The news of Earl Scruggs’ passing yesterday broke my little folk music lovin’ heart. As a North Carolinian, former Appalachia resident, and music fan, bluegrass is really important to me and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on it.
The first time I really felt and knew and understood bluegrass was by the side of a river in some small town in the mountains I don’t remember the name of. I was maybe 14, and I’d driven up to the mountains with some friends for a camping and whitewater rafting trip. My hair was tightly French braided on my head so three days of not showering wouldn’t make me appear quite as gross as I actually was. When we arrived at camp, it was raining a good North Carolina summer rain and we waited in the car a moment for it to pass. When the sun came out, the air was cool and crisp and somehow still hot and humid – in the way only the North Carolina mountains can be. We set up camp and meandered into the town, where there were a few gear outfitters and an art gallery, and musicians toting cases to a field where an impromptu bluegrass jam session was taking place. So we did what any rag-tag group of teenagers on a road trip would do, we followed them and danced wildly, barefoot, feeling only the dewy grass and not the mosquito bites. Ten minutes into the trip, and I took out my braid because greasy hair be damned, I was going to dance and I was going to look wild and free while I did it. I’d never really heard bluegrass before then. Not like this, anyway. Not like it was supposed to be heard.
I fell in love that day. With the banjo, fiddle, autoharp, with the mountains, the dosi-dos, the singing repeated lines of songs I’d never heard. Appalachia has a culture all of it’s own, a magnificent, wonderful, colorful culture of language and music that I hold so dear.
There’s the time an old roommate and I drove the Crooked Road Music Trail listening to the accompanying CD as we stopped at a fiddler’s convention and bluegrass museum, or the time, after moving back to Raleigh, I listened to bluegrass records and cried missing my beloved mountains. There’s even the time I threw up dangerously close to Doc Watson in the ER waiting room after a bout of kidney stones. But mostly, there’s that first encounter, silly, uninhibited, and love at first listen.
And that’s what bluegrass is. We can talk all day about how much Earl Scruggs revolutionized banjo playing. Because he did, and that’s important. The sound you hear today in not only bluegrass, but indie folk, and any band that uses a banjo (with notable exceptions like Abigail Washburn), is because Earl Scruggs decided three fingers were better than two when he was ten years old. But what’s more important is to remember the kind of feeling bluegrass gives us. Earl Scruggs didn’t do that - hundreds of years of front porches, community, and struggles did that. We can remember him each time we hear his influence in modern pop song where the banjo can be heard just faintly in the background, or we can honor him by gathering around instruments and singing in unison and dancing barefoot in the grass like every day is a North Carolina summer.
Rest in Peace, Earl Scruggs. You’re off to the great big Foggy Mountain in the sky.