Fortifying the Nashville-Berklee Alliance
Students who attended Berklee's 18th annual spring break trip to Nashville got an extra treat this year. In addition to hearing from the city's top writers, producers, performers, and businesspeople, they were in attendance when Berklee President Roger Brown honored bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs.
Berklee faculty members-including trip organizers Pat Pattison and Stephen Webber, 140 students, alumni, and others-filled Nashville's Ford Theater for an exclusive night of live entertainment from Bela Fleck, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and Marty Stuart. Professor Donna McElroy and the Berklee Players, featuring faculty members Matt Glaser, David Hollender, Stephen Webber, and students Joe Walsh and Charlie Worsham, opened the show.
From the Berklee's Players' opening number, "The Old Gospel Ship," to the wild version of Scruggs's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" that closed the show, the audience responded to every set with a standing ovation. When Scruggs sat in, all of the musicians surrounded him to watch the man who has inspired so many of them. Fleck said earlier, "I wouldn't be playing banjo if it hadn't been for Earl. When I heard him play the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies, it changed my life."
President Brown explained to the audience that he had wanted to recognize the partnership between Berklee and Nashville since taking office in 2004. In discussing who would be worthy of honoring, he looked for someone who personified the tradition upon which Berklee was founded, an innovator who has had a transforming influence on the world of music. "Earl Scruggs," Brown said, "became the obvious choice."
Scruggs has received four Grammy Awards, a National Medal of Arts, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame among other distinctions. He is an inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor. Scruggs began his career in 1945 with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, then founded, with Lester Flatt, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs reached millions of television viewers playing "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. Scruggs also wrote and recorded the Grammy-winning instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. At 81, Scruggs is still an active performer who tours, records, and makes TV appearances.
In remarks made prior to bestowing the honorary doctorate upon Scruggs, Brown announced the establishment of the Earl Scruggs Endowed Residency to bring an artist of his stature to Berklee each year in perpetuity to preserve Scruggs's contributions and to "give students a taste of what Earl gave to the world."
Scruggs accepted his doctorate dressed in the traditional cap and gown before an audience that included his wife, Louise, sons Randy and Gary, and other family members seated in the front row. Scruggs kept his acceptance speech brief. "I'm no good at making speeches," he said. "I appreciate things today as much as the day I was born, and I do appreciate this. Thanks."