June 21, 2007 No living musician is as identified with the Ryman Auditorium as Earl Scruggs, whose electrifying three-finger banjo style changed the sound and scope of what is now known as bluegrass music.
As the Country Music Hall of Fame member prepared for his headlining show at the theater tonight, he talked to The Tennessean about memorable Ryman evenings in his life and career, beginning when he first took the stage with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in December 1945.
"Having been there before, I didn't know what to expect." Earl says. "I was happy with the reaction I got. I didn't know how [Opry boss] Judge Hay would accept me, because he was strictly old-timey. He had a saying, 'Keep it down to earth, boys.' But he accepted my playing."
In 1946, Earl spied a woman named Louise Certain in the Ryman audience. "Louise was there with her cousin, and they talked with [Opry star] Kirk McGee and asked him to introduce us," Earl says. "We met later that night, and it was her and me from then on." The two married in April 1948 and Louise became Nashville's most influential female manager and booking agent as she guided the business side of Earl's career.
When Earl and Lester Flatt left the Blue Grass Boys to form their own act, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe sought for years to keep them off the Opry. But in 1955, with the help of sponsor Martha White, Flatt & Scruggs joined the cast at the Ryman.
In 1969, the duo played their final show at the Ryman. "I knew times were changing and you just can't play the same old five or six songs for 100 years," Earl says. "You need to learn a new tune." Later that year, he reappeared on the Opry with the Earl Scruggs Revue, a band that included sons Gary and Randy and later included son Steve. The Revue blended traditional sounds with innovative country-rock and folk-rock settings.
"It seemed to excite the audience to see me on the stage with my boys," Earl says. "The whole family practically was onstage. And when the boys came into the group, that's when I first started realizing real progress, for the first time in years."
In 2006, Earl and his family mourned the loss of wife Louise at a memorial service at the Ryman. "That building seems like something I grew up in," he says. "As far as show business, I did. And it seemed appropriate to have her service there. It all started at the Ryman for me and her."