Posted by Chesapeake on Saturday, January 16, 2016
About five years ago I was offered what was, for me, the writing chance of a lifetime: to write the narrative and an original film treatment for a museum then under development that would tell the story of Earl Scruggs.
As years go by, I’m finding more and more people who have never heard of Earl Scruggs – which to me is like saying they’ve never heard of the Pope. Scruggs was the one-time North Carolina cotton-mill worker whose rapid-fire, three-finger banjo picking became the hallmark of bluegrass, that high-energy blend of old-time music dating date back to America’s earliest Anglo-Irish-Scots settlers, and commercial country music as it existed at the dawn of bluegrass in 1945. Think the soundtrack of the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and the long-running TV series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Scruggs – along with his guitar-picking partner Lester Flatt – recorded both. The genre has gone international, with bluegrass fans and practictioners to be found around the globe.
For a creature of the 1960s folk-music revival such as I, this was an irresistible opportunity - even though it would mean putting off a historical novel project I was in the middle of. In museum parlance, a “script” is the story a museum tells, as ultimately expressed in the wall text. I had served as editor on an earlier project done by the same museum development company, Museum Concepts: The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which opened in 2008 in Indianola, Mississippi.
Our target for this one was broad. Besides the life of Scruggs himself, we wanted to show the wondrous history of the banjo: its roots as a rudimentary gourd instrument in Africa, its Atlantic crossing as part of the slave trade, its transformation after the Civil War into a stylish prop in fashionable Victorian parlors, the banjo orchestras that sprang up across the country in communities as well as Ivy-League colleges around the turn of the century, and its latest incarnation as a staple of what some call hillbilly music. We also wanted to treat with the origins of American commercial country music itself in the rolling hills and rushing streams of the Southern Piedmont - cotton-mill country.
The film treatment wound up as an elaborate reference work that we dubbed The White Paper. It went far beyond the needs of a treatment, and came to serve as a basic resource for everyone working on the project, covering the music as well as the history and culture of the Southern hill country all the way back to colonial days. Our very talented filmmakers, Robert Gordon and Craig Havighurst
, came up with their own approaches to the several films they ultimately made. These included interviews with a slew of country-music celebrities, one of whom was comedian/Hollywood star Steve Martin, an accomplished artist on the five-stringer.
As part of the filmmaking process, I helped conduct possibly the last extended sit-down filmed interview Scruggs gave before his death in 2012. But possibly my most memorable experience was running into his niece, Ruby, in a Holiday Express Inn a few miles west of Charlotte, N.C., where we were all staying on the night of a homecoming concert. With only minutes to go before Scruggs was due to leave for the auditorium, she was standing in the hallway outside his room holding a necktie, with a bewildered look on her face.
“Do you know how to tie one of these?” she asked when she spotted me.
“Do I!” I said.
After I had made the knot around my neck, loosened it, and handed it back, she said with a smile, “I bet you’re going to tell people about this.”
I said, “I can hardly wait to start.”
Jan. 11, 2016 – marked the second anniversary of the opening in Shelby, N.C., of The Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South. And I’m still talking about the necktie.
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