Josh Graves biography gives insight into ways of Earl Scruggs
In the new autobiography, “Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir – Josh
Graves” (University of Illinois Press), culled from eight days of interviews with the late bluegrass
dobro player, Uncle Josh Graves, in 1994, the legendary musician provides interesting insight into
the ways of his long-time boss, Earl Scruggs.
Both Graves and Scruggs are in the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame. Graves died in 2006, and North Carolina’s native son, Scruggs, died earlier this year. For almost two decades, Graves worked for Scruggs in the influential Flatt and Scruggs band during the group’s best years. While this new memoir finds Graves telling many wonderful tales from his youth in Tennessee and about his life in the music business, sprinkled throughout the book is a narrative that tells the inside story of how Scruggs went about his business.
Graves is an important musician because of his advancement of the use of the resonator guitar in bluegrass music, especially when he took Scruggs’ three-finger roll method of picking the banjo and applied it to his instrument. Scruggs taught Graves his three-finger roll while in Lexington, Ky., in the late 1940s, when Graves was playing with Esco Hankins’ band.
Graves was later hired by Flatt and Scruggs as a bass player, but eventually switched to the dobro. But that also meant that you had two members of the same group utilizing the same three-finger roll, and Scruggs did not like his band members to step on each other’s toes.
“Earl would put the pressure on me, and sometimes our rolls would clash, so I’d go another way,” Graves says in the book. “He was teaching me then, and I can still feel those eyes on me if I did it wrong. He wouldn’t say nothing – just look at me. I had to figure a way to get around that banjo. Listen to those records, and you’ll know that we never played over each other.”
According to Graves, Scruggs had a specific philosophy when it came to the musicians taking a solo.
“He said, ‘Now, when it comes your turn to play, you play,’” Graves says, quoting Scruggs. “‘Do your backup soft, so you can hear the singer and the harmony.’ If you’re not careful, it can sound like five people talking. You don’t know what the heck anyone’s doing. Scruggs said, ‘Play the melody on the first part of your solo, then I don’t give a damn if you cut it all to pieces.’”
Scruggs also knew how he wanted his band to act and how he wanted the band to run. In those days, Flatt and Scruggs would perform a concert while using only one microphone, and that meant that the choreography had to be worked out.
“Scruggs was the best teacher that’s ever been or ever will be,” Graves says. “He was like a football coach. They said we looked like the Notre Dame football team. Scruggs was the quarterback, and I was the running back. I knew exactly where to go, because he told me where to go. He’d hand the ball off to me and I’d go through that hole. If you didn’t get out of there, you got stepped on.”
For more information on “Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir – Josh Graves,” visit http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/52rnx6xt9780252078644.html.