Book Review: ‘Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ by Thomas Goldsmith
Can one man and one song grow and sustain an entire genre of music? There is an argument to be made. Thomas Goldsmith provides an in-depth discussion of Earl Scruggs, his career, and the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” recorded 70 years ago. His descriptions about Scruggs’ background and his collaborations with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and later with his sons are a fascinating glimpse into a previously untold story. Bluegrass music had always had a small footprint in the music business. Emanating from early string band music and ignited by Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, the initial fan base for bluegrass was a small group of rural Southerners. In country music history, although Monroe’s band had played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, most people consider bluegrass music’s birthplace to be at the Opry in 1945 when a 21-year old Earl Scruggs, along with Lester Flatt, joined Monroe’s band.
Thomas Goldsmith was a full-time musician as a younger man when I first met him in the 1970s. He played guitar with Austin legend Marcia Ball and led the Nashville band The Contenders, a band that developed a cult following after only one album. He became a highly respected reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and the Raleigh News and Observer for over 33 years. He also knew Scruggs, played music at his house in Nashville, and interviewed him in 2007, an event that helped lead him toward this book. During the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual meeting in Raleigh recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his book.
Goldsmith sees the impact of both Scruggs and the song as transformative in American musical history. A few early players influenced Scruggs’ signature three-finger playing style, but the actual forward and backward rolls that he used were unique, and he began playing them around the age of 11. He continued to play music throughout his teens but was never known outside of central North Carolina. When he was offered a job with Bill Monroe, who played on the Grand Ole Opry, the banjo was suddenly seen in a different light: it was now an instrument that could play a melody line and step out front and take a hard-driving furiously fast lead break. Many string bands took up this new approach, with lead breaks taken by mandolin, fiddle, and banjo and occasionally a resonator guitar. Scruggs also popularized the notion of adding melodic and creative backup playing; Goldsmith describes it as similar to a harpsichordist in the Baroque music era.
Within three years, Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe to make their own music. It was not without friction; Monroe kept them off the Opry stage for many years in retribution. In December of 1949 the Foggy Mountain Boys went into a studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, and recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and several other songs. Goldsmith goes into great detail about the recording of the song, and it’s clear that he has a close relationship with it. As he noted “There’s a great amount of musicality in his playing of that song; you can go back to it time after time and always get something new.”
While Flatt and Scruggs were very popular in the bluegrass and country realm, they were first introduced to a wider audience through the Beverly Hillbillies. Starting in 1962, Earl’s banjo kicked off every episode of the show, all 274 of them. It was the top-rated show on television its first two years in existence. But their music really gained wide acceptance in 1967 when Warren Beatty decided to scrub a soundtrack for his new movie, Bonnie and Clyde, and used “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as a background score for several chase scenes in the movie. Goldsmith describes the origins of the movie and how the song ended up in the soundtrack. Bonnie and Clyde, after a slow start, became a blockbuster. Nominated for ten Oscars, it won two. Flatt and Scruggs received a Grammy for the song the next year, and Scruggs received a second one for a later performance of the same song in 2002.
The impact of the film on the band was enormous. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” became an instant classic for every bluegrass band, and it expanded the fan base for Flatt and Scruggs. As outlined in the book, in December of 1968 they played at the Miami Pop Festival, along with the Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, Joni Mitchell, Jose Feliciano and Chuck Berry. And it just so happens I was there; it was the first time I had ever seen Flatt and Scruggs live. The audience went wild when the banjo exploded into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” standing, cheering and dancing.
The book documents the split of Flatt and Scruggs in 1969. Scruggs wanted to travel and play more contemporary music with his sons in the Earl Scruggs Review and went on to play with many popular mainstream artists including Bob Dylan and the Byrds. The breakup was acrimonious at first and painful for Flatt; he continued playing more traditional music with his band Nashville Grass until his death in 1979. Goldsmith describes a moving moment when Scruggs visited Flatt in the hospital shortly before his death, after many years apart.
Did the song and the man change history? Bill Monroe will always be recognized as the father of bluegrass music; his songs continue to make up a significant portion of every bluegrass band’s catalogue. His former band members made up the vast majority of early popular bluegrass groups and artists, including Mac Wiseman, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Del McCoury, and Peter Rowan. But Bill Monroe’s popularity increased dramatically in 1945 when Flatt and Scruggs joined his band. Goldsmith makes the point that without Scruggs’ banjo style becoming the standard for bluegrass bands of that era, it’s possible that the banjo would have remained a less prominent instrument. And without the national fervor over “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, bluegrass might have remained a niche musical genre. Bluegrass festivals are now big business, and the music is international as well. At the IBMA I saw a number of Asian and Australian players, an Italian bluegrass group called Red Wine was featured at a showcase, and a Japanese bluegrass magazine won a publishing award.There were over 200,000 passionate fans at the IBMA World of Bluegrass.
While this book will certainly appeal to those with any knowledge at all about bluegrass music, it’s also a study of a cultural phenomenon and the origin of the artistry behind it. There has been little published about Flatt and Scruggs’ relationship with Bill Monroe, or about the breakup of the Foggy Mountain Boys. This lovingly written and exhaustively researched book adds to the early history of bluegrass music, and provides many more previously unknown details about Scruggs’ life. It’s an engaging page-turner that fans of any kind of music will enjoy.