Author: Poling, Chuck

An Interview with Disaster

Writing for the Bluegrass Breakdown has provided me access to many of my favorite bluegrass artists. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Mac Martin, Dan Tyminski, Junior Sisk, Mike Compton, the Gibson Brothers, and other notable performers.

I take pride in my writing and appreciate all the nice feedback I get from readers. I research my subjects before interviewing them to better understand them and also to avoid asking the same questions they’ve been asked a thousand times before. Interviewing is a skill that I’ve developed over the years and which I first learned back in the late ‘70s as a journalism major at the University of Mississippi.

And it was there at Ole Miss that I did my first and biggest bluegrass interview ever – with none other than the greatest banjo player in the world, Earl Scruggs. And I blew it.

I was in my junior year and was a reporter for the Daily Mississippian. When I heard that the Earl Scruggs Revue was coming to campus I went straight to my editor and told her that I was doing this interview – end of story. If anyone else was interested, tell ‘em to come see me and be loaded for bear, because I’m doing this interview.

Impressed by my determination – and probably mindful that there weren’t too many bluegrass fans on the staff – the editor easily agreed. I walked out of her office feeling like a tiger. Grrrrr!

The day came and I was prepared with my list of questions, my notebook, and my cassette recorder, outfitted with new batteries to avoid any mishaps. I checked in with the student committee that organized the concert to make sure I’d have backstage access. I received my very first lanyard with the coveted pass. I felt so cool.

The show was fantastic. While I enjoy Earl’s picking most on his classic Flatt and Scruggs sides, the music he played with the Revue was crazy good foot stompin’ fun. Earl was in his fifties and just at the top of his game and was having a great time travelling around the country – and the world – playing with his sons. The cozy confines of the auditorium reverberated with the band’s amped up bluegrass boogie, and the piercing sound of hundreds of excited fans letting loose with the rebel yell.

After several encores, I was ushered into the dressing room. Earl, his sons Gary, Randy, and Steve, along with other band members were toweling off and probably enjoying the afterglow of a kickass show before an adoring crowd in an excellent venue.

The student coordinator bade me follow and him and introduced me to Earl and his sons. And that’s when I lost it. I was standing a couple of feet away from the man who changed both the history of bluegrass music and of the banjo. Earl nodded and quietly greeted me. I babbled and I drooled. He sat there and looked at me. I looked back.

Earl Scruggs had many talents, but the art of conversation was not among them. He typically let his banjo do the talking. After a couple more minutes of me hemming and hawing, I remembered I had a notebook with the questions I intended to ask him. So of course I start with the lamest, he’s-already-answered-this-one-a-thousand-times question I could have possibly asked. “Uh, I heard there’s a rumor that you and Lester might get back together again. Is that true?”

Ever the gentleman, Earl politely corrected me, “No, that’s just talk,” he said. I persisted. Earl declined to take the bait. Randy, meanwhile, rolled his eyes and chuckled. Realizing that I’d just done something incredibly stupid, I was in a state of near panic as I tried to think of a follow up to a line of questioning that had just died on the vine. I desperately flipped through my notebook looking for a question, any question, that might get the interview back on track.

Randy jumped into the breach. “I guess you want to know where we’re playing next, right?,” he said. I grabbed at his suggestion like a drowning man grabs a lifeline. “Yeah, sure,” I squeaked. “OK,” said Randy, “but maybe you want to turn your cassette recorder on.”

“Uh, yeah, right,” I stammered, feeling like I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. From then on, Randy pretty much handled both sides of the interview, providing the questions and the answers, drawing Earl in just enough to give me a couple of decent quotes. After about twenty minutes, we wrapped it up, and I left the dressing room and walked a short distance over to the Daily Mississippian office to write the story.

Somewhere down in my garage I’ve got the clipping. It’s been many years since I last read it and, let me tell you, it hasn’t got any better with age. The experience taught me a lot about preparation and professionalism. Now, before I conduct an interview, I make sure to have all my ducks in a row. And instead of being star struck, I try to maintain a professional attitude. I figure I’m just doing a job to provide bluegrass fans with a different perspective on their favorite artists.

I always dreamed of having another chance to interview Earl, though I never did. I was convinced I’d get it right the second time around. At least would have remembered to turn on my recorder.

Posted:  5/28/2012

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