Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Brett Allen
A few weeks ago, we invited Chris Scruggs out for BBQ, when he was in town playing in M. Ward's band. He was into the idea, but ultimately settled for a salad or pasta at the pizza parlor below our studio here in Rock Island. We really hoped he would have taken us up on the offer. He's just one of those buddies that you try to get out for beers with whenever you have the chance, so you find excuses. He seems to always want to talk and it tends to veer reliably into music chatter, our favorite subject. There are few better people to talk to about the subject - aside from Rick Rubin, Questlove, Dylan or Willie Nelson, we're assuming - than Scruggs, who though still shy of 30 years old, has led a charmed playing life and done more than most ever will in a lifetime. He's the grandson of the great bluegrass performer Earl Scruggs, though it wasn't until recently that he'd met the man that everyone always wants to ask him about.
But he's grown up in Nashville, the country music capital of the world, and lived through experiences, brushed shoulders and rubbed elbows with some of the all-time greats, starting when he was just a toddler. He's a proud Nashvillian, as he discussed the town and the current state of what's pawned off as country music, with Nashville Scene's Adam Gold a few years ago in an excellent piece entitled, "The Duke of Music City." He said, "Nashville was the home of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. To blame Nashville for the state of country music is like blaming the house for being robbed. People came, cheapened it and they took away a lot of the magic. That's not Nashville's fault. Nashville is still a good place. It's the only place in the world where you can see Little Jimmy Dickens at Cracker Barrel randomly on a Saturday morning."
Scruggs seems to brim with ideas, a musicality and skill set on numerous instruments that comes from his wide assortment of experience that's been building since he was in his early teenage years. He writes bluegrass songs the way bluegrass songs used to be written, and plays them the way they used to only be played. The songs are filled with those charmingly sad but happy and mostly optimistic stories of hungry hearts. He sings about and for the old souls. They are woesome accounts of getting the short end of the stick, of always having to scale another obstacle to attain ultimate happiness or to finally not have to scrimp and sacrifice just to get by. The loves expressed are those timeless custodians of character, those feelings that boil us down to the men that we actually are when we're not trying to put on a front, when all the feathers are off. They are stories of proud, yet weak men, who realize that they could survive without that woman by their side, holding tightly onto their hand or with an arm around their waist, but why in the hell would that ever be something that they'd want? It couldn't ever be as good and it wouldn't ever be the same as having her. Even at that point, those in Scruggs songs know that sometimes the decks are stacked and the wandering will continue, as he sings, "Honey, we all gotta fill our needs. "