• The Banjos of Earl Scruggs - Part 2

    Joe Spann is a life-long card carrying banjo player with a professional background in genealogical and historical research, staff and facility management, fiscal planning and collection development. He is the author of Spann's Guide to Gibson 1902-1941.

    This second part of a three-part article was co-authored with Steve Huber, Huber Banjos.

    See Part 1 | Part 3

    Following a Blue Grass Boys show in Blytheville, Arkansas on July 4, 1946, the Gibson RB-11 which Earl Scruggs had been playing for five years began to disintegrate. After being caught outside in a rainstorm, the pearloid fingerboard began to peel off, and the blue paint on the neck and resonator sidewall began to smear. The constant touring and performance schedule of the Blue Grass Boys over the past 18 months had taken its toll.

    While Earl clearly needed another banjo, in 1946 the choices were slim. Gibson was no longer producing banjos of any kind, much less high-quality Mastertones. During World War II the use of brass and hardwoods for manufacturing not related to the war was restricted by law, and the penalties for noncompliance were severe. Therefore the production and shipment of new Gibson banjos slowly ground to a halt about 1944 as the remaining stockpiles of parts were used up. The rise in popularity of the guitar and decline of the banjo during the 1940's triggered a shift in Gibson's production as well, making the company in no great hurry to resume banjo production. Indeed Gibson would not ship another new banjo until June 9, 1948, and no Mastertone banjos would be manufactured until the mid-1950's. Earl was reduced to seeking out a used banjo, preferably a Mastertone. The problem was how to find one.

    First Mastertone: The RB-75

    About two weeks later, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were performing a series of dates in towns near the Virginia-North Carolina border. At a show in Rocky Mount, Virginia, Earl met local performer Haze Hall who mentioned to Earl that he had a "Mastertone banjo." Around 10:30 that night, Earl showed up on Hall's doorstep and inquired about purchasing the banjo. The lateness of the hour and Earl's determination in seeking out Hall's place of residence may indicate how desperate he was for another banjo. A deal was struck for $150.00, and Earl left with the banjo, even though Hall's wife was reluctant to sell. The banjo was a model RB-75, originally shipped to the Henry County Furniture Company in Martinsville, Virginia on March 9, 1938. In the ensuing years, Hall stated many times that he bought the RB-75 not in Martinsville but in Danville, Virginia, which is located in Pittsylvania County. It seems likely therefore that the banjo had at least one owner before Hall.

    Gibson originated the style 75 banjo in August of 1937 by simply renaming what had previously been their style 3 and dropping the price from $100.00 to $75.00. In fact, Gibson's own shipping records show many examples of style 3 banjos which shipped prior to August of 1937 and were then returned to the factory on Dealer Exchange, only to be later re-shipped as style 75 banjos. When Earl purchased his RB-75 from Haze Hall in the summer of 1946, it was only eight years old and looked brand new. The banjo's neck and resonator were built from mahogany, and the metal parts were nickel plated. The inlay pattern on this specific instrument was a strange hybrid, combining a standard style 3 peghead overlay with a higher-grade style 4 fingerboard. The nonstandard aspects resulted in a unique and instantly recognizable look on Earl's new banjo.

    One might suspect that Earl used the RB-75 exclusively for the balance of his time with the Blue Grass Boys. However, some evidence indicates that he continued to use the road-worn RB-11 intermittently. Monroe and the version of the Blue Grass Boys which included Earl Scruggs first recorded on September 16th and 17th, 1946, then again on October 27th and 28th, 1947. Strangely, the cuts from the first session sound like the RB-11 although Earl had owned the RB-75 Mastertone for several months at that point. Maybe something like a broken calfskin head on the RB-75--a common occurrence in the days before plastic heads--prevented its use on the day of recording. The RB-75 was almost certainly used during the second recording session, as tunes like "It's Mighty Dark to Travel" feature a classic Mastertone sound.

    Forming the Foggy Mountain Boys

    Earl resigned from the Blue Grass Boys in late February 1948, tired of the constant touring. One of his extra duties as a Blue Grass Boy was holding the cash receipts from each concert and then making the bank deposits when the group returned to Nashville. This activity taught him important lessons about the music business: being the group's leader had the most potential for generating financial rewards, and a sideman was never going to get rich. Lester Flatt, having also seen the writing on the wall, quickly followed suit, resigning from the Blue Grass Boys in early March of 1948. Flatt & Scruggs then formed their own group shortly thereafter and the "Foggy Mountain Boys" found their first home at radio station WDVA in Danville, Virginia.

    In a rare studio photograph taken at WDVA during March 1948, Earl is seen holding the RB-75. It appears to be in almost pristine condition, a strange situation for a banjo that had supposedly been in daily professional use for almost two years. The calfskin head in the banjo appears to be brand new, without any dirt or wear from Earl's right hand. Another set of photographs taken a few weeks later at radio station WHKY in Hickory, North Carolina confirms the fine condition of the instrument.
    The banjo's excellent shape seems odder still when we recall that Earl's RB-11 had almost disintegrated under the same conditions, and over an even shorter time span. One possible answer is that Earl did not like the RB-75 and consequently did not play it very much.

    In May of 1948 Flatt & Scruggs moved their base of operations to Bristol, Tennessee and radio station WCYB. They would remain in this area for ten months, playing a regular show on the station during the day and then doing concerts in the surrounding area in the evenings. According to Earl, sometime "early in 1949" Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys came through Bristol en route to a series of concert dates. As was the custom at that time, the Blue Grass Boys stopped by WCYB to do a guest spot on the Flatt & Scruggs radio show. Earl learned that his replacement in the Blue Grass Boys was none other than his childhood friend Don Reno.

    The Granada Reappears, with Don Reno

    When Reno uncased his banjo in the studio that day, Earl Scruggs found himself staring at the battle-scarred remains of an instrument he knew very well, a relic from his early childhood days. For Don Reno was holding the extremely road-worn Gibson Mastertone RB-Granada which had once belonged to Fisher Hendley and then later to Snuffy Jenkins. It was, in all likelihood, the very first Gibson Mastertone banjo that Earl had ever encountered when he was a child. The banjo he saw that day in the WCYB studio had a broken tension hoop, ruined finish, and according to Earl much of flange was tarnished to "the color of an old copper penny that had been left laying out in the sun and rain."

    Earl knew immediately that he had to have it.

    See Part 1 | Part 3