R.I.P.: Scruggs and Crews

They say music soothes the savage beast or words to that effect. Words on a page can do the same thing, or do exactly the opposite, as can music.

Two original and important people, both from the South, in matters of music and words passed away last week, leaving the words and music behind, speaking and playing no more. They died on the same day.

EARL SCRUGGS— Earl Eugene Scruggs—who died March 28 at the age of 88—was “an American musician noted for perfecting and popularizing a three-finger banjo-picking style that is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music.” So spake Wikipedia.

Well, yeah. True. But it’s a little like saying that Elvis Presley was a pioneer rock-and-roll singer who could hit high notes.

Scruggs, to many people who had never heard enough banjo music to love it, became the man who embodied the sound and the music and sent it over the mountain tops usually associated with it. Like many specific kinds of music defined by a region, locale or place of origin, bluegrass music learned to escape its boundaries and became embraced as a purely American kind of music, much like the Detroit Motown sound of the 1960s was embraced everywhere called an American place.

Scruggs—and Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and, later, Ricky Scaggs—let bluegrass with its rhythmic, rolling, perpetually motion, infectious sound escape not only the boundaries of place but also of genre. It went beyond folk, and country music to be embraced by everyone, including, as it turned out, comedian, writer and movie actor Steve Martin who played with him on national television.

Scruggs did indeed develop the three-finger banjo picking style. He also first achieved prominence in 1945 when he joined banjo impresario Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. In 1948, Monroe guitarist Lester Flatt joined up with Scruggs and they formed the Foggy Mountain Boys.

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember their music from the theme of “The Beverly Hillbillies” or if you were more of an intellectual bent, from the furiously madcap driving music in “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Mostly, you remember the sound and the music, his generous trust of all sorts of music, and the way he (and Monroe and others) made the banjo and the virtuoso picking and play thereof something other musicians longed and love to play. He made what seemed to some to be a humble instrument something geniuses like to pick up and handle, people like Yo-Yo Ma.

HARRY CREWS— Monroe came from North Carolina, and Harry Crews, of the pre-eminent chroniclers of literature that came to be called Southern gothic (by way of Flannery O’Connor), came from a similar place, hailing from Bacon County, Georgia.

He was a marine, and his writing could be mean. He lived the life of the rough writer, always teaching, always forging ahead like a bull. He was never a best-selling kind of writer, but critics loved him, and his tough, lean, style, his penchant for over-the-top characters. You can tell sort of where he was coming from just from the titles of his fiction: “The Gospel Singer,” “A Feast of Snakes,” “The Hawk Is Dying,” “Scar Lover,” “All We Need of Hell” and “Car," in which a man becomes famous for eating, well, a car, bit by bolt.

In almost any photo of him, you see a dangerous man, scarred, attitude-plus, unforgettable. When you read him, you get stuff or specks on yourself, as if Crews were spitting words. He wrote a column for Esquire magazine, called "Grits," and covered things like cockfighting and dogfighting. He was a splendid writer and a hard man, who led a rough life. According—again— to Wikipedia, he had a tattoo on his right arm, which depicted a line from a famous E.E. Cummings poem which read: “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”

He liked him well enough. Mr. Crews died March 28 . He was 76.

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Fri, 25 Jul 2014 11:58:23 -0400

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