At 27, Chris Scruggs is perhaps country music's youngest musician who can consider himself a bona fide product of oral tradition. At the age of 2, he was taking his first steps on a tour bus and jamming on Jim Keltner's drums at soundcheck. At 6, he was hearing stories about Sesame Street ... from Waylon Jennings. At 13, he was playing in punk bands — at 16 he was playing on Lower Broad. He first appeared on the Opry stage at 17, and joined BR549 at 19.
In between, he spent his time absorbing the anecdotes of legends like Charlie Louvin, Harold Bradley, Robert Moore and Carl Smith — whose funeral he attended hours before this interview — while learning how to play music from teachers such as Johnny Sibert, Kayton Roberts and Buddy Spicher. It's no wonder he became what he is today: a musical savant who embodies Nashville's rich history.
"It seemed like a very obvious thing for me to play music — I was raised around it," Scruggs says in the gritty comfort of a brightly lit Laundromat in Sylvan Park. "All I've ever really known is people who were working musicians here in this town."
An admittedly chatty guy, Scruggs rattles off jaw-dropping anecdotes and musical references at an intoxicating pace, and with an enthusiasm that never lets you forget his genuine and deep-seated love for country music. You can probably learn more about Nashville's musical heritage in an hour of picking his brain than a dozen visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame could ever teach you.
"If someone asks me, 'Hey, what's the board with strings on it?' " Scruggs says. "I'll say, 'Well, that's a steel guitar and ...' Forty-five minutes later, they're sorry they asked, but they know a lot more than they did."
With a last name as hallowed as Scruggs, people often assume his unique upbringing came as a result of being grandson to bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, when in fact the younger Scruggs grew up having no relationship with the paternal side of his family. It's his mom, Gail Davies — a singer and former EMI staff writer best known for having been country music's first female record producer — who exposed him to Nashville royalty.
It was only as recently as this January that Scruggs met his grandfather for the first time. "We had a really nice, hour-long conversation about music and traveling, and then the thing turned into a big pickin' party and we played music together for about an hour," Scruggs says. "That was really something big for me, because people will — on a daily basis — say, 'How's Earl?' and I've just always said 'Well, he's still playin'.' It always did put me a little bit on edge [to be asked about it], 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."
As a solo artist, Scruggs plays rock 'n' roll — his newest record, Anthem, is currently available on Cogent Records — and he's done session work with non-country artists such as Andrew Bird and M. Ward. But when he plays country, he plays it with a determination to keep alive the traditions of the golden era — namely, steel guitar without pedals, a style for which he is widely known.
"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," he says. "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."
He counts himself lucky enough to know a lot of those players of yore personally. He's committed to preserving country's golden era, and is quick to point out that Nashville isn't to blame for the current state of the genre.
"Nashville was the home of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells," he says. "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. Nashville is still a good place. It's the only place in the world where you can see Little Jimmy Dickens at Cracker Barrel randomly on a Saturday morning."
Nashville through and through, Chris Scruggs is the kind of character only a music city could produce, and as long as he's here, real country music is alive and well. —ADAM GOLD
Photographed by Eric England in Scruggs' East Nashville home.