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Stars turn out for Earl Scruggs’ memorial

Billy Bob Thornton, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill and more remember the legend
/ Source: The Associated Press

Louise Scruggs, whose business savvy helped banjo great Earl Scruggs’ career flourish, was remembered Monday in a memorial service at the auditorium where they first met.

Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thornton, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs and others spoke or performed during the ceremony at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Others in attendance included Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Bill Anderson, the Whites and John Carter Cash.

Many described Scruggs as a no-nonsense, taciturn woman who could be intimidating.

“When I first met Louise, I was scared to death of her,” Thornton said. “I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”

But in time her cool demeanor would melt away, and she was warm and humorous with those she knew well.

“If she liked you and thought a lot of you, she’d let you know it,” said Tritt, who performed a bluesy version of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” a song he said she always requested of him no matter the occasion.

As the wife and manager of banjo player Earl Scruggs, Louise Scruggs helped expand the audience for bluegrass and country music. She died Thursday at age 78.

The two married in 1948, two years after they met while he was performing at the Grand Ole Opry with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and she was a member of the audience.

A head for businessHer husband left Monroe to form Flatt & Scruggs with guitarist and singer Lester Flatt, and Louise Scruggs took over their business dealings in 1955. Mick Buck, a curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame, called her the first professional manager in country music.

“Wherever Gabriel may be blowing his horn ... , you can bank on it that there’s a sign on the marquee that says ‘Under new management,”’ the Rev. Will Campbell said.

Scruggs’ three-finger banjo picking style invigorated country music, a term he and his wife preferred over bluegrass. But Louise Scruggs saw opportunities to expand her husband’s audience beyond country, first with the folk movement of the 1950s and later with rock fans.

She handled deals that produced two of the duo’s best-known hits, including putting “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the soundtrack of the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and relenting over her original objections to the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show. She feared “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” would stereotype Southern mountaineers but changed her mind after producers sent her the pilot episode.

Stuart said that Louise and Earl Scruggs set a standard for every banjo solo and business deal cut in Nashville. “It’s a great legacy for all of us,” he said.

Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs, who delivered the eulogy, said Mrs. Scruggs was cordial but firm in the male-dominated business side of country music.

He recalled that when men declined to deal with her and instead asked to speak with her husband, she would tell them, “Well, he’ll speak with you, but he won’t discuss business with you. You’ll have to come back to me eventually anyway, so we might as well just wrap this up right now.”

When Flatt & Scruggs broke up in 1969, Mrs. Scruggs took over managing his expansion into other musical genres, including the Earl Scruggs Revue band with their sons Gary, Randy and Steve. The group became a top draw on college campuses in the early 1970s.

Yoakam, who picked and sang “In the Garden,” one of Mrs. Scruggs’ favorite hymns, said his friend, “never took any bows from the stage, but she’s getting the curtain call she deserves today.”