Nashville native Chris Scruggs is the rare Music City artist who at a young age stood out among legends both young and old as the kind of talent fellow musicians--not just fans--hope for. It wasn't just his ability that got everyone's attention. It was the kind of music Scruggs championed: country. As a teenager, the son of songwriter and artist Gail Davies (the first female producer allowed on Music Row), 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. In a sense, 50 years worth of country music lives and breathes in Scruggs' style. His love of the hillbilly groove led to a short stint with BR549 before he set out on his own. Scruggs has also appeared on the GRAMMY winning collection Beautiful Dreamer - The Songs of Stephen Foster as well as recordings with Amy LeVere, George Jones, and Neko Case. As if that wasn't enough, Chris recently took up the fiddle under the tutelage of legend Buddy Spicher and to no one's surprise, he's turned out to be a fair fiddler. ('Fair' by Nashville standards is usually great by any other city's standards).
Like any lad, Chris also fell hard for classic rock and roll. On stage, he tends to carry an archtop and is especially fond of the Casino not only for its Beatle lineage but because "it's pretty much all you need" when you're on stage. Chris has recently been on the road with M. Ward (on bass, guitar, and steel) when not supporting his latest album, Anthem, and working in the studio on a new album for later this year. Epiphone caught up with Chris after SXSW.
What attracted you to steel guitar?
: I think it was the vocal quality of steel guitar that attracted me at first. Johnny Sibert, who played steel for Carl Smith, told me that Carl considered the steel a sort of duet partner to his singing. Johnny would usually play the same licks and fills religiously, but he would sometimes change just one because he knew it would throw Carl for a second and make him laugh a little. You can always tell if it's a Hank Williams record, an Eddy Arnold record or a Webb Pierce record by the steel intros, way before the star had even begun singing. There's something powerful to that.
For those who think that pedals make steel guitar easier (or don't hear the difference), what do you like about each and who were your mentors on the instrument?
: The pedals kind of standardized the instrument at a time when rock and roll was big and I think a lot of the steel and fiddle players were so hungry for work in that era that they were afraid to do anything different. Had the birth rock and roll and the birth of the pedal style happened farther apart from each other, I think there would be more variety in tunings and pedal set-ups on the pedal steel.
On the one hand, pedals gave uniformity to an instrument that had previously been so varied from player to player. I personally like the major differences you hear between Jerry Byrd, Roy Wiggins, Don Helms and guys like that. That being said, you can definitely tell the difference between pedal players like Jimmy Day, Buddy Emmons and Lloyd Green.
It's really all down to the individual player. I think steel without pedals inherently lends itself to a little more imperfection and personal touch. I learned a lot from Kayton Roberts who played without pedals his entire career with Hank Snow. While the pedal steel technically gives more options to a player, Kayton found ways around the so-called limitations of "lap" steel and can get very convincing pedal steel sounds in addition to a myriad is other tones as well.
Through your Mom and just being in Nashville, lots of respected studio musicians and artists walked through your life. How did that shape your picture of the music business? Did you see it through rose-colored glasses or a dose of adult reality or both
: Definitely no rose colored glasses in regards to the business! If anything, I think I learned to not be let down when things aren't the best and to not let it go to your head when things are going really well. Show business is a mighty sea with many ups and downs. Not too different from anything else in life, I suppose.
In regards to growing up in a musical community, I've always been exposed to some of the most amazing musical experiences and some of the most incredible players. Guys from all styles, too. I have many fond memories of growing up around heavy rock and pop players like bassists Lee Skylar and Willie Weeks in addition to people like Nashville session legend Harold Bradley and steel guitar giants like Weldon Myrick.
People talk about big players being secretive of their techniques but I have never encountered that. Maybe because I was young and wasn't at all a threat to them, like if I was their age and in their era and wanted to learn their "industry secrets." I remember (upright bassist) Bob Moore giving me all sorts of hell about my left hand technique on the bass. He made sure that I got it right. Had it been the '60s and we'd been peers competing for sessions he might of not said anything. Who knows?
In your own music, you put a personal twist on both country and the Mersey Beat sound. What is it about English rock and roll that makes it so distinctive? In other words, what did they hear 'wrong' or differently that turned out so right
: From the beginning, rock and roll was the sound of desegregation. Chuck Berry was influenced by country, Carl Perkins felt the blues and there's a mighty fine line between each of their own respective white and black rock and roll styles.
I think Britain being less segregated than America meant that groups like The Beatles didn't even have to think about how unique it was to scream like Little Richard but in harmony like the Everley Brothers or to put a Detroit Motown style doowop arrangement to a country tinged song. To them, it was just all American music and they wanted to play it all at the same time. In a way, the British sound is the most American music of all. For someone like me who loves Roy Acuff and Bo Diddley and Spade Cooley and Benny Goodman, the U.K. rock framework makes a lot of sense.
You're a big fan of the Casino which, in the hands of the Beatles, was a very versatile instrument. Did you find it an easy instrument to work with at first
CS: The Casino
is such a popular guitar these days and I still say it's the most underrated guitar in the world.
It's at least the most versatile. I think the P-90s have a lot to do with that. If you want it to sound like a Tele it has the treble to take you there. If you want it to be a Gibson ES-175 it will do the mellow thing, too.
The only thing some people have trouble with on a Casino is the neck joins the body at a lower fret than on a 335. I think that adds to the tone of the instrument and I prefer to stay in the middle of the fretboard, anyways. It's not a shredder's guitar but it is a player's guitar.
Really to me, my sound is based on hollowbody guitars with P-90s and a Bigsby. I have an ES-135 that fits that bill, too. It's a discontinued model now so I'd have to hunt one down if something happened to it. Another nice thing with a Casino is that it's so popular that you can find one in any guitar shop in the world, just about. It's nice to have consistency like that. Even if my Casino got crushed at the airport, I could very easily find another one that would be just as good.
Nashville is now embracing Americana but it wasn't always that way. Today, Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers--grown far from the music business centers--are attracting huge crowds. Where do you feel you fit in with the genre
I don't know. I'm weary of genre classifications. It's like "punk" or "grunge" or "indie rock". Most of the bands that fit those classifications have little to do with each other. It's just marketing terms. I think it's good that people are paying attention to what used to be "below the radar" music. I think the collapse of the music industry has a lot to do with that. They aren't selling 10,000,000 records on big stars anymore so now they take the artists who sell 35,000 copies a little more seriously.
If Americana is saying anything to young people, it's probably something like, "cherish what little bit of culture we have or you will lose it". The innovators like Little Richard and Ray Price aren't getting any younger. Kids today are the youngest generation that will be a handshake away from that group of pioneer players. In 2060, a bluegrass musician who played with Ralph Stanley today at the age of 15 will be the only connection to the golden era.
Musicians like yourself who have a deep vocabulary in the classics both new and old are rare. Is it hard to find musicians to communicate with in that way
: Not so much. The nice thing about loving music from the distant past is that it influenced so many things after it happened. Bad example: even if somebody doesn't know who Roy Acuff is, they might know Boxcar Willie's version of "Wabash Cannonball."
I worked with a fiddler once who played the fiddle solo from Leon McAuliffe's "Panhandle Rag" note for note. I think it was Keith Coleman or Bobby Bruce on Leon's record, but this fiddler I was working with had never heard Leon's version. He heard it from a Bobby Hicks record and I would have thought for sure this guy had learned it from the original disc.
The good stuff somehow never goes completely away. It just takes a new form or gets a little heavier sounding, like how the Beatles rocked up "Roll Over Beethoven." We've been playing that in M. Ward's show and he's rocked it up just a little bit more from the Beatles' version. Who would have thought in 1956 that we'd still be playing "Roll Over Beethoven" in 2012? It's crazy, isn't it?
Where do you see your career headed--do you think you'll concentrate on your original music or do you see that being an interpreter and arranger might show up more in your future work?
: I like to do a lot of different things. I love singing my original rock-based songs to an appreciative audience and I love playing country steel behind a good singer, too. The nice thing about being a musician is you never have to decide on one thing and limit yourself. You can always try something new or experiment.
Last week, I was playing playing honky tonk country with Dennis Crouch and Joe Spivey of the Time Jumpers, right now I'm in Austin with M. Ward. To me, there's not that big of a difference between those two worlds. It's all about solid songs and melody based music. Really there's only two types of music, music made on Casinos and music made on anything else!
photos courtesy of Chris Scruggs.com
and Harrisona's Photos