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The Earl Scruggs' 100th Birthday Celebration Is An All-Star Banjo Bash in Nashville

by Rich and Laura Lynch

The Earl Scruggs' 100th Birthday Celebration took place at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee on Saturday, January 06, 2024. The concert featured Jerry Douglas as Musical Director along with a long list of well-respected artists such as The Earls of Leicester, The Del McCoury Band, Gena Britt, Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Michael Cleveland, Stuart Duncan, Jimmie Fadden, Bela Fleck, Jeff Hanna, Sierra Hull, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Jim Mills, Justin Moses, Jerry Pentecost, Todd Phillips, Harry Stinson, Bryan Sutton, Tony Trischka, Abigail Washburn, Pete Wernick and more.

The large cast assembles for the Grand Ole Finale in Nashville.

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012) grew up in a musical family. Inspired by local banjo players in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl experimented with tuning and a three-finger picking style. He combined melody with syncopated rhythm patterns that is now referred to as "Scruggs Style" and is a signature sound in bluegrass music. His innovations elevated the banjo to solo status and popularized the instrument in other genres as well. Scruggs was a pioneering performer who mentored others. Over the course of his career he collaborated with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, the Byrds, Doc Watson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Elton John, Billy Joel, Steve Martin, Sam Bush and Dwight Yoakam.

Abigail Washburn got the party started with a pair of foundational numbers in Nashville.

"We're taking back January 6th," Douglas declared at the outset of the celebration adding that most of the artists performing on stage would not be there if it wasn't for the influence of Earl Scruggs. Earl is considered one of the founding fathers of bluegrass and some of the players he either inspired or worked with were at the Ryman to commemorate his birthday. The concert was well organized with a mix of passionate picking paired with commentary about Scruggs, his family and Earl's impact on music through the decades. The backdrop for the first set was the Grand Ole Opry barn which served as a reminder that many believe bluegrass was born on that show when Earl with Bill Monroe played their unique type of country music for the first time in a public forum.

Host Jerry Douglas (right) and The Earls of Leicester provided one of many high points during the long night of music at the Ryman.

The birthday bash started with an Abigail Washburn solo. She was engaging as she sang and strummed about nobody's fault and little birds. Next, the pairing of Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and Jim Mills presented pretty picking with some punch. Then, things moved into high gear as The Del McCoury Band with Sam Bush played a number of feisty foot-tapping numbers including "Blue Moon of Kentucky" flowing into a lively "Little Maggie" and a "Little Cabin Home on the Hill". As the group ran through these numbers different banjo players were stepping in and out of the mix with some configurations showcasing two banjos.

Sam Bush and Del McCoury put their well-honed chemistry on display at the Mother Church.

The popular "Heavy Traffic Ahead" was a hit at the Ryman. It is one of Bill Monroe's iconic songs that tells the story of frustration and longing as the narrator is stuck in a never ending-traffic jam while yearning to be with loved ones. A very relatable tale for touring musicians. With a slight change in direction Tony Trischka took the stage. He talked a few moments about how he had acquired very rare recordings of jam sessions of Earl and John Hartford. Inspired Tony transcribed about 40 songs and recorded two albums worth of this material with guest players that will be released later in 2024. He gave us a teaser with a rendition of "Shout Little Lulie". Another twist of the night was a rotating pairing of banjo and fiddle players with each duo performing concise compelling solos to end the first half of the show.

Bela Fleck makes his banjo sing in Nashville.

But wait, there was still a second set to come. The Opry barn had been switched out to a screen that featured photos of Scruggs. Kicking things off was the band The Earls of Leicester. Formed in 2013 by Jerry Douglas they play the music of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and their group the Foggy Mountain Boys to a contemporary audience. As you might expect their segment at the Ryman was an animated tribute to their namesakes.

Sierra Hull had many bluegrass hearts beating faster in Music City.

Next a combination fronted by Béla Fleck with Sierra Hull called My Bluegrass Heart honored Earl with experimental takes on bluegrass that showcased impressive picking including a beguiling piece called "Boulderdash". This led into a discussion that Earl at one time had taken an interest in jazz and his children got Scruggs into folk music so when an opportunity came to work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Earl was ready. Members from the NGDB took the Ryman stage adding an electric bass and drum to the mix. Other stars of the night including Del joined them as they ran though classics such as "Sittin' on Top of The World" and "Nashville Blues". At this point there were a lot of instruments, yet it worked well culminating in a jam on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" a song that brought most of them into bluegrass. The large grouping did their best to work to the center mic for solos as the fast-paced piece flowed into a quick "Birthday" and the Beverly Hillbillies theme to end Earl's 100th on a very happy note.

Tony Trischka teased his upcoming "EarlJam" shows with a captivating performance in Nashville.

Proceeds from the concert went to the Earl Scruggs Center (ESC). Located in Shelby, North Carolina, The Center explores Mr. Scruggs' groundbreaking career and the community that shaped it while celebrating how Earl crossed musical boundaries while bringing the voice of the banjo to the world. Scruggs was a traditionalist who was open to change and that ethos echoes throughout the ESC with exhibits, programs, and special events. The Earl Scruggs' 100th Birthday Celebration supported ESC with a star-studded tribute show at the Ryman which is often referred to as the Birthplace of Bluegrass.

Sam Bush and Jeff Hanna making sure the circle remains unbroken in memory of Earl Scruggs.

Related Links: For more information on EARL SCRUGGS and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links - Earl Scruggs Center | Interview with Tony Trischka: Nashville Preps a Fabulous Finger Picking Party as Earl Scruggs Turns 100 at the Ryman | Ryman Auditorium


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