Last week I said that I’d be writing about my Dale Carnegie Course experience today, but that’s going to have to wait at least another week because the world’s greatest banjo player, Earl Scruggs, passed away a few days ago.
Earl’s passing saddened me, even though he lived a long, happy, fruitful life (he was 88 years old), not just because I’ve been a lifelong fan, but because Earl provided me with one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I actually played rhythm guitar with him one night in Nashville. Here’s how it happened.
It was about thirty years ago. I was in Nashville on Anne Murray business and was walking through the lobby of the Opryland Hotel when I ran into D. J. MacLaughlin, an agent whom I knew fairly well and who worked for the same agency that represented Anne. D. J. had played some bass with a 60s rockabilly group called The Fendermen (yes, because they used Fender guitars and amps). Anyway, it was an early evening in October and D.J. asked me if I had dinner plans. I told him I was going to order room service and watch the World Series game that was on TV that night.
“Well,” D.J. said, “I’m going out to Earl Scruggs’ place for dinner and to watch the game with Earl and Louise and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind you tagging along. You know Southern folks, Lyman, there’ll be enough food for a banquet.” I was flabbergasted. As I’ve already said, I was a lifelong fan of Earl’s and the thought of meeting him, let alone spending an evening with him, was about as good as it gets; or so I thought.
I stammered something along the lines of, “I’d love to,” so D.J. went out and checked with Earl, who was waiting out front in his car, meaning I’d walked right past him on my way into the hotel lobby and didn’t notice him. Two minutes later I was sitting beside Earl (D. J. had kindly jumped in the back seat, giving me the opportunity to sit with Earl) heading out to his place for dinner. I think he lived in the Nashville suburb of Madison, where Hank Snow also lived and where Pat Boone grew up.
I don’t remember whether the baseball game was rained out or that we just never got around to watching it, but there was no baseball that night at the Scruggs household. We had a wonderful dinner with great conversation and stories after which Louise said, “Let’s have a tune.”
We followed her into their music room where she sat down at the piano, Earle dug out an acoustic six-string bass that he handed to D. J. (they’d obviously jammed together before) and Earl picked up a guitar. “No, Earl,” D. J. said, “you play banjo, Lyman can play rhythm.”
Well, I did play a little bit of rhythm guitar in a rock band about twenty years earlier in PEI, but this was Earl Scruggs in Nashville! And I really wasn’t very good. Remember I said earlier that the evening couldn’t get any better than having dinner with Earl Scruggs? Well, playing with him was definitely better, so there was no way I was going to beg off. I did, however, tell Earle that he’d need to let me know the key before we started a tune. He assured me that was perfectly normal the first time people played together.
I remember we played The Ballad of Jed Clampett (the theme song from the TV hit “The Beverly Hillbillies”); Foggy Mountain Breakdown (which had been featured in the movie “Bonnie & Clyde"); Fireball Mail; Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms; Wildwood Flower; Sweeter Than The Flowers; and a few others the names of which I don’t remember, but would have almost certainly included Flint Mountain Special; Cripple Creek; and Salty Dog.
I’ve forgotten some of the details but I’ll never forget the night.
Rest in peace, Earl, you were a kind, gentle, courteous, unbelievably talented man.