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The Scruggs Legacy

10 April 2012

For the past two weeks, the world has paid tribute to Earl Scruggs. I won’t try to improve upon the wonderful encomia already shared on the web and in the press. Rather, I thought I might offer one example of Scruggs’ musical legacy. The following profile of the New England bluegrass band Hot Mustard was designed to focus on lead singer April Jubett’s vocal style. However, listen to the double barrel force of the band’s dueling banjos as they tear through their signature treatment of “Hold Whatcha Got” and the Scruggs connection will start to emerge…

Bruce Stockwell, the senior partner in Hot Mustard’s banjo duo, is part of a whole generation of banjo players whose life course was forever altered by Earl Scruggs. Although Stockwell grew up in Vermont, a long way from the Carolina Piedmont that gave rise to Scruggs’ famous three-finger picking style, Stockwell emulated Scruggs’ technique.

Earl Scruggs with Bruce Stockwell

As luck would have it, when Stockwell was just sixteen, Scruggs came to the local college to give a show, and Stockwell— who played with his brother and couple of cousins in a group called the Green Mountain Boys— got to play an opening set. As Bruce’s bass-playing wife Kelly recounts the story, “as they were leaving and Earl was coming on Earl shook Bruce’s hand and said ‘mighty fine.’” If that experience wouldn’t set your destiny, I don’t know what would.

Shortly after hearing this story, I listened to the WSM broadcast of the memorial for Scruggs that was held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. One bluegrass star after another got up and spoke about how Scruggs had served as a mentor. Ricky Skaggs put it this way: “What I always saw in Earl, he was always looking, not at himself, but for the next generation. He was always looking ahead.”

That “next generation”— of which Stockwell is certainly a part— picked up Scruggs’ mantle and carried it forward. Indeed, it was Stockwell who taught Scruggs style banjo to the other half of Hot Mustard’s banjo team, Bill Jubett. That’s why it’s fair to say that, as Stockwell and Jubett lock into that boogie-woogie riff near the end of “Hold Whatcha Got,” we are hearing the literal manifestation of Scruggs’ legacy being preserved and passed on.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Kelly and Bruce Stockwell for the anecdote and photo.

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