It's been nearly 65 years, but Tut Taylor still vividly remembers the night Earl Scruggs changed it all.
It was Dec. 8, 1945, and Taylor was by his radio in Georgia listening to the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman Auditorium, as usual. He was a big Bill Monroe fan and that night the Kentuckian's Blue Grass Boys featured a brand new, 21-year-old banjo player who favored the three-finger picking style.
It wasn't exactly a new way to play the banjo. Others had used it and had even played the style on the radio.
No one played it like Earl Scruggs, though.
Add Monroe's mandolin and Lester Flatt's guitar and it made such an impression that Taylor has no problem remembering most of the details all these decades later — though the name of that first song escapes him.
"That whole Opry House just come alive and I thought it was going to explode," said Taylor, a mandolin and dobro player who has become a friend of Scruggs. "The Opry House is like a guitar box. It absorbs sounds and makes them sound better. Well, that night you could almost see the walls going in and out from the volume of hands clapping and screaming and hollering. It was maybe a lot like some of the rock 'n' roll things they had, you know. But this was a new sound, it was a pretty sound and a welcome sound."
Scruggs, now 86, will commemorate the 65th anniversary of that night — considered by many to be the evening bluegrass was born — Thursday during a performance at the Ryman.
Loves the Opry
The man whose rolling, rollicking style launched a thousand bluegrass bands hasn't played the Ryman since 2008, but said in a recent interview he loves the old building known as the "mother church."
"It is special," he said of the Ryman, which hosted the Opry until 1974. "It brings back memories."
Sitting in the Ryman's balcony, Scruggs recalled the many great memories the building holds for him.
Country Music Hall of Fame member raised his arm and pointed to a pew on the main floor.
"I met my wife here," he said of the late Louise Scruggs. "She was sitting right there, about the third row back, and I'd work the left side of the stage. I got to smiling at her and she smiled back. And we started dating and never quit."
Scruggs isn't sure when he first played the banjo. He was part of a musical family, though, and he never remembers a time when he wasn't trying to figure it out.
"I played guitar as much as I did the banjo, but for everyday picking I'd go back to the banjo," Scruggs said. "It just fit what I wanted to hear better than what I could do with the guitar."
During one practice session he was absentmindedly noodling and realized he wasn't playing in the normal way. He was using his thumb, index finger and middle finger — and it sounded pretty darn good.
"I was playing a little tune — I still play it today — called 'Reuben,'" Scruggs said. "We used to play it with a finger and a thumb and called it two-finger playing. But I had that third finger going on a roll and that excited me. That's where it started."
Scruggs began playing for money early on and was already well-known on regional radio shows.
Monroe was looking for a banjo player to fit the new sound he was working on when he heard about Scruggs. He visited Scruggs in his hotel room and asked him to come over the Ryman where the rest of the band was. They played a group of songs together and sealed the deal for $60 a week.
The rest is history.
"It's anybody's guess what made it click," Scruggs said.