Chris Scruggs: The Cream Interview

By Adam Gold in Interviews Thu., Mar. 4 2010 @ 2:53PM

Chris Scruggs sitting on his easy chair

As you just read in a previous post, I crowned local Renaissance man Chris Scruggs The Duke of Music City in the Scene's second annual People Issue -- on shelves this week. Over the course of more than an hour I talked to Scruggs about his extraordinary upbringing around country music legends, his own illustrious bloodline, his love for Nashville and more. I'm posting a transcript of the Q&A after the jump. As you'll learn, not only is Scruggs one of the most impossibly talented musicians in Nashville, he's a walking encyclopedia of its musical history, and one of the nicest guys in town, to boot.

Nashville Cream: Tell us a little about your history. How did your family and upbringing influence who you are today?

Chris Scruggs: I come from a very musical family on both sides, so I've always been raised around it. Some of my earliest memories are [being] backstage with people like Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff back in the early '80s, when a lot of those classic Opry stars were still alive and performing. A lot of native Nashvillians feel a type of shame towards Nashville being Music City, and it being the home of country music. It's that hometown thing of "you never wanted to be pinned down to what people expect of you," so many people are ashamed of the negative stereotypes associated with the South and feel insecure about that. I was playing in a punk band when I was 13 and realized all my heroes like The Clash and The Sex Pistols and X loved Hank Williams and George Jones, you know, music that was made here, so I got back into the music I was raised around. I've always felt a bit of a pull in two directions, a little bit of a desire to move forward and experiment and do different things, but also to keep certain traditions alive that are definitely in danger of becoming extinct.

NC: What would you say those are?

CS: Steel guitar without pedals is one that was pretty much wiped off the map when pedal steel became popular in 1954, and a lot of the style and techniques that are associated with playing country music from "the golden era."

NC: When did you start playing and what was your first instrument?

CS: Guitar, I started playing when I was 11. I always had a drum kit as a little kid, so I've been able to play. I'd consider myself a drummer, but it was always around, I never really thought too much about it. I starting playing upright bass at 15, pedal at 17, and just recently took up fiddle, which has been a humbling experience.

NC: Did you have an aptitude for playing early on?

CS: It seemed like a very obvious thing for me to play music -- I was raised around it. All I've ever really known is people who were working musicians here in this town and in this community.

NC: Who originally taught you to play?

CS: My mom taught me my first few chords on the guitar. As far as the players I've looked up too, I've been taking fiddle lessons from Buddy Spicher, who's a legendary session fiddle player. I learned steel guitar from Johnny Sibert -- who played with Carl Smith -- and later from Kayton Roberts. Those guys both come from the earlier style of not playing with pedals.

NC: Tell me a little bit about your mom.

CS: My mom, Gail Davies, had a string of hits in the early '80s and she was the first female record producer in the history of country music. Her influence on me was very key as far as [devoloping] an ear not just for playing and singing but for production and how different elements of fit together to make a complete sound and, you know, the whole way of looking at a record.

NC: Did it seem normal growing up around the kind of talent you were exposed to?

CS: One time when I was a little kid and my mom was in the studio, I was sitting in the lounge just watching television, and this guy walked in, this kinda shaggy-lookin' guy, and I was watching Sesame Street and he said "Hey, do you like Big Bird?" and I said "Yeah!" and he said, "You know in the Sesame Street movie I was an actor and I picked up Big Bird when he was hitch-hiking" and I went "Wow, that's so incredible!" It wasn't until I was, like, 20 that I realized that was Waylon Jennings. You don't realize that they're a different experience until you step outside Nashville or you talk to people who aren't from here, or didn't grow up around the music industry that you realize that you had an unusual and wonderful childhood.

NC: How old were you when you joined BR5-49?

CS: I joined at 19. I was second lead singer and guitarist for three and a half years.

NC: Was that your first experience going on the road?

CS: I was raised on a tour bus as a little kid. I learned to walk on a bus when my mom was opening for Neil Young and people like that. They'd sit me up on the drum throne when I was a little kid. Jim Keltner was the drummer and he would go out front and I would check his toms for him. I'm like two years-old and it's like "boom boom boom boom." It was a wonderful everyday life.

NC: When was the first time you went on the road as a performing musician?

CS: When I was 16, in a rockabilly band that I had with a friend of mine, Matt Arnn, who still plays drums for me today. I've always kind of been in the same band only now it's not so much rockabilly. It's more rock 'n' roll and a lot of different things put together.

NC: Was your experience with BR5-49 bigger than anything you had been a part of up to that point?

CS: Yeah, we played everywhere from Robert's to the American Ambassador's private 4th of July event. Bill Clinton, Tony Bennett, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were there, so we saw a lot of different people. It's a wave. Sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down. It's always nice when something peculiar happens like that.

NC: Did you ever perform at The Ryman?

CS: Oh yeah, many times. I started performing on the Opry when I was 17, playing rhythm guitar for my mom.

NC: A lot of musicians dream of playing someplace like The Ryman. What's it like to play a venue like that when you are a teenager?

CS: It's a lot like it is playing in your 20s or 30s or onward. It's frightening (laughs). If you really love the music, that good old country music, there's a certain amount of respect you associate with that building and what it represented in that era, that it was the main home of the Opry. You do two songs on the Opry and it feels like 10 seconds, it's like you don't breathe the whole time you're onstage. It's such a better feeling to do the Opry at the Ryman than out at Opryland. That's the stage where Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Webb Pierce stood.

NC: And Carl Smith just passed away.

CS: Yeah, I was at his funeral this morning actually. Carl was a friend of mine and my mom's. We used to go out to their house a lot. He retired from the business in '78 and he didn't like to talk too much about it, but for some reason he'd always talk about music and talk about old war stories of being on the road. He'd talk about that with us, maybe because we weren't pushing him for it, or maybe because he [thought] that I really knew what was up.

NC: Did you have a lot of people like that in your life growing up that would tell you anecdotes and personal experiences from within the industry?

CS: Yeah, particularly Johnny Sibert. He worked as a security guard at The Tennessean. He retired from the music business and decided to get a day job, and I looked him up when I started to play steel, and said "Show me how to play Carl Smith Songs." I established a relationship with him, and he would tell me all sorts of stories about being on the road in the '50s. I feel very lucky to hold that information.

NC: How did that shape your perspective of the music and the music industry?

CS: It definitely lets me know that it's not what it used to be. People forget that before the mid '50s, Nashville wasn't an industry town. It was a very small, family style operation. There isn't really that magic of 20-year-old kids making records that are classic, the world over, 50 years later.

NC: What is your attitude toward modern country music?

CS: Somewhere along the lines [the industry] realized they didn't need art. People say, "Oh, you know, country music went bad," and they like to blame it on Nashville. People say, "I can't stand Nashville for what it's done to country music." Nashville was the home of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. To blame Nashville for the state of country music is like blaming the house for being robbed. People came, cheapened it, and they took away a lot of the magic. That's not Nashville's fault, it's the industry's fault, and it's the same industry that's responsible for a lot of the mediocre rock music you get nowadays too [but people don't go blaming L.A. for that]. Country fans feel so betrayed by Nashville as a city and I'd like to champion Nashville and say that no, Nashville is still a good place. We've still got Little Jimmy Dickens and we've still got some good things here. It's the only place in the world where you can see Little Jimmy Dickens at Cracker Barrel randomly on a Saturday morning.

NC: Do you do a lot of modern country gigs in terms of session work?

CS: Not really. Pretty much most of the session work I do will be more on the rock 'n' roll side. I've worked with people like Andrew Bird, and then the record I had just released, Anthem, I recorded in Tucson at Wavelab, where Calxico and Neko Case record. At Wavelab I've recorded with Neko Case, M. Ward and the different people out there. Any country session work I do will be with people like Buddy Spicher or Charlie Louvin. People who are of that past generation, and I feel a connection to, and a responsibility to keep that sound alive.

NC: What do artists like Andrew Bird and M. Ward come to you for?

CS: It's a big difference recording with an 80-year-old country singer and an artist like Andrew Bird or M. Ward. It's a lot more off of vibe or feel. There won't be any charts during the session; it's more like they say, "Do something right there," and then you do something, and then they'll say, "Well, I don't know. Try something else."

NC: What's your take on the current Nashville music scene?

CS: I think there are a lot of good things. It's like a pot of boiling water with the top on it, and it's just about to spill over the edge. There are a lot of things that are starting up here, but now there seems to be a lot of people who come here that have nothing to do with country music. It's just coming here because it's a music town in general. That reminds me of that freshness that must have been here in the late '40s and early '50s. It's like a small tight-knit community of people who are willing to try new things.

NC: What's your relationship with your father's side of the family?

CS: My parents split before I was born and my father chose to have nothing to do with me growing up, but I recently met my grandfather, Earl Scruggs, for the first time at a pickin' party that was the day after his birthday and I didn't know what that was gonna be like, because I'd never met the guy. We had a really nice hour-long conversation about music and traveling, and the thing turned into a big pickin' party and we played music together for about an hour. That was really something big for me, really something special. Because people will -- on a daily basis -- say, "How's Earl?" and I've just always said "Well, he's still playin'," and not had much more to say. It always did put me a little bit on edge, but now that I've met him and we had this really wonderful evening, it's kind of made peace with a lot of things for me, so everything is good now.

NC: You have a last name that is steeped in so much country music history; does that lead people to assume things about you?

CS: People always assume or ask me if I play banjo, and that's the one instrument I don't play. I guess one Scruggs who plays banjo is good enough because it would be a big responsibility to live up to. Either people would say, "Wow, that's great! You sound just like him." Which voids you in your personality in your playing, or they'd say, "Well, he's no Earl Scruggs." They're not gonna say that you're better, because you can't be -- he invented the style. They call it Scruggs style. So, I haven't taken it up, but I haven't ruled it out.

NC: Did it intimidate you at all when you joined BR5-49?

CS: It did, going into a band with such a strong following, and to replace one of the lead singers, I didn't want to be the Sammy Hagar of BR5-49. Luckily, all the fans were really accepting and really glad to have me there. They were just glad the band stuck together.

NC: In terms of other people you know in your own age group, what do you think of their understanding of traditional country music and the tradition of Nashville?

Chris Scruggs holding twin fiddles

CS: In this town, people that are from here and have grown up around [country], like me, know a lot about it, and a lot of people don't, but fortunately I'm a real chatty guy. If someone asks me, "Hey, what's the board with strings on it?" I'll say "Well, that's a steel guitar," and 45 minutes later they're sorry they asked, but they know a lot more than they did [before]. So I think a lot of people do know. You know, I was really worried about fiddle for a while, like it was gonna die out, but then this whole generation of kids that are a couple of years younger than me popped up, and there were all these "fiddle camp" kids that I didn't know about that had been in this little fiddle camp subculture. Then they all got old enough to get into bars and moved to Nashville and it was like, "Wow! Great, fiddle is back and doing better than it ever has in years." There's a lot more fiddlers now than there were 10 years ago, that's for sure.

NC: Do you consider yourself a traditionalist?

CS: When I play country music I do, but for my music I try to draw from things that I like, but I always try to throw in something a little different to give it my own voice. Because the worst thing you can do is just mimic what somebody else has done. I think that there needs to be that classic sound of country music preserved, and it needs to be preserved in this town to where people come here and hear it. So, when I do play country music here in town, I try and present it in the way that I love it.

NC: Given the traditions you're steeped in, do you feel like an ambassador for Nashville?

CS: I definitely do. Playing steel guitar without pedals, I was born in the '80s, so I should hopefully be alive in the 2050s, and that'll be 100 years after steel guitar without pedals was deemed unpopular. It's definitely important to me to keep certain things alive -- just to keep the information around, to remind people of the names of some of those great players and what they did in a very early time in the recording industry when nobody really knew what they were doing yet. They kind of figured it out and wrote the rules. I've been lucky enough to know a lot of them in my 20s, as an adult, as many of them are passing away. I'm just as young as you could be, I'm gonna reach as far into the future, hopefully, with my life-span as somebody can, and still have a connection of looking somebody in the eye and shaking hands and having a conversation or playing music with some of these amazing, legendary players from the 1940s and '50s.

NC: Who are some of your favorite artists to visit with?

CS: Johnny Sibert, Kayton Roberts, Buddy Spicher, Harold Bradley, Bob Moore, Don Helms (who passed away two years ago), and sadly, Carl Smith.

NC: Where do you think a lot of the older generation of country musicians stands on contemporary country music?

CS: I think a lot of them just stopped listening after a certain point and weren't really bothered after that. There wasn't this militant thing about "Save Country Music" or whatever. They were old guys that had a really good run and then got to the point where they didn't really fit in with it anymore. So they just decided, "Oh, whatever," and a lot of them went into other things. Carl Smith retired in the late '70s. Johnny Sibert retired and got a job. Jerry Byrd, who was like the biggest deal in steel guitar in the early 50's, when steel without pedals became unpopular here in Nashville, just moved to Hawaii. He's been making Hawaiian music for the last 35 years of his life. So a lot of them just kind of stepped away from it, but some stayed active, you know, guys like Buddy Spicher are still at it.

NC: Who is your favorite contemporary country artist?

CS: Ray Price. [Laughs.] Because he's still just as great as he was 50 years ago. I mean, he's in his 80s now and he still sings great. He still sounds like Ray Price, his band still sounds like the Cherokee Cowboys. Every time I see him (and I've been lucky enough to see him a few times in just the last year) it's always great. It gives me goose bumps and sends chills down my spine.

NC: What about current rock favorites?

CS: As far as the rock 'n' roll side of things, I think Neko Case is great. I think she makes masterful records, and I think each one has gotten better. She's going somewhere with what she's doing, she's going in a direction. I think Calexico make great records and have a great live show too. Their records are like movies for the ears. I think there are a lot of good things going on in music right now, but a lot of it just isn't on the television.

NC: Given the depression the music industry has been in for the last 10 years or so, do you think the same things are possible now culturally and commercially that were possible in the past?

CS: It seemed like there used to be this 10-year wave. In the '40s it was Sinatra, in the '50s it was Elvis, in the '60s it was The Beatles, and after that people got used to the whole thing of "pop stars." I think the days of huge bands are probably gone, but that probably isn't such a bad thing. I mean, who wants to play for that many people, you know? Who wants to be part of a crowd that big and try and watch a band? That's not fun. It's a big happening, but it isn't about the performance or music anymore. It's just like a light show by that time. People that will go out now and actually pay money to see a show in a small club, for the most part, they really want to hear music. They really want to appreciate it, and they usually know something about it. It's not what everybody does on a Saturday night now, but the people that do are the people that really want to.

NC: When people talk about the detrimental state of the music industry, they usually talk about how it's been slower to hit Nashville and country music. Have you felt that at all in what you do?

CS: Somehow, I've been OK. Yes, I think country is a little slower with the trends, but for some reason I think country has done OK. It's probably tougher for the people in the middle, at the major labels. People who make music because they want to make music are going to continue to make music. People who make music because they want to make money are the people who are gonna hurt, and those are probably the people who are gonna get out of it. Maybe this is just a nice bloodletting of the music industry. Let's get it down to the people who really love this, and let the other people go sell shoelaces, vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias or whatever. If all they want to do is sell something, let them go do that. Leave the pickin' to the pickers.

NC: How do you integrate modern music into what you do? How do you bridge the gap between traditional and modern music?

Chris Scruggs picking guitar on the porch

CS: I really don't think about it too much. I just try to take sounds I like and put them together, whether they sound like they go together or not. It's like on my new record [Anthem], there's a lot steel guitar but not in the traditional sound of country steel guitar. It sounds more like string section parts with steel guitar. ... It's funny, people often focus on my guitar playing, but I really do everything I can to play down the electric guitar, and make it not be the lead instrument. Especially on a record, I'll ask, "What can I use here instead of a guitar solo?" Everyone's heard a guitar solo; everyone can play a guitar solo. What else have you got?

NC: What instrument would you like to learn that you don't know how to play?

CS: Piano, definitely.

NC: Would you ever live anywhere besides Nashville?

CS: You know, I probably wouldn't.

NC: Say a tourist had 24 hours in town, where would you direct them to really experience Nashville?

CS: Cheekwood, the Belle Meade Mansion, Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry. And a Brown's burger. Brown's [diner] definitely needs to be involved.

Photographed by Eric England in Scruggs' East Nashville home.

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