February 17, 1927- February 2, 2006
Louise Scruggs’ life can be described as one of dedication. It’s hard to imagine a woman more devoted to her husband, and her family. In show business, tight families are the exception, not the rule, and Louise showed the kind of day-in day-out loyalty to her man and her family that never lapsed for well over 50 years in the fray.
In the usual way, booking agents are far from the most popular people. They probably rank there with tax collectors, police who stop you for speeding, and such. As one of them recently told me, “We spend all our time brawling. It’s nice to actually be on the road with the performer so you can see the fun side of it.”
Louise’s last time on the road was this past September, accompanying Earl and Gary for appearances in New York, at the New Yorker Festival, and on the David Letterman show. It was at the end of this trip when she severely injured her back and went straight to the hospital on return to Nashville. It was last time she was able to walk on her own.
This was a special occasion, as the gigs were in combination with Steve Martin (as well as myself, Tony Ellis, and Charles Wood), with rehearsal’s at Steve’s, and quite a bit of down time at the hotel. She used oxygen constantly, in the hotel, at the rehearsals, at the gigs. She was moving very slowly but I never heard her complain once. When there were opportunities for her to go to bat for Earl, she did it instinctively, with clear focus, and firmly enough that there was no mistaking the outcome. Yet she always spoke quietly. As always, her bluntness was refreshing. No question where her priorities were, no coyness, and much of the time, no small talk.
She was proud to be part of music business society, and was aware of the esteem she had earned over the years. From humble beginnings in rural Tennessee, she earned every step of her way to the high echelons of her business, in what was otherwise a 100% man’s world. In her last few years, she collected many lifetime achievement awards, though I can only squirm in regret of how the IBMA has overlooked her nominations twice now to be in its Hall of Honor. A lapse all the more regrettable now, and especially considering her unmistakable accomplishments as the most successful and groundbreaking agent in the history of bluegrass.
She took a quiet enjoyment in the many friends she and Earl had, and frequently hosted at picking parties at their palatial home. His recognition as a major celebrity gave her a quiet pride, and I noted her particular pleasure in the attention of other celebrities, and in Earl’s receiving the high honor of a star in Hollywood’s famed Walkway. Even after many decades in the business, it had to be a thrill to receive special attention from the likes of Elton John, Billy Bob Thornton, Sting, and essentially anyone who has paid attention to American music in the last 60 years. Yet, I noticed with a bit of amusement, when we would go out to a restaurant in Nashville, the local folks paid no particular mind to these living legends in their midst, any more than they might notice any older couple.
When I was first getting to know her and Earl, and would sometimes call them at home, if Louise picked up, her typical dry tone would sometimes be disarming, as though my call weren’t welcome. But after a few seconds of talk, you could hear her spirit, and we at times would get into quite long and enjoyable conversations. Her sense of humor was so dry, that if you weren’t paying careful attention, you would miss one of her understated jokes. Once in a joking mood, Louise could be downright funny (though always dry), and really defy her image as a hardnosed businessperson. She also willingly shared opinions about the music business, and privately would comment on the laudable and less-than-laudable behavior she witnessed. There’s no doubt she found people fascinating.
As with all the Scruggs family, Louise’s manner was often understated. While she rarely made declarations about families and their needs, it’s clear that her family was her all. Her pride in her three sons shone through, and it had to be the high point in her life when her business activities for ten years were all about promoting the careers of all of all four of her men, with the Earl Scruggs Revue.
In just these last few years, Louise, despite serious respiratory difficulties, accompanied Earl to places high in the Colorado mountains (Steamboat Springs and Telluride) where at over 8000 feet elevation, the air is noticeably thinner. This past year at Telluride, she wound up in a hospital. A little over a year ago, she flew overseas to join Earl and Gary for his first appearance in Ireland, after having had to stay behind to receive a prestigious award in the States. Not many people in their late 70s would undertake such traveling, but for Louise, it was practically unthinkable to stay home. Whether at home or on the road, Earl and Louise were truly inseparable.
My last conversation with Louise was on Jan. 6, Earl’s birthday. I have called Earl on his birthday for many years. This year, that day saw them sharing a room at a rehab facility, where he was recuperating from the fall he took in late November. The only way to call in was Louise’s cell phone. I was in Colorado putting together a performance with 12 banjo players at my Advanced Banjo Camp. I called Louise on the cell, and she answered, in a clear voice. Earl was not able to get to the phone, so the two of us talked. I put her on the speaker phone for the campers to hear. She sounded downright lively, asked about the camp, and gave her greetings to the group, and extended Earl’s. She said the one thing she regretted was that she couldn’t “jump right out of bed” and throw Earl a party, as she was used to doing. There, in the last month of her life, suffering from multiple ailments, her greatest joy remained honoring her man.
For all of us who appreciate Earl and his music, we should be well aware of what Earl has often said, that a major part of the credit for his career goes to Louise. In other words, were it not for her, there’s a good chance many of us would never have had a chance to hear Earl. There are many great musicians in the world. Many great ones we never hear of. We’ve all sung Earl’s praises, but now the voice of the strongest and longest singer is stilled. Long live Earl Scruggs, and long live Louise Scruggs, in the hearts of music lovers.
Feb. 6, 2006