Earl Scruggs died a couple of months ago, and fans across the globe still feel the sharp sting of his passing. People have argued over the details of Scruggs’ astonishing instrumental technique for decades, but those who knew him best all seem to agree that the iconic banjo player and leading definer of the bluegrass genre was a class act, both as a musician and as a human being.
Born on a farm in 1924 in the Piedmont sticks of North Carolina, Scruggs was as rural as rural can be. And he instilled country music with a level of technical sophistication that it never previously possessed. He didn’t wear overalls. He didn’t crack corny barnyard jokes. He simply delivered blistering brass-picked arpeggios capable of stripping the feathers off a chicken and making big burly men burst into tears of ecstasy.
To top it off, every story ever told about Scruggs seems to emphasize both his friendliness and humility, the rarest of qualities in an artistic genius. Here’s hoping he’s perched on the edge of a cloud somewhere, tearing through a celestial version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with a chorus of angels singing high lonesome back-up from an adjacent cloud.
Although Earl’s gone, bluegrass endures, and in fine form. After a long absence, Elliott’s Ramblers, one of the most beloved bluegrass acts in New Mexico history, is returning to Albuquerque for a show. If you are moved by the silvery Scruggs jangle of bluegrass at its best, this is not an event to be missed.
Elliott Rogers originally became interested in bluegrass from watching television programs like “The Andy Griffith Show” and movies like Bonnie and Clyde. Seeing New Mexico bluegrass legend the Big River Boys at the Golden Inn in Golden, N.M., in 1974 and meeting Bill Monroe, the grandpappy of bluegrass, sealed the deal, he says.
He took a few banjo lessons from Wayne Shrubsall, then the banjo player in The Big River Boys. In high school, Rogers and a couple of friends put together a bluegrass unit that played shows at fondly remembered Albuquerque hangouts like the Purple Hippo Ice Cream Parlor. The trio once even scored a gig opening for master flatpicker Doc Watson.
After high school, Rogers joined the Army and got stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. There, he pulled another bluegrass outfit together, and on weekends they would drive down to Austin to play shows in local bars. After he got out of the Army, Rogers moved to Austin, often backing-up the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley and Calvin Russell.
In 1984, he moved back to Albuquerque, and it was in that year that Elliott’s Ramblers was born. That first incarnation already included Rogers’ wife, Janice, who’s still the bass player, and Shrubsall, who’s still playing banjo in the band. The original mandolin player was Gerald Larribas.
The Ramblers’ momentous first gig was at the KiMo Theatre. Rogers recalls going all out to draw a big crowd.
“We even made a ton of flautas to sell in the lobby,” he says. “We had a great time with that show.”
Shortly thereafter, master mandolin player Claude Stephenson, another alumnus from The Big River Boys, took over for Laribas. From there, the unit jelled into an amazing force. You can hear the band’s famed musical energy in its studio album from 1996, ’Til Love Comes Around, and a live album of gospel music from 2003 with the peculiar title Live Gospel Music Show.
Rogers’ soothing, assured lead vocal delivers lyrics that often contain some local flavor. A great example is the classic “New Mexico Waltz,” a song about how miserable life can be here that still manages to convey a funny affection for our landscapes and cultures. "The most I've seen it rain was three times one year,” Rogers croons, “and out here they call that one a wet one."
The other three members converge on lovely bluegrass vocal harmonies, and the whole package is supercharged by the exchange of licks from Roger’s guitar, Shrubsall’s banjo and Stephenson’s mandolin. The metallic, cyclical trade-off between Shrubsall and Stephenson, in particular, is a wonder to behold. It’s the kind of fluid, seemingly effortless instrumental banter that can only transpire after a band’s got decades of gigging together to help glue everything into exactly the right place.
Over the years, Elliott’s Ramblers put on legendary shows here in New Mexico. The group performed at countless festivals, including the Pueblo Bluegrass festival, the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival, and the Santa Fe Traditional and Bluegrass Music Festival. The Ramblers also toured throughout New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Utah. They once even served as backup for a dance troupe performing in Mexico.
In that long chronology, what Rogers remembers most is “the late-night picking in campgrounds at festivals” and the “great rehearsals with everybody and their family gathering for dinner and picking.”
Sadly, the group disbanded a few years ago when the Rogers family moved back to Texas. Elliott and Janice stayed in touch with Shrubsall and Stephenson, though, and when the opportunity arose for this reunion, the quartet jumped at it. All these many years later, love for the genre continues to fuel the fire.
“Bluegrass is an equalizer in that you can have such a diverse group of folks with such different backgrounds and economic differences or political views,” Rogers says, “and if you say you like bluegrass or are a player, you will be invited in with open arms.”