Steep Canyon Rangers talk “North Carolina Songbook” with The Bluegrass Situation

Come Hear North Carolina
December 7, 2019


Last spring, the Steep Canyon Rangers joined in celebrating 2019 as the Year of Music in North Carolina by putting together a special Sunday afternoon set at MerleFest that highlighted our state’s musical offerings through their bluegrass lens. For those that missed out on the historic performance – fear not! The Asheville based band released the show as a live album, titled North Carolina Songbook last week for Record Store Day. Check out their conversation with The Bluegrass Situation here and pick up a copy of North Carolina Songbook at your local record store! 

Catch a UNC-TV story about the set that features footage captured by the Come Hear NC production team here. 


An Outsized Musical Gift Propelled Earl Scruggs from an NC Farm to the Peak of Fame

September 27, 2019

By Thomas Goldsmith


Earl Scruggs and his powerful, groundbreaking banjo style transformed the world of country string band music, helped create bluegrass, and took this style beyond the South into the central strands of American culture.

The propulsive three-finger picking that North Carolina native Scruggs developed as a child became a central element of bluegrass music in the 1940s and for decades has represented the sound of North Carolina’s traditional music via radio, recordings, television and film. His signature tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown not only grew universally known as the theme of the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, but also helped create a spark of authenticity that brought countless pickers to his instrument.

Scruggs was born Jan. 6, 1924, in tiny Flint Hill, outside of Shelby in the North Carolina Piedmont, a musical breeding ground as well as an agricultural center focused on cotton. Music filled the farmhouse that was home to the family—Earl, two brothers, two sisters and parents George and Lula Scruggs, all of whom played at least one instrument. 

Young Earl’s life took a sorrowful turn at age four, when George Elam Scruggs died, and the family fell on hard times. Like all the family members at home, young Earl grew up working the farm from first light to dark to tend the crops that paid their way. The nation was going through the Great Depression.

“It was pretty rough all the way up through the forties,” Scruggs said in 2007. “But everybody was born so poor they didn’t know any better and each year it’d get a little bit better.”

By age six, Earl had started learning guitar and banjo as time allowed from his chores and schoolwork. The five-string banjo, a descendant of the African plucked instrument called the akonting, had been played by black and white musicians since the eighteenth century in America, but by the late 1920s no longer held pride of place in popular music. 

"I was in there by myself one day playing this tune called ‘Reuben’ that I still play, on D [tuning],” he said. “And all of a sudden, I had this roll that I still do, going. And Horace, my brother, said I came out of the room, and said, 'I got it! I got it!’”

- Earl Scruggs in an interview with Thomas Goldsmith, Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, 2019. 

Earl Scruggs changed all that beginning with his discovery at age 10 or 11 that he could advance the style of banjo picking heard around the region by using his third right-hand finger in a “roll,’ or smoothly organized succession of notes. Scruggs often portrayed his own arrival at the style as taking place in a sort of trance state. 

"You've sat in a daydream like, and be picking and not even noticing what you're doing?" Scruggs asked me in a 1998 interview. "That was the mode I was in." He had been sitting, he said, in the family’s Flint Hill front room, or parlor, picking the banjo.

"I was in there by myself one day playing this tune called ‘Reuben’ that I still play, on D [tuning],” he said. “And all of a sudden, I had this roll that I still do, going. And Horace, my brother, said I came out of the room, and said, 'I got it! I got it!’”

During his school years, Scruggs played with local acts, then with the regionally popular Morris Brothers, and by 1945 with Lost John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians, based in Knoxville. The breakup of that band led to an exact moment that could be called the birth of bluegrass: 10 p.m., Dec. 8, 1945, when Scruggs first wielded his banjo on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys - "Blue Moon of Kentucky" -- Earl Scruggs played banjo on this 1946 recording.

At age 21, Scruggs had accepted a job offer days earlier with powerful mandolinist and singer Monroe, a show business veteran at 34 and already a prime attraction on Opry live performances and radio shows. Also featuring vocalist Lester Flatt, the Blue Grass Boys that assembled by 1946 are called the “classic band” of bluegrass, even though the name for the style had yet to be adopted. This band set a lasting standard with constant touring and by recording such compelling tunes such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Will You Be Loving Another Man.”

However, by early 1948, Scruggs and picking partner Flatt left Monroe and started their own act, emphasizing their musical differences from Monroe. Scruggs was to stand at Flatt’s side on stage for 21 years as they made notable strides to commercial success. Also, in 1948, Scruggs married the former Louise Certain, the love of his life and his career-long business adviser.

Recording first for Mercury Records, then for Columbia, Flatt and Scruggs issued a string of bluegrass staples including the vocal numbers “Dim Lights Thick Smoke,” “Cabin in Caroline,” “Before I Met You” and “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and instrumentals “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Shuckin’ the Corn,” and “Earl’s Breakdown.” 

The first generations of bluegrass banjo pickers, such as Ralph Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Alan Shelton, and J.D. Crowe, developed variations of Scruggs’ difficult, complex style. During the late 1950s and early ‘60s, city dwellers from both coasts labored, then triumphed at playing his tunes. The banjo as an instrument rocketed in popularity, domestically and abroad, powered by Scruggs and Pete Seeger and other folk revivalists.

"I was driving down the road with the radio on,” banjo notable Doug Dillard recalled his first-time hearing Scruggs. “All of a sudden I heard this incredible banjo music. I got so excited that I drove off the road and down into a ditch. I had to be towed out."

Major milestones for the act included Grand Ole Opry membership in 1955, a string of syndicated television appearances, and lucrative engagements on the college and folk-music circuit. Then came two career-changing 1960s media gigs: The placement of their theme music and personal appearances on the popular “Beverly Hillbillies” sitcom, and the choice of the rocket-tempoed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as the identifying music of Bonnie and Clyde. They made a pioneering, wildly received trip to Japan in 1968.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs - "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" -- This 1949 recording was famously used in the film Bonnie and Clyde

As the ‘60s rolled, Flatt and Scruggs moved away from a hard-core country-bluegrass style, recording contemporary tunes that often downplayed the banjo. And the bandleaders headed in different musical and societal directions. Scruggs gravitated to the new folk-rock favored by sons Gary and Randy. Flatt preferred a more traditional sound. By 1969, personal and professional quarrels led to lawsuits from both sides, with allegations and a breakup agreement settled at year’s end. 

Scruggs got right back to work, with sons Randy, on guitar, and Gary, on bass, (and later Steve on keyboards) in a new band and a more adventurous direction that included electric instruments and drums. The Earl Scruggs Revue became a recording and concert success, though some fans complained Scruggs had strayed too far from his roots. 

With the Revue until roughly the start of the 80s, then with bands of family and friends in later years, Scruggs provided a mix of bluegrass and country rock in all sorts of venues. He was so widely admired that his records featured performers including Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Sting, Leon Russell, and Vince Gill. Comedian-movie star Steve Martin emerged as a major Scruggs booster and picking partner.

Through the several remaining decades Scruggs earned honors that defy this space to list, but that include two separate Grammys for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” induction with Flatt into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, and the North Carolina Heritage Award.

"I was driving down the road with the radio on,” banjo notable Doug Dillard recalled his first-time hearing Scruggs. “All of a sudden I heard this incredible banjo music. I got so excited that I drove off the road and down into a ditch. I had to be towed out." 

- Randy Lewis, “Doug Dillard dies at 75; banjo player, member of the Dillards band,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2012

Beyond these notable shows of support, Scruggs was rewarded by the respect and attention of millions of fans of bluegrass, as well as the admiration of some of the most highly regarded musicians of his era: from Bob Dylan to Bela Fleck, from Emmylou Harris to Elton John. 

Through it all — Scruggs died in 2012 at 88 — he hewed to an image centered on love of family and music, gentle good humor and disposition, and a grounding in life circumstances that were often tough, but always surmountable. 

In the end, the soft-spoken farm boy Earl Eugene Scruggs had achieved literal fame and fortune simply through loving the banjo and playing it so devastatingly well. He also carried North Carolina’s lively, string-driven music with him to a prominent place in American culture, from the 1940s to the 2010s and beyond. 



About the Author

Thomas (Tommy) Goldsmith is a North Carolina-born journalist and musician based in Raleigh. His new book, Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic, contains extensive interviews with bluegrass banjo master Scruggs, as well as deep historical research and talks with such acoustic stars as Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mac Wiseman, and Jesse McReynolds. Remarked Douglas Green,  a well-known music scholar as well as “Ranger Doug“ of Riders in the Sky: “Thoroughly researched, elegantly written, this is a superb study of a tune, a man, and the creation of a highly distinctive American musical style. Loaded with information and interpretation, its warm personable style makes for a compelling and insightful read.” 

The author's grounding as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and record producer reaches back to the rootsy, freewheeling scenes in North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, from the late '60s until 1982. He stayed active in the field after starting a career in daily newspapers in 1983. As a music journalist, he spent seven years covering the Nashville scene at the Tennessean, wrote  for consumer and trade publications including Billboard, the Journal of Country Music, Bluegrass Unlimited, and Country Song Roundup. His book The Bluegrass Reader (University of Illinois) won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s journalist of the year award in 2004. 

He retired from the News & Observer in 2016 after 13 years mostly on the news side at the daily, but remains active in writing and playing music.

New Playlist: North Carolina Artists at Wide Open Bluegrass

September 20, 2019

PNC presents Wide Open Bluegrass returns on Friday, Sept. 27 and Saturday, Sept. 28, marking seven years celebrating bluegrass in downtown Raleigh. Come Hear NC is sponsoring performances at Red Hat Amphitheater and this year admission to the mainstage is free. 

North Carolina artists dominate this year’s schedule, so we made a playlist to acquaint you with some of the home state acts playing across eight stages at the one-of-a-kind urban bluegrass festival.

Find the full schedule of events on the World of Bluegrass website.


Trivia Tuesday: Ralph Pennington

August 6, 2019

After a stint fiddling with Bill Monroe, Wilkes County native Jim Shumate joined fellow North Carolinian Earl Scruggs in time to record on the Foggy Mountain Boys’ first recording session. During that inaugural session, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys cut “Cabin in Caroline,” a song penned by fellow Wilkes County native Ralph Pennington. A talented luthier, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter, Pennington wrote songs and tunes that later became bluegrass standards recorded by the likes of the Stanley Brothers and the Church Brothers.

Anniversary of Charlie Poole's Death

May 21, 2019

Charlie Poole, banjo extraordinaire and founder of the old-time music pioneers, the North Carolina Ramblers, was born in Randolph County. A hand injury at a young age led him to play banjo with a distinctive three-finger style, often imitated today. Although he died on this day in 1931, at the age of 39, his legacy lives on with his songs “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” “Sweet Sunny South,” and more being covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Happy Birthday Charlie Poole

March 22, 2019

On March 22, 1892, Charlie Poole, banjoist extraordinaire and founder of the old–time music pioneers known as the North Carolina Ramblers, was born in Randolph County.

At an early age Poole moved to Spray (now Eden in Rockingham County) and, over the course of his short life, achieved near-legendary status. Although he died in 1931, before reaching age 40, his star continues to rise to this day.

Partnering with two neighbors, Poole made some of the first known country music records. His high-pitched vocal style was a hit. The Ramblers’ fan base extended from the Piedmont cotton mills all across the nation. Music historian Bill Malone concluded that

No string band in early country music equaled the Ramblers’ controlled, clean, well-patterned sound.

Poole had smashed his right hand in a childhood baseball accident, leaving his fingers curled and leading him to favor a three-finger banjo picking style. Stories about his drinking, rambling, and carousing are widespread. His style of living prefigured that of Hank Williams a generation later.

In recent years re-releases of his works, featuring songs such as “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” have reached new audiences.

This post comes from the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources On This Day project.


Happy Birthday, Doc Watson!

March 3, 2019

On March 3, 1923, Arthel Lane Watson, known to the world as “Doc” Watson, was born in Watauga County. The sixth of nine children, Watson developed an eye infection that left him blind as an infant, and he was sent to attend the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh.

His parents sang and encouraged their son’s interest in music.  Virtually self taught, he mastered harmonica, banjo and guitar at an early age. It was his guitar playing that garnered the greatest attention, however, due to his unique style.  In 1953 he was playing with a band that often did not have a fiddle player.  Watson taught himself to play the fiddle parts on his guitar, often at breakneck speeds.

Although he had been playing locally for years, Watson was not discovered nationally until the 1960s during the folk music revival.  In 1961 he and several other musicians played in Greenwich Village. That led to other concerts, and Watson was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964.

Watson never claimed to be a purist; he played music that he liked and he had eclectic taste. During his long career he won eight Grammys and, in 1997, the National Medal of Arts.

This post is originally from NCDNCR's "On This Day" blog .


Finally, enjoy Doc Watson with the Nashville Bluegrass Band performing "I'll Fly Away" at the annual Sunday Morning Gospel Set at Merlefest in 2012. This would be Doc Watson's final live performance. 

Women! Mount Airy Old-Time Workshops Preview

February 9, 2019

Some of the most esteemed and respected women in old-time music will lead workshops in fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin, flat foot dance/square dance calling, and harmony singing during the Women! Mount Air Old-Time Workshops scheduled Thursday, Feb. 28 to Saturday, March 2.

Hosted by the Surry Arts Council with support from the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources the workshops are being held in conjunction with the Tommy Jarrell Festival, which also kicks off on Thurs., Feb. 28 with old-time dance lessons. 

Registration is still open, and students and adults of all ages are invited to participate. Register online through the Surry Arts Council's secure Eventbrite site. Tuition is $300 and includes classes, meals (lunch and dinner), event tickets, and a t-shirt.

Classes will be held at the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Historic Earle Theatre in Mount Airy, N.C.

The following musicians are leading the workshops:

Caroline Beverley teaches mandolin, singing, guitar and string band classes at Alleghany JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) at Surry Community College in Dobson and plays mandolin for the Virginia based old-time band, the New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, as well as other N.C. bands.

Trish Kilby Ford started playing old-time music as a young teenager under the instruction of Emily Spencer and many other old-time and bluegrass musicians around her hometown of Lansing in Ashe County, N.C. In the 26 years of playing old-time music, Trish has been influenced by legends in traditional music, including Thornton and Emily Spencer, Dean Sturgill, the Birchfield Family, Ola Belle Reed, just to name a few. She has played with many groups and traveled internationally.

Erynn Marshall is an old-time fiddler who lives in Galax, Virginia and is known nationally and beyond for her traditional music she learned Appalachian old-time fiddling from rare recording and visiting 80-95-year-old southern fiddlers for decades. Erynn performs at festivals and music camps around the globe and often tours with her husband – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carl Jones.

Terri McMurray has great chops on 5-string banjo, banjo uke, and guitar. She studied with many masters including the late Tommy Jarrell and has played with great banjoists including Dix Freeman, Fields West, Benton Fllippen and Kyle Creed. Terri co-founded the Old Hollow String Band and has also performed with the Toast String Stretchers, the Mostly Mountain Boys and the Mountain Birch Duo with Paul Brown. She has taught at numerous banjo camps, including in England.

Emily Spencer is a certified PK-12 teacher and has taught fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and bass in the schools and at Wilkes Community College and Wytheville Community College. She has played music since childhood and started playing with the Whitetop Mountain Band in the 1970s with Thornton Spencer and continues with the band today.

Martha Spencer is the daughter of Emily and Thornton Spencer, the leaders of the Whitetop Mountain Band. She began dancing and playing at a young age and currently plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and dulcimer. She has won countless competitions for her Appalachian dancing and has taken part in master dance workshop at the National Folk Festival (USA), Woodford Folk Festival (AU) and Lowell Folk Festival (USA). Her music passion includes passing on the traditions and she has been an instructor in the Junior Appalachian Music (JAM) program in Ashe County and plays with numerous bands.

The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music

January 26, 2019

The following post draws from the traditional artist directory of our partners at the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

With an entertaining career that spanned more than 60 years, Carl Story (1916-1995) has been called “The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music.” Story played fiddle with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys starting in 1942, before joining the Navy in 1943. After his discharge, Story helped shape the bluegrass gospel style and led a band that served as a training ground for many musicians.

Born in Lenoir in 1916, Story grew up hearing his father play fiddle. By the time he was a teenager, Story was playing fiddle and guitar and performing on local radio programs. He led a band in his early twenties that included a three-finger banjo player, helping pioneer the bluegrass sound. Story traveled around the region playing on different radio stations. He played in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1930s, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the mid-’30s, where he joined Johnnie Whisnant and formed the Lonesome Mountaineers and Rambling Mountaineers. He played with these groups until joining Bill Monroe’s band in 1942.

After World War II, Story reorganized his band in Asheville, signed with Mercury, and performed at radio stations in Knoxville and Bristol, Tennessee. His group, the Rambling Mountaineers performed both secular and sacred music, but most of their repertoire was gospel.

Story’s band recorded with Mercury for five years, and later recorded on the Columbia and Starday labels. During the peak years of his career, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers hosted radio and television shows in several Southeastern states and had a 10-year affiliation with WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance program in Knoxville. His band was a fixture at bluegrass festivals throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.

Story retired to Greer, South Carolina, where he worked as a disc jockey and continued to perform until his death in 1995. Over the course of his entertainment career, Carl Story recorded more than 2,000 songs and 55 albums. A section of NC Highway 18 that passes through his hometown of Lenoir is named in his honor and he is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

A Saturday Morning Tradition: The WPAQ Merry-Go-Round

January 12, 2019

Every Saturday, Mt. Airy's community radio station WPAQ broadcasts live, local, and regional music on the Merry-Go-Round, one of the longest running live radio programs in America.

The mountains and foothills of North Carolina are known internationally as places rich in traditional old-time music, stringband music, ballad singing and bluegrass, and ways to experience authentic music flourish throughout the region. From hometown opry’s and informal jam sessions to concert stages, festivals and old-time music conventions, visitors can enjoy traditional music and dance in friendly, informal settings, some dating back almost a century. The North Carolina Arts Council developed the Blue Ridge Music Trails to encourage travelers to explore the regions incredible music experiences.

An important focus of Blue Ridge Music traditions is the town of Mt. Airy, the hometown of Andy Griffith (and inspiration for his famous Mayberry). Nestled in the foothills of the mountains, the  town is home to the second longest currently running live radio program in the nation: WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round. Every Saturday WPAQ presents live, local and regional music on the Merry-Go-Round, a live radio broadcast staged in The Earle, a vintage movie theater in the heart of Mt. Airy. The podcast Down The Road, a production of the Blue Ridge Music Trails by the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, explores the history of  WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round in this episode.

Listeners from around the world can tune into WPAQ's Merry-Go-Round broadcast on Saturdays between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. here.



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