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The Night I Tied Earl Scruggs's Necktie

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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www.donaldsmith.net
Playing Since: 2007
Experience Level: Just Startin'

Interests:
[Jamming]

Occupation: Ink-Stained Wretch

Gender: Male
Age: 22

My Instruments:
"Lorena" (Gibson RB3W). "Maggie" (Deering Vega No. 2). "Fannie" (Goldstar GF100W). My other little friends: "Big Ma" (Martin D35), "Woody" (Guild D35), "Rambo" - aka "Banjo Eater" (Martin D-28 Marquis), "Annie" (Martin HD28VC)


Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Too numerous to mention. Oh, what the heck. Earl Scruggs, Earl Scruggs Revue, Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends, Flatt and Scruggs, Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Carolina Star, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Eric Weissberg, Jim Mills, Ricky Scaggs, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Susie Burke and David Surette, Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Tom Gray and whatever band he's playing in at the moment, Lou Reid and whatever band he's playing in at the moment, Kate and Anna McGarrigle,Carolina Chocolate Drops, Townes Van Zandt, The Chieftans, Mary Black, Robin & Linda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, Mike & Pete Seeger, Ian & Sylvia, The Carter Family, Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Chad Mitchell Trio, Whiskey Hill Singers, Tommy Makem, The Clancy Bros., Alex Beaton, North Sea Gas, The Corries, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, Chatham County Line, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Woodshedders, John Stewart, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotten, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Bukka White, B.B. King, Dewey Balfour, Michael Doucet, and Beausoleil. Oh, and Clifton Chenier. And a few more I can't think of right now.

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Created 5/12/2007
Last Visit 7/4/2016

My historical mystery, “The Constable’s Tale” (Pegasus Books, September 2015), involves a volunteer constable in tidewater North Carolina – where my family has farmed and made music since 1695. I grew up mostly in northern Virginia, and now live in the bosom of the Yankee capital. (Occasionally I have to explain to visiting relatives that the reason there are no statues of Confederate soldiers in Washington is on the account of we lost.) The moment I heard the opening tenor banjo notes of the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley," I was hooked on folk music. But I went for the guitar instead of the ‘jo. I passed through a serious folk-music phase while in college, playing a lot and hosting a folk-music show on the campus radio station; then moved into old-time, blues, then bluegrass. (Odd route, I know.) Only recently did I come full circle, went out and bought a five-stringer. I was editor-in-chief and also wrote some of the "script" (wall text) for the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which opened in Indianola MS in 2008. I turned from that to researching and writing the script and a treatment for the main film for The Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South, which opened in Shelby, N.C. Jan. 11, 2014. It was quite an honor to be chosen for that project, which covers not only Earl's career, but also the history and culture of the region from which he and the whole world of commercial country music sprang: the rolling hills and rushing streams of the Southern Piedmont. I also got to spend a good deal of face time with Earl and his very talented family. Favorite moment: tying Earl's necktie before a concert. See my website for more information: www.donaldsmith.net

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