Gordon Castelnero & David L. Russell,
Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

In the early 1960s, Flatt and Scruggs played a show at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium. As I was walking across the parking lot to the arena, I saw Earl Scruggs sitting on the steps of Flatt and Scruggs' tour bus. He appeared to be just taking it easy and seemed accessible, so I walked over to say hello. We chatted for a few minutes and a kid, maybe 16 or so and even more awestruck than I was, walked up and introduced himself, saying he too was a banjo player and was hoping he could get a lesson from Earl after the show. Rather than swat the kid like a fly, the way so many celebs would, Scruggs said, in that slow, thoughtful drawl he had, "Well, I'd love to teach you what little I know but we got an event after the show."

The kid pressed on obliviously: "I'm playing a coffeehouse in town. Why don't you come hear me, maybe sit in."

"Again, I'd love to," Earl Scruggs said, "and maybe next time I'm in town we can get together but I just don't have the open time this trip."

The kid went away thrilled, his life having just gotten a little bit better, and I walked away with an increased respect for Earl Scruggs. He sounded and acted like he believed what he was saying; he took the kid seriously and treated him like a colleague rather than as a pushy fan.

Reading Gordon Castelnero and David L. Russell's new look at Scruggs, his life and his music, I discovered that was exactly what Scruggs was really like. He comes across in these pages as the single nicest man in show business -- completely self-deprecating, a warm and friendly man who just happened as a result of a ton of work and study to be the master of the three-finger style of banjo picking.

Earl Scruggs: Banjo Icon covers the banjo masters' life and development from his being raised in a musical family to raising his own musical family. The first chapter, which analyzes his playing style, is worth the price of the book by itself. The authors, both banjo pickers themselves, are excellent at describing banjo techniques. They have structured the book as an oral history, relying on quotes from damn near everyone who has ever seen a banjo. They speak with former members of the Flatt and Scruggs band; even guys who worked with Bill Monroe, out of whose band Flatt and Scruggs emerged.

The oral history aspect brings the book into closer focus and gives us a wider perspective on Earl Scruggs. It also becomes a little bit of a distraction as we have different people saying the same thing a touch too often. In the later sections, a little skimming isn't out of order.

Overall, though, if you're a bluegrass fan or an Earl Scruggs Revue fan or just a fan of the five string banjo, this is the book for you.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

3 June 2017

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