Life in our Foothills September 2023 – Earl Scruggs Music Festival – A Celebration of Bluegrass and Community
Published 3:24 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2023
The Earl Scruggs Music Festival held each Labor Day weekend is more than just three days of great bluegrass music. The annual event is a celebration of the life and legacy of one of the genre’s most influential figures.
A Cleveland County native, Earl Scruggs was a banjo virtuoso who helped define the sound of bluegrass music in the 1940s and 50s. He was a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys before teaming up with guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Together, Flatt and Scruggs recorded some of the most iconic songs in bluegrass history, including “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which served as the theme song for the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. Scruggs’ influence on the genre cannot be overstated.
His innovative banjo playing style, now known as the “Scruggs style,” involved picking the strings with three fingers instead of the traditional two. This technique allowed for faster, more precise playing and became a hallmark of bluegrass music. Scruggs’ legacy lives on in the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, N.C., which houses exhibits about his life and career, as well as educational programs and live performances.
The Earl Scruggs Music Festival was founded in 2020 as a way to celebrate Scruggs’ life and contributions to bluegrass music. The festival takes place at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring and features three days of performances by some of the biggest names in bluegrass music. This year’s festival is hosted by Jerry Douglas and features headlining acts like Emmylou Harris, Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and the Del McCoury Band.
The Earls of Leicester, The Jerry Douglas Band, Della Mae, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Jake Blount, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Shawn Camp, Sister Sadie, Twisted Pine, I Draw Slow, Rissi Palmer, Jon Stickley Trio, Tray Wellington Band, Henhouse Prowlers, The Foreign Landers, Laura Boosinger & Josh Goforth, Armchair Boogie, Zoe & Cloyd, Pretty Little Goata and Into the Fog are just some of the well-known acts that are performing at this year’s festival.
The festival showcases a variety of free and separately ticketed activities throughout the weekend, including a “Bourbon & Bluegrass” tasting hosted by The Infamous Stringdusters’ Travis Book, a charity golf tournament benefiting Junior Appalachian Musicians, a Sunday gospel brunch featuring the music of Darin and Brooke Aldridge and a “Sips & Strings” painting class.
JT Scruggs, Earl Scruggs’ nephew and a board member of the Earl Scruggs Center, spoke to Life in Our Foothills magazine about the festival’s origins and its importance to the community.
“We started having conversations with WNCW at the end of 2018 and in 2019, announced that we were going to have our first festival in 2020,” Scruggs said. “I was the board chair for the Earl Scruggs Center at the time, but will always do anything I can to make the organization successful. After postponing for two years, we were finally able to host our first festival on Labor Day Weekend in 2022.”
Scruggs reflected on his first memories of his Uncle Earl, remembering him coming home to visit family. “We’d either get together at Dad’s or Horace’s, they were all brothers. When I was first married, I remember seeing Flatt and Scruggs at a local school – it was the first time I saw them perform live. They parked the tour bus at Dad’s house and he cooked dinner for the band. Dad’s house was near the road and people driving by saw the bus and stopped by, wanting to see Earl.”
Scruggs noted that the festival is more than just a celebration of his uncle’s music – it’s also a way to drive economic development and community revitalization.
“Music is a really important part of our community,” Scruggs said. “Earl’s music and legacy have enabled us to create the Earl Scruggs Center and the cultural resources it provides, which has driven revitalization and continues to drive economic development in our community.”
Jerry Douglas, a Grammy-winning dobro player and member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, will perform at the festival and serve as emcee.
“Earl Scruggs is possibly the first musician I remember hearing,” Douglas said in an interview with Life in Our Foothills. “My father was a great admirer of Flatt and Scruggs and they were either on the radio in the mornings when I was going to school and my dad was on his way to work at the steel mill. At night I listened on my tiny radio with its lo-fi earpiece to the rock stations out of Cleveland, Ohio, so I was a confused young man. I loved both kinds of music and wondered if they could co-exist. They do.”
Douglas also said he believed that the music Bill Monroe was trying to perceive only came true when Earl Scruggs became a member of his band.
“I think it had to be a revelation to Bill and a surprise that one man playing the same instrument Bill had tried and failed to excite people with reached such a pinnacle so rapidly,” Douglas said. “Only Earl Scruggs was capable of doing that. He was assured of a long bright career because of the alchemy he created with his friend Lester Flatt.”
When asked about his involvement with The Earls of Leicester, a band that performs Flatt and Scruggs songs in the original Foggy Mountain Boys style, Douglas says he “set out to find the right people who could fill the roles of the individuals that comprised the band and its magical sound.”
“We channel Flatt and Scruggs down to the details of their musical backups in the appropriate places and the solos they performed,” Douglas said. “It’s as close as I, or anyone will ever get to play in the original band.”
A headliner of this year’s festival, Emmylou Harris has grown to become a household name over the years.
“I love Emmylou Harris,” Douglas said. “Through the years, we have been great friends from the first time I met her in DC and later when we recorded in the Los Angeles canyons. Emmylou is a star. Not just in music but in how she cares about everyone she meets and the concerns she associates with. She never stops leaning forward into the knowledge that has brought her into the spotlight. She isn’t afraid of trends. She creates them.”
Tryon International Equestrian Center adds to the unique charm of the Earl Scruggs Music Festival. The center, which hosts horse shows and other equestrian events throughout the year, features a state-of-the-art arena and plenty of room for camping and RVs. Festivalgoers can also take advantage of the center’s on-site restaurants and amenities.
“This event is a celebration of Earl Scruggs and his musical legacy, but the boundaries of what he has given us have advanced and continue to give everyone something they can relate to,” Douglas adds. “This is a very positive and creative ongoing experiment, very much like how we all go about our lives. Forever trying to improve and broaden our acceptance of all walks of life. Plus, it’s music, the universal language.”
For more information about the festival, visit earlscruggsmusicfest.com.