Forward Roll: The Earl Scruggs Music Festival, Year Two

[Cover photo: Eli Johnson]


I was forced to miss this year’s Earl Scruggs Music Festival, but we are fortunate that my friend and iconic bluegrass songwriter Louisa Branscomb agreed to provide us with her thoughts as she participated in and observed this year’s festival. Her song “Steel Rails” has become a classic in the genre, and her song “Dear Sister”, co-written with Claire Lynch, was won multiple Song of the Year awards.  She is nominated as Mentor of the Year this year by the IBMA. For more about Louisa go here.


Louisa Branscomb


The Earl Scruggs Music Festival in Tryon, NC rolled out with seamless ease for its second year, looking for all the world like a well-tuned and stellar event with years under its belt. To the eye, it is as spectacular as one would expect from the renown Tryon International Equestrian Center — expansive crowd areas with ample seating and elbow room and large manicured fields for family play with frisbee, corn hole, and the like. There are multiple restaurant choices in the venue and plenty of ground and stadium seating. Large screens and expert sound made for excellent viewing of the main stage from anywhere in the stadium, and smaller stages offered intimate settings for workshops, bands, and singer-songwriters.

I was drafted — or more accurately I volunteered — for duty to highlight some events during the festival as my friend and veteran staff writer Rick Davidson was unable to attend. The morning workshops, which were moderated by renowned author and music historian Thomas (Tommy) Goldsmith, were packed with interesting topics and a variety of legendary artists: a discussion of Scruggs-style banjo playing with legends Tony Trischka, Charlie Cushman, and Pete Wernick and a discussion about the future of bluegrass shows with Rob and Ronnie McCoury and Deanie Richardson.

Tony Trischka 📸: Tori Marion
Bluegrass Shows Workshop 📸: Cora Wagoner

When 4:00 p.m. on the main stage came, there was no warmup; Sister Sadie broke the sound barrier with dynamite precision and the stellar harmonies one would expect, with three Vocal Group of the Year Awards to their name. Next, the Earls of Leicester commanded an hour-and-a-half performance, also in the blazing sun, with characteristic showmanship and virtuosity. The band made reference to the fact that Earl’s banjo and Lester’s guitar have now been reunited in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and levity was kept up with jokes about how hot it was, with Jerry taking top honors with: “It’s about 200 degrees, and I’m up to 180. It’s time to turn me over.”

Earls of Leicester 📸: Louisa Branscomb

Next in the afternoon’s triple header was Del McCoury. With the crowd continuing to build, the energy tuned up a notch with sunset, and Del’s self-effacing humor was evident in response to requests: “Well, I would do that song, but I can’t ever remember the words. Oh, that’s not the one you meant? I guess my hearing’s not too good either!” Despite more superlative music on the way from the fantastic progressive Infamous Stringdusters, I felt I’d been served a full plate already, as I headed back home to Asheville.

Del McCoury 📸: Louisa Branscomb

Memorable moments included a two-year-old cowgirl with a fringed skirt swinging from her mom’s arms, volunteers who provided expert and friendly service, well-managed foot and car traffic, an open-air tour vehicle pulled by a tractor, and an impeccably groomed horse stadium, set up for demonstrations for festival-goers to view horse demonstrations over the weekend.  Off stage, I happened by the young NC group The Wilder Flower, three young women with seamless harmony and smooth, competent picking. One thing led to another, and soon we were singing “Steel Rails” together.

The Wilder Flower.  📸: Louisa Branscomb


What Makes a Bluegrass Song?
Day 2 at the Earl Scruggs Festival

Earl Scruggs was instrumental, so to speak, in setting the stage for the bluegrass explosion when his percussive banjo style fit perfectly with the songs written by Lester Flatt. In fact, Tommy Goldsmith dates the beginning of bluegrass to the day in December 1946 when Earl joined Lester Flatt in Bill Monroe’s band and the music fell magically into place. Songs contributed by Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and Bill Monroe were crucial in setting a self-sustaining, identity-distinct musical style.

The stage was set for day 2 of the Earl Scruggs festival with a look at what made the early magic of bluegrass songs and how song-making has evolved across its first 80 years. I had the pleasure of working with Tommy to put together the first morning workshop, “High Lonesome Songs, Then and Now.”  Joining us on the panel were Celia Woodsmith, songwriter and 13 year member of the band Della Mae, and Jon Weisberger, who commands a long history of bluegrass songwriting as well as many years as a professional musician.

📸: Louisa Branscomb

The theme was already stirring for me as I discovered friends Zoe and Cloyd, one of my favorite groups to push the boundaries of bluegrass, performing on the Legends Stage. Natalya Weinstein and John Cloyd Miller play mostly originals, with songs celebrating basic themes of humanity (like their stirring original imploring us to go beyond appearances to know each other) with influences from European klezmer, folk, and roots tradition. Fans sat under the covered stage area and gathered at tables overlooking the horse arena, having bluegrass for breakfast under the watch of the famous painted ponies that grace the grounds in many places.

Zoe and Cloyd 📸: Louisa Branscomb

The integrative influences of Zoe and Cloyd were a natural segue to our workshop focusing on the bluegrass song and bluegrass songwriting.  Tommy Goldsmith kicked off our discussion with highlighting the perfect fit between Earl’s banjo and Lester’s songs, which made for the musical platform for songs conveying the high lonesome sound. What followed was a lively discussion about the nature of songwriting and how bluegrass has evolved.  I mentioned the importance of starting from one’s own soul and experience – just as Lester and other great songwriters did – which means songs have a natural shift that includes but expands on Appalachian themes and other influences such as an increasing number of women writers and themes addressing today’s world. Celia Woodsmith took this thought a step further, emphasizing the importance of not shying away from “political themes,” and we recalled the importance of the “angry” or “political songs” by Hazel Dickens. Jon gave a concise description of how songwriting has evolved in the Nashville tradition, and emphasized craft of elements that make a song successful. Tommy then asked us to play musical examples of our points. I played my song “Your Amazing Grace”; it’s an example of a song that demonstrates internal reflection and relational themes and a poetic style, elements not usually seen in early songs. Celia played her powerful composition about not “pretending” to be what one is not, emphasizing the importance of including political themes in bluegrass.

Jon took us through a musical journey of co-writing Billy String’s new song “Love Like Me,” about the promise of undying love – showing how he and Billy captured a roots feeling reflecting Doc Watson, one of Billy’s key influences. A perfect benediction to the workshop was Tommy singing “Rank Stranger,” with the panel and crowd joining in.

The next panel was a series of great stories about Earl, featuring ­­­writer Penny Parsons, banjo player Dean Jenks of Cleveland County, and a longtime friend of the Scruggs’, and Earl’s nephew J.T. Scruggs.  After the morning celebrating Scruggs and song, a stroll about the plaza revealed an array of fine crafts in the vendor booths, and a children’s tent where kids created chalk art, had face painting, and chased bubbles sent out in clouds from the bubble machine.

📸: Eli Johnson

The Foggy Mountain  stage presented a talented family band, The Biscuit Eaters, featuring their young son who played fiddle and sang every bit as high, lonesome, and true as you’d expect to see from an older player.

Biscuit Eaters 📸: Louisa Branscomb

A later set found Pete Wernick playing a banjo solo song inspired by the creek at his home. The changing auburn tree in the background forming a dramatic natural backdrop. He then welcomed young prodigious player Ettore Buzzini onto the stage to play a complex original Wernick song. I reflected again on how songs and tunes in the bluegrass lexicon reflect the interests and expertise of their composers, providing an ongoing tapestry of music in true folk tradition. In other words, progressive is only “progressive” for a while. The music continues to evolve.

Peter Wernick 📸: Louisa Branscomb

The main stage afternoon revealed top entertainers: Tray Wellington Band, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, and the Jon Stickley Trio. The evening kicked off with Jerry Douglas and band, accelerated with Della Mae, and topped off with Greensky Bluegrass. Darin and Brooke were everywhere, sitting in with other artists and providing support for many of the scheduled events. The heart-piercing song of the day for me was the plaintive Ian Tyson song “Someday Soon,” popularized by Judy Collins, which Brooke chose to lead the Darin and Brooke Aldridge set.


Darin and Brooke Aldridge 📸: Eli Johnson
Della Mae 📸: Cora Wagoner

All afternoon and evening, the festival grounds accommodated the gentle flow of the crowds as they fanned out to different settings, stages, and opportunities in a natural flow. Almost everywhere you stood on the grounds, you could see hear fine music coming from one of the stages. If you hadn’t had the extraordinary array of music and crafts and food vendors to choose from, you would have thought it was already a memorable event to stroll the grounds of this beautiful world class resort and equestrian center. The music, meanwhile, made several thousand people one family for a few hours, sharing traditions and horizons together.



In a song, the last verse holds the takeaway, or brings the emotion home.  I’d planned to return after year one, and wearing three hats in Year 2 — presenter, audience, and media representative — gave me the opportunity to see things from the inside out from several perspectives. As they say in the country, I couldn’t find a single fly on anything, from pre-festival administrative communications and interactions with volunteers and onsite hosts to stage and sound management and variety of stages and offerings and venue convenience — all seemed natural and friendly, the overall tone exhilarating and welcoming. All the volunteers demonstrated this same warmth and extra effort to help. Kudos to Claire Armbruster of Planning Stages and Zach Taylor of Artist Relations at Planning Stages for creating such a stellar and friendly crew.

Musically, the planners created a lineup with a stellar balance between true-to-the-note traditional bluegrass and edge-riding innovation. The Earls of Leicester took us back in history to the unmistakable sound (and note-for-note authenticity) of Earl Scruggs. Del McCoury and company also managed to ride the edge of commanding a sound their own as well as keeping true to tradition. The camaraderie among all was captured by Jerry Douglas’s remark when I talked about the music in general: “Hey, did you hear that high note Del got last night? That gave me chill bumps, and I’m still thinking about it!”

Jerry Douglas 📸:CoraWagoner

This year’s lineup featured superlative examples of those who have taken the music forward in stylistic design, plus a lineup that practically spoke inclusiveness between the lines. The seeming conscious intention of inclusivity and diversity, while also recognizing tradition, was for me the most outstanding triumph of the festival. They walked the walk and took us from the female supergroups Della Mae and Sister Sadie, who have broken musical and gender barriers, to inclusion of young talent and our celebrated elders, to cultural diversity (such as the delightful Irish group I Draw Slow and the klezmer tunes of Zoe and Cloyd), to progressive instrumentation (John Stickley Trio and our long-time favorites, Peter Wernick, and Tony Trischka). And who doesn’t love Darin and Brooke Aldridge, who sit comfortably in the middle of tradition and innovation, who have both impeccable taste in song selection and heart-quenching beauty in arrangement and performance — and, notably, also showcase two female super-talents, Brooke herself and fiddle player Samantha Snyder.

The finale was another triumph of individuality and legend — a woman of such stature that she transcends genre to her own singular place in music. Emmylou Harris likely influenced many of the headline players of the event, Brooke Aldridge for one. Inviting some great artists (the Aldridges, Michael Cleveland, Zoey and Cloyd, and Twisted Pine) on the stage with her, Harris provided a great finale on the main stage.

Emmylou Harris and friends 📸: Eli Johnson

The last time I saw Earl Scruggs, it was under unfavorable circumstances but had a good ending. Our band Boot Hill followed the innovative Earl Scruggs Revue at the wildly popular out-of-the-gate Grandfather Mountain Bluegrass festival in the late 1970s. I had that nightmare of nightmares — I got stuck in a port-a-john at a bluegrass festival when it was my time to go on stage. It was, after all, a mountain, so after I entered, it shifted the weight of the portapotty backward so the front was three or four inches off the ground. It lurched, and at first I thought we were going to roll down the hill, death by porta-potty. Still, the latch got stuck where it could not move and the port-a-john wouldn’t rock back forward.  Nobody heard me pounding on the door because the Revue was about the loudest band there was at the time, so I called and pounded away in vain, wondering if I would ever be found.  Finally the set ended, things were quiet, and a band member and several others got behind the latrine and pushed it back upright, and I escaped in time to grab my banjo and get on stage. On the way I passed Earl, and he nodded at the banjo and said, “I’m looking forward to hearing you.” He was a man of few words but always calm. Lester was a man of few words, too, but his took longer. That acknowledgement from Earl in his slow drawl calmed me down enough to make it on stage and play.

Earl Scruggs’s playing, looking back, is what we now call “traditional.”  We sometimes forget that, at the time, he was an innovator, and he continued to innovate with the Revue. I am pretty sure that he would be pleased at the balance between a tradition he helped establish and the creative and diverse influences that have branched out from his starting point, taking bluegrass beyond in terms of geographic expansion, individual and cultural differences, creative directions in songwriting, and new progressive instrumentation.

It’s hard to imagine how an event could offer more to attendees than the wide palette of musical, vendor, educational, culinary, and sports choices presented. But the spirit of the festival is its crowning glory: the shared love of bluegrass, centered around our beloved and iconic Earl Scruggs. This is what lifts the festival just a little higher into the Carolina blue sky, sure to make Earl proud.

       -Louisa Branscomb, September 2023



Earl Scruggs Music Festival



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