Music Interviews
10:54 am
Sat March 31, 2012

The Importance Of Earl Scruggs, As Told By His Followers

Originally published on Fri May 11, 2012 7:33 pm

In 2007, NPR's John Ydstie sat down with three extraordinary banjo players: Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck and Steve Martin (you might also know him from that comedy thing he does). He asked Martin, "What got you interested in the banjo?"

"Well, I think the story is so similar for everybody," Martin replied. "We heard a record once — I was 17 — and I heard Earl Scruggs play. I just went, 'Oh!' So I bought a banjo for 200 bucks. I still have it.'

Scruggs' influence on future generations of players is unmistakable. The bluegrass pioneer died this past week at the age of 88. When Ydstie spoke with Trischka, Fleck and Martin, there was a lot of talk about Scruggs and his legacy — and the three performed "Shuckin' the Corn," a tune Scruggs made famous in 1954. Here, Weekend Edition Sunday revisits their conversation.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this program in 2007, guest host John Ydstie sat down with three extraordinary banjo players: Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, and Steve Martin; you might also know him from that comedy thing he does. He asked Steve Martin...

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: What got you interested in the banjo?

STEVE MARTIN: Well, I think the story is so similar for everybody. We heard a record once, and I was 17 and I heard Earl Scruggs play. I just went, Oh. So I bought a banjo for 200 bucks. I still have it.

MARTIN: Earl Scruggs' influence on a whole new generation - or generations, we should probably say, is unmistakable. Scruggs died this past week at the age of 88. When John Ydstie spoke with Trischka, Fleck and Martin, there was a lot of talk about Scruggs and his legacy, and we'd like to play a bit more of that conversation for you today.

Tony Trischka was extremely honored to have Scruggs play a duet on his CD "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular." They played the Scruggs tune "Farewell Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FAREWELL BLUES")

YDSTIE: What's it been like to work with him? And what was it like to work with him on this song in particular?

TONY TRISCHKA: It was a thrill. I mean, it's one of my favorite tunes that he recorded back in 1950 or '51 for Mercury Records with his partner, Lester Flatt, and just it's one of those classic tunes. And. you know, I've known Earl a little bit over the years, and it's only been the last few years that I've spent a little more time with him.

And you know, it's kind of one of those things - well, you know, it's Earl. But then it's - it's Earl Scruggs. I'm recording with Earl Scruggs. You know, and I wouldn't exist without this guy. I mean, my whole life would've been, you know, I would've been a shoe salesman or something instead.

YDSTIE: And you say that because Earl Scruggs basically invented bluegrass banjo.

TRISCHKA: Yeah, I mean, he defined it. There were people playing in the three-finger style, which is what we're doing here.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, but they didn't have the impact of Earl. So there was - it wasn't just that he was playing with three fingers. It was some - this magic quality to his musicality.

MARTIN: He gave it drive. You know, he tells a story that all the banjo players at the time were also comedians. So they did a comedy act and played the banjo. And when he first got up to play, I think...

TRISCHKA: Somebody said he could play pretty good, but he's not a bit funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YDSTIE: Very funny.

TRISCHKA: But he is funny.

MARTIN: Yeah, he is funny.

TRISCHKA: Really funny, he's got a very dry sense of humor.

FLECK: He lives about a mile from my house. And it's really cool. I've been able to go spend some time with him.

MARTIN: Do you ever have to go over and say, hey, can you tone it down a little bit?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He also has the perfect name, Earl Scruggs. I mean you wouldn't want to be playing the Fountainbleu style.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YDSTIE: Tony, I saw somewhere where you were just talking Earl Scruggs' style, as sort of an arpeggiated kind of style.

TRISCHKA: Well, when you're talking about arpeggios - put on my finger picks here - you're talking about playing chords basically, or the notes of a chord individually. So you have your banjo in an open G-tuning...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

TRISCHKA: Now, if you just play the individual notes...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO NOTES)

TRISCHKA: That's an arpeggiation of the chord. That's a G-chord...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO NOTES)

TRISCHKA: Then you can do it on the C-chord and the D-7th.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO NOTES)

FLECK: And if you play it really fast it sounds like Earl Scruggs.

TRISCHKA: Exactly.

FLECK: Yeah.

TRISCHKA: And so, what Earl would do is he would play the syllables of the words. He phrases it the way you would actually sing it. He tries to sing through the banjo almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BANJO NOTE)

TRISCHKA: He plays a version of "Country Roads," which is...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "COUNTRY ROADS")

TRISCHKA: And if you listen, you can really - if you sing along to that you can actually - those are the words. He's actually phrasing the words.

FLECK: The melody is embedded into the banjo 16th notes.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

TRISCHKA: Yeah.

FLECK: And he also brings out melody. He makes the melody louder than the other notes, which he's really great at.

TRISCHKA: Yeah, with slides.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

MARTIN: Banjo stars Bela Fleck, Steve Martin and Tony Trischka, talking about Earl Scruggs, who died this past week. They spoke with NPR's John Ydstie on this program in 2007. And they finished up the conversation with a performance.

YDSTIE: So what's the tune going to be?

TRISCHKA: It's called "Shuckin' the Corn," a tune that Earl Scruggs made famous back in 1954, thereabouts.

FLECK: We want to send this out to Earl. We love you, wish you were here.

YDSTIE: All right, hit it, boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SHUCKIN' THE CORN")

MARTIN: You can hear Trischka, Fleck and Martin, as well as all kinds of coverage on Earl Scruggs on our website, nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.