-rousing banjo synched with Monroe’s mandolin chop and swing, and Lester Flatt’s lonesome yet jovial lead singing. The chemistry clicked, and in the winter of 1945-46, the genre was born. Earl Scruggs played with Monroe for a few years before splitting off with Flatt to go on a 20-year run as Flatt & Scruggs and then another long stretch with his sons as the more experimental Earl Scruggs Revue in the 70s.
Anchoring the second set’s first half were the Earls of Leicester, the Flatt & Scruggs tribute band formed a decade ago by Jerry Douglas with Cushman and Warren (son of F&S fiddler Paul Warren), as well as singer/guitarist Shawn Camp and mandolinist Jeff White. It’s quite something to see a band that inhabits not just the songs and the sharp black suits, but the infectious timing and feel that made Flatt & Scruggs the most popular and genre-spreading bluegrass band of the 50s and 60s. We heard “Long Journey Home,” “Let The Church Roll On” (with Cushman playing Earl’s part on fingerstyle guitar), “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and quite a few more before the program moved in a more progressive direction.
Béla Fleck heard Earl’s banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies as a kid in New York and dedicated his life to mastering the instrument, taking him on a journey through bluegrass and newgrass, jazz and classical as a world-touring Grammy magnet artist. His My Bluegrass Heart band of the last two years is among the most virtuosic and intricate of all time, and here they came - Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on Dobro, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Daniel Kimbro on bass. In playing “Strider,” a swirling modal tune I can’t get enough of, Fleck and co. told a story about how Earl’s breakthroughs in technique and timing can form the base of even the most exotic excursions from the sound Bill Monroe was so protective of. When Trischka and Brown joined Fleck for a triple banjo attack on “Boulderdash,” the Ryman throbbed with acoustic energy.
Then came a nod to Earl’s Revue years, as drummers Harry Stinson and Jerry Pentecost took turns with their light touches behind a band built around Nitty Gritty Dirt Band veterans Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson, who kicked off with “You Are My FLower” from their collaboration with Earl on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Sierra Hull and Sam Bush traded solos on “Blue Yodel #9” by Jimmie Rodgers, while Jason Carter and Keith-Hynes lent yearning twin fiddles to a dark “Nashville Blues.” And it was little surprise when all 25 or 30 musicians came to the stage, for a mass banjo event on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
“This music is not easy to play,” said Tommy Goldsmith at one point, making both an understatement and an important point about the devotion to lifelong musicianship that Earl and today’s great bluegrass artists embody. It was sure easy to enjoy.