One reason I love living in New York is that, even if I usually spend my days glued to the computer and my evenings as a couch potato, an infinite smorgasbord of activities—no, whole worlds—are there for the taking any time I want to get off my duff and join in. The other night, I hopped on the subway down to Times Square to hear legendary bluegrass banjo picker Earl Scruggs at B.B. King’s Blues Club. I hadn’t even known he was still alive till I spotted the show advertised at a great price on TDF. Scruggs, who invented the three-finger picking style of banjo playing, is going on 84. He appeared with
“family and friends” including his sons Gary and Randy, the latter a virtuoso git-tar picker in his own right, equally brilliant guitarists Jon Randall and Bryan Sutton, Grand Old Opry fiddle player Hoot Hester, and 23-year-old miniskirted Kentucky “Dobro Gal” Jennifer Kennedy Meredith, who kept right up with these world-class musicians on a notoriously challenging instrument.
It was quite a trip, not only back into the world of traditional music, which I rotated to the back burner five years ago when I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober and plunged into the world of mystery writers and readers, but back in time to my high school days, when my friend Judy and I and a coupla guys got up on stage—at a talent show? almost half a century later, I can’t remember—and belted out a near-high-lonesome version of the wailer “Darlin’ Corey,” popularized by the Weavers, who were at their peak at the time. Judy was happy to come with me to hear Earl Scruggs, along with my grumbling hubby, who tends to be short on enthusiasm on a weeknight. Back in the day (when did “old days” become “day”?), we adored bluegrass, though most of us strummed rather than picked the guitars we carried with us everywhere, and I don’t remember anybody who could actually play the banjo.
Scruggs and Flatt, with their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, were (to use two comparisons I found on Google without even trying) the Paganini and Babe Ruth of their respective instruments, known not only among traditional music lovers but generally for the theme of The Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtrack for Bonnie and Clyde. Flatt died in 1979, but there was Scruggs, recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame for such instrumentals as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” natty in a dark suit and tie. The banjo is out of fashion nowadays. It’s largely absent from the New Country, except for the Dixie Chicks, now divorced from the country genre. But I've always found it a joyous and exhilarating instrument, and I was thrilled to hear a master—THE master—play it. The music had me from the high-energy opening bars of "Salty Dog." Scruggs didn’t say a word the whole time he was onstage—son Gary did the talking—but his fingers still can fly.