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Remembering ‘Brilliant’ Banjo Player Earl Scruggs, Poet Adrienne Rich

March 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff reports on the death of widely read and influential poet Adrienne Rich, who died Tuesday at age 82, then Jeffrey Brown takes a look back at the life and groundbreaking sound of banjo legend and bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs with Bela Fleck, another Grammy-winning banjo player.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we remember two American artists, beginning with poet Adrienne Rich, in her own words.

Rich was one of the most widely-read and influential poets of her time, a leading feminist, known especially for her politically-engaged verse. Her best-known volume, “Diving into the Wreck,” won the National Book Award in 1973. She died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Here she is at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 1998 reading her poem, “What Kind of Times Are These.”

ADRIENNE RICH, poet: There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted who disappeared into those shadows.

I have walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t a Russian poem. This is not somewhere else but here, our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods meeting the unmarked strip of light, ghost-ridden crossroads, leaf mold paradise. I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

[Earl Scruggs] was the guy who really made that leap, using three fingers in a rotating fashion to create this fast rippling sound that had never been heard before.Bela Fleck

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these, to have you listen at all, it’s necessary to talk about trees.

(APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was poet Adrienne Rich reading “What Kind of Times Are These.” She died Tuesday at age 82.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we close with another artist, bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs, who died yesterday in Nashville at 88.

Scruggs helped create a new sound for the banjo and bluegrass music, first with Bill Monroe and then with his longtime partner Lester Flatt and The Foggy Mountain Boys. Their son “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” used in the film “Bonnie and Clyde” won a Grammy in 1968. He also performed the theme music to the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He later formed the Earl Scruggs Review, playing and recording with his sons.

Here’s a clip from a Scruggs performance in North Carolina in 2002.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now by another Grammy-winning banjo player, Bela Fleck.

Thanks so much for joining us.

BELA FLECK, musician: My pleasure. Thanks for asking me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell us about the Earl Scruggs sound. What did he do with the banjo to create something new?

BELA FLECK: Well, he’s the guy who really made that leap with using three fingers in a rotating fashion to create this fast rippling sound that had never been heard before. And I can show you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Please.

BELA FLECK: He wears — he wears two finger picks and a thumb pick, and by alternating them, he can play about as fast as he wants.

(MUSIC)

BELA FLECK: So it’s this action. You know, you couldn’t move one finger that fast, but all three, it’s pretty easy, and it’s kind of an incredible leap.

JEFFREY BROWN: So give us — tell us a little bit more about this — the history of his playing and really changing the sound of bluegrass music.

BELA FLECK: Well, he really exploded on the scene in Bill Monroe’s band in the early ’40s. And when he joined the band, it was an incredible thing.

They played the Grand Ole Opry, and I think it was like a Beatles-type response, where nobody had heard anything like this before. And I think his playing propelled bluegrass and Bill Monroe’s music to the level that — where we’re all still talking about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you describe that sound? Because you’re the one of the people that picked up on it. What did you first hear when you heard it?

BELA FLECK: Well, I first heard this.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: I think a lot of people will remember that, yes.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, they do.

And Earl Scruggs had this thing that it wasn’t just the technique or even the instrument. It was him. There was this soulful quality that came through that made you — if you’re somebody like me who was, I guess, supposed to play the banjo, it made you stop in your tracks, and you couldn’t do anything until you got done hearing him play, and then immediately you’d have to go try and find a banjo.

I’ve heard of people stopping their cars, having car wrecks, all kinds of things. But most of the banjo players I know had that moment when they heard Earl Scruggs. So, for me, it transcends the technique. It’s the musician in him and his personality, his musical personality, such great taste, such great technique, very, very creative.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you see that influence today still?

BELA FLECK: The influence? Absolutely.

I mean if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, guys like me wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. I mean, he’s changed so many people’s lives, honestly. I was thinking about all the thousands of people that live in Nashville, like myself, that there’s no reason a guy from New York would end up down there if it wasn’t for the sound of Earl Scruggs’ banjo coming over the airwaves and just changing my life.

And it’s happened so many people that I know. It’s made a lot of people richer from hearing him. And I just think we’re all very lucky to have him in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you got to play with him. What was that like? What was he like?

BELA FLECK: He was really cool because he was very quiet, and he wouldn’t say much, but then he would come out with a quip that was like so perfect and so brilliant, very smart.

And over the last few years, I got to know him a lot better. He was home a lot more. And we live about a mile apart in Nashville, Tenn. In fact, he came — I shouldn’t be talking about me, but he came to see my concerto performance in Nashville with a symphony back in September. And I was just thrilled that he would do that.

But, also, on occasion, I could go to his place and we’d sit around and play or talk and hear old stories. And it was just very sweet. And I just feel very fortunate to have had that time with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you take us out with about 30 seconds more of some Earl Scruggs music?

BELA FLECK: Sure.

Here — about the time when he came up, there was a lot of swing and jazz going on in the world, too, and it affected him, too. So I will play a little of that, that you might not expect from Earl Scruggs.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Bela Fleck on the music and life of Earl Scruggs, thanks so much.

BELA FLECK: Thank you.