The Last Nashville Cat and the new Music City
In many ways, Nashville native Chris Scruggs might be the last Nashville Cat, a musician's musician who sees nothing incongruent in being a fan of R&B, rock n' roll, and classic country music. For two decades, the best and brightest of Nashville have watched Scruggs gracefully transition from a young fan with a voracious appetite for every kind of music to the modern day version of country greats like Grady Martin and Hank Garland who played with taste, verve, and humor and brought a generous music spirit to every session.
As a teenager and the son of songwriter and artist Gail Davies, the first female producer allowed on Music Row (and the grandson of Earl Scruggs), Chris immersed himself not on alternative rock but in the lost art of 'hillbilly' music, becoming a master lap steel player and learning everything he could about stylists like Johnny Sibert, Billy Robinson, Bashful Brother Oswald, and Kayton Roberts. At the same time, Chris went around Nashville and knocked on the doors of dozens of studio guitarists from the '40s, '50s, and '60s who had been left by the side of the road in the age of Garth and Shania, learning their secrets and stories.
Since we last spoke with Chris, his musical reputation has spread nationally. Recent tours with M. Ward and She and Him have found Chris on bass, guitar, and steel, and he remains a vital part of Marty Stuart's road show, too. Chris stopped by the House of Stathopoulo to check out the new Masterbilt Century Archtop and (thankfully) came away impressed.
When we last spoke you had just joined Marty Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives.
Yes! We do about 90 dates a year and we also work the Grand Ole Opry on a fairly regular basis. And in addition to that I'm also doing a lot of session work in town. And I'm also leading a band called Chris Scruggs and the Stone Fox 5 where we play old traditional country music from the old days.
For fans who might not know, "Honky Tonk" country refers to the period of country music just after World War II up until the breakthrough of Elvis. Honky Tonk was bar music--driving beats with solos by fiddles, steels, and jazz-influenced guitars. The Honky Tonk era also saw the emergence of a more personal style of songwriting. This was a generation, after all, that had endured 5 years of war, and writers like Hank Williams and Floyd Tilman spoke frankly about relationships, drinking, and even depression. How did you discover Honky Tonk country?
When I was a little kid, my Mom would sing Hank Williams songs while we were driving down the road and I'd hear Webb Pierce records and Everly Brothers records. Just a lot of older classic music. And it always resonated with me because it had really good melodies and just the feel of those records was a little more dynamically sensitive than music where it just sounds like you're banging your head against the wall for the duration of the song.
Since the first musicians you learned from were much older than you, how did you fit in with your contemporaries? Did you know other kids who had a passion for rock n' roll and country?
When I was a kid in school all the other kids would always listen to new music. At the time, my favorite music--and still is some of my favorite music--would be classic rock n' roll by Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers, so I didn't musically relate to a lot of other kids. I guess I stuck out for that. But I really don't regret it because I think I always would much rather listen to that than what's on the radio.
What do you think that "classic music" has given you--in terms of skills, musical attitude--that has enabled you to go from working with Marty Stuart to She & Him who draw from a different style altogether?
There's a common thread I think with a lot of the good music that's out now like She and Him and M. Ward and people like that. There's a deep love there for the same kind of music that I grew up with. I'm sure I'm not going out on a limb to say that the L.A. Wrecking Crew sound of the 1960s is probably just as important--if not the most important--influence on somebody like Zooey Deschanel's music. The Doo-Wop vocal music of the 50s and 60s also as well. And there's a common thread there--that classic music from that golden age of American recording. That's the same with country music, too. It's the same era--a lot of the same players. When you consider James Burton might one day play on "Suzie Q" -- a rock n' roll side--and the next day he could be in the studio with Buck Owens or Merle Haggard, that's hard hittin' country music. It's a real fine line between a lot of that stuff. As the old saying goes: there are two types of music, good music and the other kind. That's kind of the way I look at it. If it's good music, I can relate to it. I think that's the important thing. If I can relate to it people can see that and can sense that it's something that you can contribute.
Nashville has become a very hip music town. Some bands are moving here just to be from Nashville. As an artist who also gets the call to help out in the studio, how do you see Nashville today?
I'm having more fun doing studio work now than I've had in years and I think a lot of that is strangely enough the more new people that come here and the less of the burden of the old dinosaur model of the record industry has a say, the more people are free to do what they want to do. And I think most creative people recognize that older music is the deepest well to draw from. Just last week, I was playing steel on a Casey Musgrave session and they had Joe Spivey and Larry Franklin and Kenny Sears from the Time Jumpers playing triple fiddle and I got to play 8-string lap steel like Jerry Byrd all day. And I was thinking this would never have happened 10 years ago with a hot young country artist. But nowadays there's a little more room to stretch out.
It's almost like in the 1950s when the old guys that ran the record labels didn't understand rock music so they just let the kids do whatever they wanted. And they just threw their hands up in the air and said: "I don't know what these kids like about it but let's put it out." Once the kids who grew up on rock n' roll became the "suits" then it became very constricted because everyone had an opinion. I think there's a little more freedom now. I think we're in one of those pocket eras when you can kind of just go in and do whatever you want. And just be creative and be yourself. No one is selling 20 million copies of a record like they were in the 1990s so some of that pressure is off to appeal to that many record buyers and it's a little more about who are you and what do you have to say.
Do find that younger players hear early country music differently than you do? For someone getting into the music for the first time, they are not paying attention to how different "Pre-Elvis country" was compared to "Post-Elvis country."
There are things that I've definitely had to come around to when I was a 14 year old angsty punk rocker that I would have never admitted that there was any merit to but now I can listen to some of the more slick records from the 70s and go: well, there's some merit there. Those are some well-crafted songs and they sing really well and the musicianship is always stellar. The steel guitar player Jimmie Day had a very insightful opinion about other musicians: no matter how good they were or no matter how fresh they were to the instrument, everybody who plays an instrument has something that you can learn from them. You can learn something from everyone even if they've been only playing a day or if their style in no way reflects yours, there's still something you can learn there. There's always room for growth. That's refreshing to kind of take off some of that genre- prejudice that kids might have had in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when you had to be a "metal head" or a punk rocker. I think a lot of that has kind of gone away and I think there's enough distance in time now that you can just look back at it and appreciate it for what it is.
You've been playing bass with Marty Stuart. Have you found that bass has influenced your guitar playing?
Not particularly. I have found when I'm in town and doing guitar gigs I still am moving down the same path I always have been. I find though that I have two sides to my brain. If I'm playing upright bass, my instinct is to channel the great country bass players like Bob Moore and Junior Husky. But if I pick up an electric bass, if I'm in a position to create my own bass line, I prefer the creamy melodic sound of a Paul McCartney or James Jamerson-type player. And that's been great switching between the two. Of course there's a lot of songs in Marty's show that are hits that he's had and they need to be played the way they were recorded. But with his new album there was a lot of freedom for me to create melodic bass lines and that was a lot of fun.
You've become that person you always wanted to be--an artist and a studio musician. How has becoming a professional musician changed the way you hear your favorite music?
I think the way I listen to music has changed. Instead of just focusing on what one player is doing and how they are working with the song, I'm thinking how to play as little as possible and make it count the most. Grady Martin was, of course, a master at that. He knew how to play just one note in just the right spot and it just filled the gap in between the vocal lines and it filled up so much wonderful space and it didn't fill up anything that it didn't need to. Just weaved those things together. There's a real art to that.
You've shaped your style around the building blocks of classic songwriting-melody, verses, bridges. There are a lot of modern pop music styles that don't adhere to that. It's not just that modern rock is more beat driven--in some cases it's very inorganic. How do you approach those situations?
I try not to over analyze it. With something that's more atmospheric and ambient and floaty, I think a lot of time that no one else is overthinking it to. That's why it sounds the way it does. It has a dreamy quality. It's a different side of my brain. So I just shut down the side of my brain that would read a number chart. I try to make the guitar more like a paintbrush than a drill (laughs).
Is there a musician from the old school that has made a particularly deep impression on you?
Buddy Spicher. I've spent a lot of time with Buddy. He taught me to play fiddle for as good as I can which is still a long way to go. Just as far as looking at music and not just as it relates to one instrument but looking at music in general, I think I've probably picked up more from Buddy then anybody else. Not anything you can put into words. Just sort of a spirituality about playing music that's a little less intellectualized and more intuitive.
That can be challenging in the studio, too as the art of producing is not for everyone. Many producers don't know how to talk to musicians in the studio. It's a job that's part coach, part best friend, part-psychologist.
I think on a good session, a good producer will let you do your thing and if it goes in a direction that they don't desire, they can steer it back very gently. Almost like a great musician who can fill a verse with very few notes, they can steer things back with a very light command and very few words. The frustrated musicians who turn to producing can be a little overbearing. Those guys don't last too long. It's not laying bricks. Producing is a lot of involvement. When you get into having to mix someone's record and deal with overdubs and scheduling, I'd rather have a guitar in my lap. It's come around to me a couple of times. If I'm not playing it feels like I'm working. The most fun I have is playing the music that I love.
Tell me about your vintage Epiphone.
It's a 1963 Epiphone Broadway E-292. Before that I had a blonde '66 Broadway and it was a gorgeous guitar with a nice natural finish but it was '66 so it had that skinny neck that Epiphone and Gibson used from '65 through the late 60s. And I found a sunburst '63 that had that nice wide neck on it. I was able to swap the blonde for the sunburst. It's a big 17" archtop--a big long scale. It's a great swing guitar, jazz guitar, country guitar. Those mini-humbuckers have terrific bite. They are very versatile. That was the go-to pickup for a lot of the Nashville session players. They all played Epiphone Sheratons. Those mini humbuckers can walk the line between the creamy Kalamazoo tone and that California tone. I love that guitar.