Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium: the place where 21-year-old Earl Scruggs became a national banjo sensation in 1945.
The farm boy from Cleveland County’s Flint Hill community stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage and fired off his blazing three-finger picking style. The audience went wild, heralding the arrival of the banjoman.
Built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, Ryman Auditorium was home for the Opry from 1943 until 1974. When renovations were completed in 1994, the Ryman became a performance hall. Sunday, the historic building — nicknamed “The Mother Church of Country Music” — will host Scruggs’ funeral.
J.T. Scruggs, 70, who lives in Boiling Springs, will be at the service, remembering his famous uncle. A pioneer of the five-string banjo and member of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, Earl Scruggs died Wednesday of natural causes at age 88.
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Over the years, it was always a special time when Earl Scruggs came back to Cleveland County for a visit.
J.T. Scruggs recalled the day in the mid-1960s when Earl Scruggs, along with his partner Lester Flatt and their band The Foggy Mountain Boys, were playing a show in the old Number One Township School south of Boiling Springs.
“Dad fixed dinner for the whole band,” J.T. Scruggs said. “They put my youngest son on their bus and carried him to the school where they played that night. He never, ever forgot that.”
Another time in the 1960s, J.T. Scruggs and his wife went to Nashville for a Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium.
Earl Scruggs was recovering from hip surgery at the time and wasn’t performing that night. But he felt well enough to take J.T. Scruggs and his wife on a day tour around Nashville.
They went to the Vanderbilt University campus where Flatt & Scruggs had recently performed and drove by the homes of such entertainers as Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl.
That evening, J.T. Scruggs and his wife went to the Ryman Auditorium, knowing it had special significance for his uncle.
On that stage Earl Scruggs had first appeared with bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s band in 1945. During a performance there the following year, Scruggs made eye contact with his future wife, Louise, who was sitting in the audience. They were married in 1948. Louise Scruggs, who became her husband’s manager, died in 2006.
At Sunday’s funeral service, J.T. Scruggs will think about the music his uncle made at the Ryman. Even more, he’ll remember a person who was “easygoing, easy to talk to and very genuine.”
‘Lord, could he play’
Ben Humphries, 83, of Cliffside, can’t make it to Earl Scruggs’ funeral, but his thoughts are with the family.
As word of Scruggs’ death made headlines worldwide, Humphries remembers an all-night drive to Nashville about 1946 to hear Scruggs in person at the Ryman Auditorium.
Humphries and Scruggs grew up in the same territory, along the Broad River flowing through Cleveland and Rutherford counties.
Humphries heard Scruggs play back in the early 1940s, before he turned professional and still worked at a Shelby textile mill.
In 1946, Humphries worked second shift at the Cliffside Mill. Saturday nights he listed to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, hearing audiences in the Ryman scream for joy when Scruggs played the banjo, calling him back for encore after encore.
Humphries dreamed of seeing his hero in the Ryman someday.
One Friday after work, he and another mill employee hit the road for Nashville.
“We shared the driving in a borrowed car,” Humphries said. “And we didn’t even have driver’s licenses.”
At the Ryman Auditorium, they found seats and waited for the banjo picking to begin. Scruggs didn’t disappoint.
“Lord, could he play,” Humphries said. “It gave you cold chills.”
Over the years, as Scruggs’ star rose even higher, Humphries caught his act whenever possible.
Occasionally, they talked. The banjoman was always the same.
“He was just like Earl,” Humphries said. “Sort of shy. And he always acted like he was proud to see somebody from back home.”