Risey Scruggs-Scruggs Reel

SFR 111-Scruggs Reel Featuring Risey Scruggs (fiddle) Jeremy Stephens (guitar, banjo) Corrina Rose Logston Stephens (guitar) and Robert Montgomery (guitar) To anyone who has attended fiddle contests in Middle Tennessee over the last sixty years, the name Risey “R.B.” Scruggs should be quite well known. When I started attending the Smithville Fiddler’s Jamboree in 1996, this was a name I heard announced repeatedly for contest prizes. Not only was Risey an outstanding fiddler, he played a regional style of fiddling distinct from that of most other contestants who had absorbed the more contemporary Texas-style of contest fiddling. When Texas fiddlers starting coming to Tennessee contests in the 1970s, many local fiddlers starting changing their styles to be more competitive. Risey was one of the few who never changed his fundamental approach to the music. Regardless of new trends, the excitement, smoothness, and clarity of Risey’s playing have kept him winning with the true old-time, Middle Tennessee sound. Born on March 16, 1922 to William Franklin and Dorthulia Montgomery Scruggs on Lick Creek in Trousdale County, Tennessee, just outside of Hartsville, Risey B. Scruggs comes from a family of great fiddlers in Middle Tennessee. His father and uncle Rufus were both known for their fiddling in the region, as were at least three of Risey’s brothers. Risey’s mother also played, having learned from her husband, although Dorthulia’s fiddling was generally enjoyed only at home. At the young age of eight, Risey learned his first tune, “Sleepy Lou,” from his mother. He later recalled, “My mother played it slow, you know, and I picked it up from her.” “Sleepy Lou” is a rather complex C tune for a beginner, and it speaks well of Risey’s natural abilities as a boy—abilities that he honed as he grew older. “After I learned to play a little bit,” Risey explained, “I’d sit down and follow my daddy many an hour or two at night. He’d get to playing all them different tunes, you know, and I’d fall right in there with him.” Risey began entering local contests, which he started winning in his very early teens. Before long he had made quite a name for himself and attracted the attention of Leonard Story, who promoted the fiddle contest in Hartsville. Story was a good friend of Staley Walton, guitar player with the Possum Hunters, who played regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. Long-time fiddler and leader of the Possum Hunters, Oscar Stone, had recently passed away in June 1949, and Staley was looking for a fiddler for the group. “[Leonard] put him on to me, you know. He worked for me to get me on the Opry. So [Staley] came after me,” Risey explained. At the time, the Opry only paid eight dollars a night, so had Risey taken a half day off from working on the farm to go to Nashville (some fifty miles away), he would have lost more money than he was making. Risey also didn’t have a vehicle that he trusted to get him there and back without any trouble. So instead of taking the job, Risey recommended his older brother. Noel “Monk” Scruggs (1917–1998), also an accomplished fiddler, took the position and remained with the Possum Hunters until the group disbanded in early 1959. Although Risey never actually performed on the Opry, he did go with Monk on occasion and would play in jam sessions backstage, garnering the attention of many notable fiddlers. One night while playing with Sam and Kirk McGee, Arthur Smith came in. “I’d never met him,” Risey said, “but I seen him at a distance and I knew who he was, so I got on that ‘Florida Blues’ and he come right over there where I was and said, ‘Boy, where’d you learn that tune?’ I said, ‘I learned it off Arthur Smith’s record.’ He says, ‘I’m Arthur Smith, and damn if you can’t beat me!’” Risey told of another time he caught the ear of Howdy Forrester: “I got on one of [Howdy’s] tunes, and boy, he came out there, stopped, and listened. He says ‘Boy! You’re cuttin’ that up, ain’t you? . . . If I was Monk, I wouldn’t bring you down here!’” Through the years, Risey chose to forego life as a professional musician, staying close to home to raise eight children with his wife, Laura. Even though Risey wasn’t playing fiddle for his living—working at various times in a furniture factory, running a grocery store, and farming burley tobacco—he remained musically active, fiddling in contests and for dances on the weekends. Risey played at different times with the McCormick Brothers from nearby Westmoreland, and with Opry stars Sam and Kirk McGee from Franklin. Wherever there was a contest in Middle Tennessee or neighboring areas of Kentucky, Risey was likely to be there, and often he came away with first prize. Even today, at age 94, Risey continues to attend contests and other musical events on occasion, and he always enjoys having the company of other musicians at his home in Hartsville. Anyone who visits Risey can attest to the fact that he is a treasure as a person and a musician. Listen to these recordings and hear for yourself! - Jeremy Stephens, November 16, 2016, Whites Creek, Tennessee

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