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How Earl Scruggs Took a Stand Against the Vietnam War

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In 1969, innovative five-string banjo picker Earl Scruggs‘ career was in flux. That year, he transitioned from his famed pairing with guitarist Lester Flatt to The Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring sons Randy (guitar), Gary (bass) and Steve (drums). Keen on his sons’ appreciation of Bob Dylan and others who were considered radical at the time, Scruggs opened himself to music beyond hardcore bluegrass.

Mr. Scruggs Goes to Washington

Hanging with hippies and playing college campuses with Steppenwolf wasn’t the most radical move by Scruggs in the late ’60s. With the three bandmates closest to his heart all being draft eligible, he boldly took his Revue to play the Nov. 16, 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The event was a peaceful demonstration that attracted as many as 500,000 protesters to the nation’s capitol. Usual folk revival suspects Peter, Paul and Mary, Arlo Guthrie and Peter Seeger also appeared as musical guests. Considering that scene’s admiration for the Staples Singers, Doc Watson and other old-time traditionalists, they surely cherished the chance to both meet and share the same stage as Scruggs.

By most accounts, Scruggs genuinely worried about his sons and other young men their age getting killed in Vietnam. He didn’t have a radical anti-war platform, and he wasn’t thumbing his nose at the presumably conservative and pro-American country music establishment in Nashville.

In retrospect, it’s not that odd that the banjo playing phenom behind “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” stopped shilling Martha White flour to open for Seeger. Even if he was viewed as a hillbilly banjo player, that was a positive to a crowd introduced to string band and bluegrass legends by the Newport Folk Festival.

Uneasy Rider?

If you think half Scruggs’ war protester past is unusual, try wrapping your head around a particular band mate’s involvement. On stage that day was Charlie Daniels, a young studio musician who’d eventually help define Southern rock and modern fiddle-playing. Be it a show of respect for Scruggs’ decision or a case of what he might call youthful indiscretion, the pro-American music icon and salt-of-the-earth antithesis of Hollywood’s liberal crowd played a visible role in a massive anti-Vietnam War gathering.

Daniels’ past actions and musically-shared opinions shouldn’t be judged by his post-9/11 persona or his Twitter presence. His first big breaks came playing on Dylan’s trilogy of Nashville albums and through a similar working relationship with Leonard Cohen. When he went from the more cosmopolitan side of pop to Southern rock, Daniels helped represent the values of a man he’d campaign to elect, Jimmy Carter, more so than any conservative stereotype.

In the ’80s, his music started reflecting different ideas. Sure, the pro-veteran “Still in Saigon” (1982) was neither right nor left of center, but the palpable anger of “In America” (1980) hardly resembles the opinions of a late ’60s protester. By ’89, he sang of hanging drug dealers from trees in “Simple Man”–a horrible way to treat the “Long-Haired Country Boy’s” supplier. Faith, family and freedom continued guiding him creatively, making him seem like someone who never would’ve stepped foot on the Washington mall during a protest.

For whatever reason, be it changing perceptions on the war or a gender issue, protest involvement didn’t soil either North Carolina native’s legacy. Neither got “Dixie Chicked” from the Grand Ole Opry or anyplace else in Tennessee, allowing both to still represent the old-time way.

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How Earl Scruggs Took a Stand Against the Vietnam War