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Folk-country-rock-bluegrass-Americana legend Herb Pedersen (Vern & Ray, The Dillards, Desert Rose Band, Loafer’s Glory) spoke with me for a few minutes on Saturday, March 31, 2012, about his time working with and longtime friendship with the late bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who died March 28 at the age of 88.
We were hanging out in the lobby at the SCVTV Media Center in Newhall, Calif., while longtime friend and photographer Peter Sherman took a few stills (like this one) and the SCVTV “House Blend” crew set up for the musical portion of our taping with Loafer’s Glory, Pedersen’s four-member acoustic bluegrass/old-time music quartet, also featuring Bill Bryson, Tom Sauber and Patrick Sauber. Their “House Blend” show will air in early May.
It was Pedersen’s second appearance on “House Blend,” a weekly music-and-interview show hosted, booked and co-produced by yours truly. SCVTV studio manager Megan Mann-Perez is the technical producer and director, and chief engineer Michael R. Mazzetti produces the sound. In late May 2011 Pedersen and acoustic duo partner Chris Hillman were my special guests, and that program was nominated for a WAVE award later in the year. Visit scvhouseblend.com for more info about “House Blend.”
Pedersen’s stint subbing for Scruggs in the Foggy Mountain Boys was more than 40 years ago. But it was immensely influential in Pedersen’s musical development, and influences like those are what he and his Loafer’s Glory bandmates want to pass on, pumping fresh blood into music that was new or already traditional when Bill Monroe was coming up.
Watch the video of our conversation on my YouTube channel, and/or read the transcript that follows.
Stephen K. Peeples: We’re talking with Herb Pedersen. Welcome, Herb!
Herb Pedersen: Thank you, Stephen. Nice to be here.
Peeples: The news a few weeks ago wasn’t really great. We lost Earl Scruggs. (It was actually a few days earlier; I was thinking this would air later.)
Pedersen: Yes, indeed. Sad loss for the music world.
Peeples: Now, you had an experience with him when you were younger. Can you tell us about your time in The Foggy Mountain Boys?
Pedersen: Yes, it was a big treat for me. I was in Nashville working with Vern Williams and Ray Park, in a duet. Vern & Ray, as they were known. They recorded for Capitol, and I think they had a single out or two. They were like The Louvin Brothers, and wonderful singers, and a great, rich heritage of early country music. I was on an early morning TV show, “The Smilin’ Eddie Hill Show,” and Eddie Hill was famous for “discovering,” quote-unquote, The Louvin Brothers and bringing them to Capitol Records and all that. So, he had a TV show back in the mid-’60s, Channel 5 in Nashville, and Earl saw me on that TV show playing banjo with Vern & Ray.
Earl Scruggs in 2005. Photo: Rivers Langley.
He told me that he got my name and my phone number through the Musician’s Union in Nashville, called me up, and literally invited me over to his home. I was living in Madison, Tenn. at the time, which was in the suburbs of Nashville. I went over and spent some time with him. I was 23 years old and just scared out of my wits to meet the master, but he was so sweet to me, I just felt so at ease.
He invited me in, we played some music. He played the guitar, he wanted me to play banjo, so I played banjo for him. So, when we got through, he said to me, “I kind of got you here under false pretenses.” And I didn’t know what he meant, and he said, “I have to go into the hospital for an operation on my hip.”
He had a bad car wreck in 1955 and there was still some bone spurs in there that were really giving him problems.
So, he said “I’d like you to take my place with Lester and the guys, if you’re interested,” and I just said, “I’m thrilled beyond belief. Do you think I can do it?” He said, “Well, I just heard you play in front of me, and you sounded great, so it’s totally okay with me. I’d like to bring you down to the (Grand Ole) Opry tonight to meet Flatt and the rest of the guys in the Foggy Mountain Boys.”
So, that was it. I went home, packed a bag for like a week’s worth of work, went back to Earl’s house. We got in his Cadillac, drove down to the Opry and I met Lester Flatt and, let’s see, Josh Graves, “Jake” Tullock, bass player, Paul Warren, the fiddle player, and Johnnie Johnson, who was playing rhythm guitar with them for a while.
From that point, we did the Opry show, and then hopped on the Martha White bus and drove out of town, toward West Virginia. It was just like one of those rock dreams, where there was a coffee table book that came out where “all of your dreams come true,” well, that was it for me. I was 23 and I had gotten to meet Earl and spend time with him, and also work with Lester Flatt. It was just a thrill beyond words.
Peeples: Now, what was Earl like as a guy? You had enough time to spend with him to really get to know him a little bit as a person. What kind of a person was he?
Pedersen: He was very gracious. He was very humble, almost to the point of embarrassment to the people around him, because he literally would say things that would belie his importance in the music industry.
He’d say, “Well, I’m just glad I could contribute a little bit to the music business,” that sort of thing, and he is probably one of the most copied musicians in the world, in the history of music. Anybody who plays the five-string banjo, I can tell you right now, has been influenced by Earl Scruggs in some way, big or small. I mean, there’s so many great five-string players out there now. It’s part of his legacy that he’s just passed on to all of us.
Peeples: The style that he developed was a singular style. It really kind of rewrote the book on banjo playing, right?
Pedersen: Well, there were three-finger-style players back then. Charlie Poole and Snuffy Jenkins… So, he learned a lot from listening to those guys. You can look up Charlie Poole and check out some of the songs that he has recorded, and you’ll hear a lot of Earl’s influence in there because of the way he played.
Earl had this wonderful right hand where it was just so smooth, the way he played. It was a lot different than most of the five-string players back then. Uncle Dave Macon flailed the banjo — he didn’t play three-finger style. So, Earl kind of brought the banjo out from a comedic-type instrument to something with a little dignity, and made it more of almost a jazz instrument, if you will. We referred to bluegrass music as rhythmic jazz, those of us who were in it — and it is, because it is a very spontaneous type of music.
Peeples: I’ve heard the term “hillbilly jazz,” too.
Pedersen: Yes, absolutely, and there’s another word that starts with an “S” that, (laughs), we refer to it as well.
Peeples: I saw a film clip of Earl where he explained his picking technique, and he showed the pick on his thumb and then the picks on the first two fingers, the index and the middle finger. And then he gave a quick demonstration of how he did that. It was like the fingers were blurred. How the heck would you watch him and try to cop a lick? He was just so great.
Pedersen: Yes. The thing is, when you talk to people like Sonny Osborne and J. D. Crowe who are both right from that stable, that traditional style of playing, both Sonny and J. D. got to see Earl as a young man play that way, and just sit in front of him and learn. For me, out in California, I had to listen to records and try to figure out, very painstakingly, how to do this. There weren’t any videos at the time, so it was just records. It was a very tedious process. Nowadays, kids can really learn the banjo a lot faster. That’s the way it is now.
Peeples: Now, 40-some-odd years later, Earl’s passed on. What do you think his legacy — I mean, you said earlier that every five-string banjo player that followed him owes a debt to him. And it kind of ties in what Loafer’s Glory is doing, in terms of bringing the old-time music and the old styles and the traditionals into the present, and hopefully preserve it for the future.
Loafer’s Glory —Tom Sauber, Herb Pedersen, Bill Bryson and Patrick Sauber— on SCVTV’s “House Blend.” Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Pedersen: Right. It’s one of those things where we have an obligation, I think, to keep the music moving in a positive direction. There’s a lot of young bands out there that have gone way to the right of the traditional bluegrass music, and it’s more jazz-grass or whatever you want to call it. I mean, great artists like Béla Fleck and Sam Bush, they’ve taken it to that next level.
What we’re doing is trying to incorporate, if you will, bluegrass and old-time music. So, you can kind of get an idea of what it sounded like back in the ’30s and ’40s before Bill Monroe assembled that first bluegrass band, which was Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Cedric Rainwater and Chubby Wise. That was the original bluegrass band. And so, we’re just trying to… It’s a tip of the hat from us; our thanks to Earl and Lester and all the great traditional bluegrass musicians from that era.
Peeples: When you play out now, your audiences — are they old people, or are you seeing young people come in to try to steal your licks?
Pedersen: Yeah, there’s a lot of young folks comin’. A lot of older folks, too. It’s one of those things where it’s a family type of music. At most of the festivals, you see young kids, you know, pre-teens sitting there, listening to us. Teenagers, their parents and their grandparents. So, it’s a very wide audience, which is great.
Peeples: Well, thanks very much, Herb. I appreciate your sharing your memories of Earl, and we’ll share them with everybody else.
Pedersen: Thanks, Stephen.
Stephen K. Peeples is a news and features writer/reporter for KHTS News (www.hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com, and entertainment blogger with Peeples Place at KHTS (www.peeplesplace.com). He is also host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend” music and interview show on SCVTV (www.scvhouseblend.com). A former Santa Clarita Valley music and entertainment columnist (The Signal, 2004-2011), and drummer with SCV jazz group RainTree (www.raintreejazz.com, 2010-2011), he is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (“The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.stephenkpeeples.com.