Six hours into Ken Burns’ latest documentary — Country Music — I realize how much of such singing and performances of musicians have helped shape my life.
One episode focused on the work of Earl Scruggs, the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” banjo picker who immortalized the instrument with his three-finger picking and other improvisations.
I first saw Scruggs, along with partner Lester Flatt, at the old movie theater on Floyd’s South Main Street in the early 1960s. The stage in front of the theater screen hosted a number of prominent musical acts back then and the performance of Flatt & Scruggs remain in my memory now.
More than a decade later, Scruggs had the Earl Scruggs Revue when it appeared at The Mississippi River Festival on the Illinois side of the Big Muddy near St. Louis in the 1970s. I covered the festival for its 10 years during my tenure at The Telegraph in Alton, IL — shooting photographs and reviewing may of the shows.
Backstage after Scruggs’ show, I interviewed him and mentioned that I lived in Floyd County in my high school years and saw he and Lester at the theater. He remembered playing in Floyd.
“We closed the show with a gospel tune and then went out back of the theater and drank moonshine with some local musicians,” Scruggs said. “I remember that shine. Good stuff.”
I told him that it probably came from the still of Cleophus Sowers, our most prominent Floyd County moonshiner.
“We took a couple of jugs with us on the bus on our way to the next gig,” he said with a smile.
John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band says Scruggs influenced thousands of musicians, including himself, and should be remembered as a pioneer of banjo music. Comedian Steve Martin, who also plays banjo, agrees. His dream was to play with Scruggs, which he did several times, including appearing in “Men With Banjos” on the David Letterman Show.
Burns’ documentary also focused on the role of The Carter Family and their involvement in The Bristol Sessions in 1927 in a warehouse on the Tennessee side of the city’s main street, which is also the Virginia-Tennessee state line. In those sessions, the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers stand out as the musicians who got their starts.
The Carter Family Fold in deep Southwestern Virginia, is a major stop on The Crooked Road.
The documentary also features The Stanley Brothers and Clinch Mountain Boys, Patsy Cline and other Virginia standouts in both Old Time and Bluegrass music. PBS is broadcasting Country Music for 16 hours over eight nights over the next few weeks.
For those of us who call Floyd County and Southwestern Virginia home, it is our music.
More importantly, it is America’s music.