Legendary musician Earl Scruggs and I have crossed paths on many occasions throughout my life, though we never met face to face. Of all the instances, food is now the source of my favorite connection with Earl Scruggs, but it’s an avenue of kinship I didn’t even realize existed until recently when I happened on a story in an old Martha White cookbook my mom passed along to me for baking ideas. Before we get into the kitchen, however, let’s take a minute to catch up on the rest of my life with Earl.
Scruggs is almost always the first person I reference when I describe the global significance of Cleveland County, North Carolina—where my wife Molly and I met, live and base our food chronicles for this blog—because he’s got the one locally rooted name with which most all people are familiar. Whether you realize it or not, you probably know “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme Scruggs made famous alongside Lester Flatt, if nothing else.
For me, the connection to Earl Scruggs runs much deeper than that song, his famed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or anything else he played at concert halls like the Grand Ole Opry or on television. Scruggs grew up in the Flint Hill community near Shelby, North Carolina, just a few miles from my own deep family roots in the Mount Pleasant community near the main Broad River in Cliffside, North Carolina. At one time years ago, Earl’s sister Eula Mae, who became Mrs. Lewis Jolley, lived just a couple miles from my dad and Tessnear grandparents. Eula Mae is now buried in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church cemetery, alongside multiple generations on both my father’s and mother’s sides of my family.
In high school, Earl Scruggs appeared on my radar through a classmate and bandmate who played banjo and even built some beautiful versions of the instrument with his dad. I think my friend and his dad were the first people to make me aware of Scruggs’s significance as the artist who made famous the “three-finger picking” style of banjo playing. When I visited my friend’s house, he always had a banjo in his hands, and he couldn’t help but pick on it when he was sitting or standing or walking or talking. It makes me think that a kinship or friendship with Scruggs must have been a similar experience.
For years I didn’t think much about Earl Scruggs. Then my former news career brought me back to where it began in 2004 as a sportswriter intern at The Star in Cleveland County, North Carolina. My return to my roots was in 2012, and Earl Scruggs had just passed away and been buried over in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time the newspaper produced an incredible series on Scruggs’s life, and that taught me new things about him and the proximity of his life to mine—and just how deep his impact has become on both Cleveland County and the world.
Now, in 2018, Earl’s legacy is more vast than ever, from Cleveland County—where there’s a Southern history museum in the old Shelby square courthouse that bears his name—to Nashville and beyond. And there’s never-ending evidence of his life’s work everywhere, which I discovered in the aforementioned cookbook, “Martha White’s Southern Sampler: Ninety Years of Baking Tradition,” published by Rutledge Hill Press in 1989 in Nashville.
You see, as the book reports, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys toured the United States to promote the Martha White company and its products in the 1950s and 1960s, something I never knew but am sure our more seasoned readers will remember. The musicians were becoming quite the popular names in their own right in those days, and at the same time they helped make the Martha White brand a household name by popularizing the theme song.
The song became so catchy and beloved that Flatt and Scruggs would get requests for the song at their concerts. Show-goers even begged for the theme at one particular performance in 1962 at New York’s storied Carnegie Hall, as Scruggs recalled in the Martha White cookbook.
“The concert would become a live album,” Scruggs recounted in the book. “Anyone who has the album can hear somebody in the audience yelling for Martha White throughout the show. He was wanting to hear the theme. You wonder where he could’ve heard it before. We had learned to expect those kind of requests playing pie suppers in East Tennessee, but this was New York.
“The first thought that hit me during the show was that Cohen Williams [former Martha White chairman of the board] had planted somebody out in the audience. Finally I told Lester, ‘Let’s do the thing and get them to shut up so they won’t destroy the whole album.’ Well, we went ahead and did the thing. They loved it. That tune was catching on.
“Later, we found out the guy making the commotion was an attorney and caught our show in New York. I don’t remember his name or where he was from, but I’ll never forget his voice hollering, ‘Play the Martha White song!’ And you know what, the same thing happened again at another big show several years later. But this time in Japan. They called it the ‘Martha White theme’ or they’d just holler Martha White. The Carnegie Hall album had been released in Japan and the people here picked up on it.”
The Scruggs story ends there in the Martha White cookbook, but on the next page there’s a recipe for “Earl Scruggs’ Famous Buttermilk Biscuits.” I haven’t confirmed the significance of that recipe carrying Scruggs’s name, but I’m willing to bet he got his fill of Martha White home-baked goods in his day.
For someone who never met Earl Scruggs, my life has woven itself around him quite a few times, even if in subtle ways. And my favorite discovery is now his connection to a baking goods company that has a name in Martha White that is as much an American staple as Earl Scruggs. In the course of publishing this blog, my wife and I have begun to notice elsewhere online and in print where people complain about recipes that carry too much “story” and “mindless drivel.” Those folks just want the recipe and nothing else.
Well, there are plenty of places to obtain that kind of basic, to-the-point information, but it is our tendency and even our intention with #FoodieScore to provide a deeper collection of Southern recipes and restaurants we love while also telling stories of our Southern heritage. That’s why the Earl Scruggs story in the Martha White cookbook, as my grandma Vember would say, “tickled me pink” so much. It’s a reminder that our family and community histories, our conversations with each other and our very lives in the South and everywhere in the world are intertwined with eating. I find that comforting, satisfying and quite fulfilling. But not so filling that I don’t have room for one of those Earl Scruggs buttermilk biscuits. Now I might even be willing to forgo my penchant for store-brand products to buy some Martha White flour to make ‘em! I guess that shows the power of advertising and that the legacy of Earl Scruggs lives strongly.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was not commissioned by, sponsored by or affiliated in any way with Martha White or the Earl Scruggs Center. It is simply a reflection on personal memories involving both.