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VOL. 40 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 10, 2016

Estate sale pickers get piece of picker’s life

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By the time the antique dealer from Leiper’s Fork finishes digging and winching to freedom the bronze statue that Tammy Wynette had installed decades ago in the red dirt of this Oak Hill front yard, I had talked about The Beverly Hillbillies, admired the office and desk where Louise Scruggs spent a day chasing Bob Dylan for me and culled through Earl Scruggs’ record collection with the thoughtful guidance of one of Nashville’s best upright bassists.

“That’s the Bible for everything banjo,” says Mike Bub, damn nice guy/bassist, as he approves of my choices of two albums I’ll buy for a fiver apiece from Earl’s collection. (I had just 10 bucks in my pocket, because I really hadn’t come here to buy anything.)

With a musician’s delicate hands, Mike slips Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Banjo” from its dust jacket and inner sleeve, approving the record’s relative health. “This one’s never been played. Or, at least, it looks almost new,” he says, nurturing it back into its sleeve and jacket.

Mike looks at my other choice “Nashville Airplane” and smiles. “This is the one that finally split up Flatt & Scruggs,” Mike says as he looks down in the grooves. “It’s got all those Dylan songs on it. I don’t think Lester wanted to play that type of music. I think that’s the last album they ever made together.

“Let’s see if I can find you one with a better cover,” adds Mike, who – in addition to his in-demand recording work – can be found sharing the low-slung Station Inn stage with Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle and Val Storey during the weekly New Mondays show, an informal and joyous celebration of real country music.

Guests like Glen Campbell’s beautiful banjo phenom daughter, Ashley, astonishing mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull and many other musicians drop in for a song or a set.

“Dropping in” is a time-honored Station Inn tradition. In their prime (which is to say “all the way up until they died”), Earl, Vassar Clements, Lester, Jimmy Martin and Uncle Josh Graves sometimes were the center-stage featured act here. Other times they dusted the popcorn salt from their hands and climbed onstage, raising unrehearsed joyful noise inside the blockhouse monument to what is great about country music.

Hell, when Bill Monroe – who at one point was Earl’s and Lester’s boss – was in town, he’d get antsy and drive down there, stealing the stage from whatever performer was working that night. Can’t argue with Big Mon, man.

“If you’re gonna buy two, that’s the two you want,” says Mike. “I’ve already got a stack of albums down there where you pay. I also have Louise’s safe down there. Buying that, too.”

We exchange quick smiles, for Louise managed the business while her hubby provided the music that together allowed them to afford the pastoral grounds and modernistic mansion at 4121 Franklin Road, a place formerly occupied by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, who had the bronze statue installed here.

It’s from this place that a DUI-grounded George drove his riding lawnmower to the nearest liquor store. He made choices since the day that he was born, remember?

Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, left, is joined by Marty Stuart as they play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at the grand opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Thursday, May 17, 2001.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

“I’m sure Louise used that safe a lot,” I offer, as other musicians push past me, rifling through the hundreds or even thousands of albums. Some of the pickers don’t smell too good. Perhaps I also am aromatically challenged, because sweat turned my gray shirt a spongy black while ambling the 100 yards or more from the remote corner of the estate nearest Franklin Road. Set off by orange cones, the lot, a grove of trees offering a slight umbrella, was filling up with cars of the curious or worshipful.

Along that steamy winding driveway to the house, I conduct interviews or swap laughs with people I know, others who “remember” me – a lot of my old Nashville Banner column readers think I’m dead as newspapers. But it’s all right, ma.

I admit to selfish misuse of my newspaper career by purposely getting to know many Music City greats -- interviewing them, capturing them in print one more time, before the remnants of their estates were parceled out and parked behind glass in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “dead music folks” collection.

Estate sale memories

Which is really what led me to Earl and Louise Scruggs’ massive estate.

The mansion finally sold, it was time to clean house. And I just wanted to spend some time wandering through, saying “goodbye” to the gentle banjo man who died in 2012, six years after Louise began using her business acumen to help St. Pete and his picking and grinning band of apostles, featuring Matthew on keyboards.

The last time I saw Earl and Louise Scruggs together, they were in a blue Cadillac (I can’t remember which one was at the wheel, but I’ll bet it was Louise) as it emerged from the automatic gates and turned right on Franklin Road. I’m sure a banjo was somewhere in the vehicle. I waved at them from my white 1985 Saab with the deceased air-conditioner and drooping ceiling liner. They waved back.

So, now that this home has finally sold, I figured I needed to go to the estate sale – advertised only in the classifieds and on smallish blue signs on Franklin Road – and just feel the spirit trapped in these massive walls.

Earl and Louise were just like us, you know, regular people who it turns out had one helluva lot of fine suits and other clothing in the walk-in closet near the bed where jewelry has been polished up, decorated with price tags and spread across the comforter.

“I worked for Mr. Earl for all those years,” says Kenneth Ledbetter, 70, after setting one of those jewelry pieces back down. “Maintenance … Ever what Miss Louise wanted me to do, I’d do,” he adds. One frequent chore was to climb a ladder to change light bulbs in these high-ceilinged rooms.

I ask Kenneth why he’s back on this day. After all, he spent years here. “Just memories, looking back at the old days,” he says, hoisting a black briefcase he’s going to buy. Neither of us can decide if it was Earl’s or Louise’s. My bet’s on Louise, the shrewd woman who broke down music business gender barriers before it became cool.

My half-hour planned hail and farewell drop-in began taking shape as a column in my heat-boiled brain shortly after I parked on the lawn and began ambushing folks coming back down the driveway, holding them up for quotes as they carry sometimes heavy loads of Scruggs memorabilia to their cars.

Some seem out of place, like Drew McCollum, 18, who proudly shows off a coin bank that cost $8. On its sides: Words marking the depth of the coins by saying what they could buy. The lowest level reads “Dinner and Show.” The next one up is “Long Weekend.” Then “New Car.” At the very top: “Mink.”

MTSU student Don Clarkin and his country-superstar-wannabe sister Pearl Clarkin display, among other things, the load of Scruggs memorabilia they purchased at the estate sale.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“I don’t know what mink is,” says this member of a generation that wears dead animals only on Swoosh-decorated feet, never as a luxurious wrap for hitting ASCAP banquets, White House dinners and Swan Balls.

Drew admits he’s here because his dad – my old Lipscomb U journalism pal Jimmy McCollum – had decided this was the family’s outing destination this steamy afternoon. The elder (eldest?) McCollum purchased a lamp and a vinyl Columbia recording demo.

The puzzled look on Drew’s face makes me smile after I ask him what he knows about the people who lived here. Earl Scruggs “was a country artist. I know that. I’m sure he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame.” Good chance that’s true, I allow with a smile. (I could have said “if he’s not, they need to tear that building down,” but I try to reserve sardonic comments for people I consider close friends, those who “get” me, Drew’s pop for instance.

Recalling ‘Hillbillies’

Sweating my way up the winding driveway, passing a fleet of what I believe are lilies of the valley and other assorted greenery, I encounter “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Well not really. Pete Loesch (pronounced “Lesh,” as in Phil), retired administrative law judge for the Secretary of State’s Office, struggles with a double armload of vinyl albums that includes the soundtrack to that TV program.

Most of the album is of Jethro, Ellie Mae and Granny singing, apparently. But the first and last tracks are “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the Earl and Lester theme song for the show about the poor mountaineer who was shooting at some food when up from the ground came a bubbling crude that made him rich enough to load up his family and jalopy and move to “the Hills of Beverly.”

That greatest bluegrass duo also made guest appearances on the show. (Later, when wandering the mansion I come upon Earl’s “cement pond.” If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it.)

Pete’s vinyl pile also includes George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” – the granddaddy of star-studded rock ’n ’roll fund-raisers.

Pete, 67, says the best thing about retirement is that he can spend time prospecting for vinyl in yards and garages.

Of course he wouldn’t have missed this estate sale. “Omigosh, they don’t come much better than (Earl Scruggs),” he says. “He had that appeal among multiple generations.”

After trying to converse in Spanish with a foreign estate-sale picker – I could only manage a couple “senors’’ and an “ola” or two before bidding that interview adios – I first saw the Leiper’s Fork antique picker tussling with the statue.

A different kind of ‘picker’

Justin Ebert has dug almost eight inches into the red soil all around the massive bronze front-yard focal piece.

“I’m told Tammy Wynette had this put in when she and George Jones lived here,” he says, adding that it has taken him a full hour to dig the “trench” around the sculpture that he already has named “Mother and Child” after the two abstract heads that crown the piece.

Scruggs estate

-- Tim Ghianni/The Ledger

“I don’t think this is a sculpture, I’d call it a monument,” he explains. He won’t tell me what he paid, only that he could replace the pickup truck that pulls his flatbed trailer for the same price.

He and his wife Stephanie are “pickers” – sort of like Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz –and they plan for now to take the monument home where they’ll clean and store it.

“First thing we’ll do is go through the car wash,” Justin says, as he tosses another spade of red earth into his pile.

Stephanie and Justin sell antiques. But this one they may keep, if they can decide where to put it. Course, if the price is right …..

“We bought it because of its location. That it first was Tammy’s and then it was Earl’s. The Nashville ties and history means a lot to us,” he explains. “I first figured it was 1,000 pounds. Now as I dig down, I think it’s probably 2,000.” The sweat equity he’s putting into the task convinces me it’s more like 3,000.

Stephanie – who just in the last month has discovered Earl Scruggs’ music (“I like Foggy Bottom… whatever?” she says, expressing appreciation when I tell her it’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”) – watches and explains to this battered old writer why they bought this.

“We like a lot of brutalist art,” she says. The term “brutalist” conjures up in me images of leather, whips and bondage, but it turns out it really is quite harmless, post-apocalyptic, jagged-edged, industrial sculpture (and architecture) popular in the 1970s.

“Well, this isn’t really pure brutalist,” says the sweaty fellow working the spade.

I don’t enlist in the spousal debate of brutalism and other things post-apocalyptic, a subject right in my wheelhouse and why my office in “Da Basement” is decorated with a Butkus-era Chicago Bears bobble-head, a foot-tall Lone Ranger riding Silver, Hunter S. Thompson aviators, a Blue Meanie, Chet Atkins’ hand-carved desk nameplate (his widow gave it to me), an Abbey Road street sign, a Robert Penn Warren coffee cup, John Lennon in a Lonely Hearts Club Band uniform, and a 3-D picture of The Beatles as skeletons that my pal Peter Cooper bought at an L.A. Mexican flea market.

I leave Justin to his spade and Stephanie to her post-apocalyptic encouragement as the dig continues.

‘I want to be this one day’

“I’m here because I want to be this one day,” says a lovely blonde with long legs, who I stop in the driveway simply because, well, she’s a lovely blonde with long legs.

Pearl Clarkin, 21, brother Don, 23, and mom Victoria have small armloads of Scruggs souvenirs. “I got a sweater that says ‘Gibson Tour Wear,’” Pearl says. “It’s really cool. Can’t wait to wear it.”

If it’s form-fitting enough, this young woman – whose family moved to Nashville four years ago after an “American Idol” staffer told them this was the place to pursue a songwriting and music career – likely will be wearing it onstage as she jousts at her windmill by singing at Tootsie’s and other bastions of beer.

While Pearl is a family name, she says many people ask her if she borrowed it from the late Sarah Cannon, aka Minnie Pearl, whose own mansion is in the same neighborhood as the Scruggs spread.

“I’ve got a song now called ‘Me and Pearl,’” she says, flashing a quick smile. “It’s about me and Minnie Pearl. In it, I have her sayings like ‘Howdy’ and ’I’m so proud to be here.’”

Justin Ebert digs another of the thousands of spades full of red dirt he had to remove from around the “Mother and Child” statue/monument he and his wife bought from the Scruggs estate.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

She also works those Minnie catchphrases into her act at Tootsie’s, and at various joints on the beer-soaked spectrum of repute.

“I always say ‘Can I get a howdy in the honky-tonk?’” she says, obliging this old man’s request for her best “Howdy!” in singsong Minnie Pearl style. Damn good.

Her family also includes retired Marine Corps Major Mark Clarkin and younger brother, Raphe, 15. “He looks just like Randy Travis when he was young,” says stage mom Victoria.

A dream of enjoying a star’s lifestyle in a house like Earl’s is what keeps Pearl – scheduled for eight different shows during CMA Music Fest – focused, confident and, it seems, always dressed and made up, ready to spring onstage at any honky-tonk and immediately sing about love, boys, beer and butterflies.

“This is what Nashville’s really about,” she says, glancing back at Earl’s house.

In addition to her solo sets, she is part of a group called “The Highwaywomen,” four girls with dreams who sing the songs of The Highwaymen. “I want to be like (Earl Scruggs),” she says, again. Course, in her tight, pink gym-wear, she bears (or bares) little resemblance to that gentle old man with a banjo.

What about Bob?

Just as I’m about to step into the house, the guy who invented Nashville’s famous Christie Cookies steps into the heat with his cache of vinyl, including “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the Niitty Gritty Dirt Band concept album on which Earl’s a featured guest, along with Bashful Brother Oswald, Jimmy Martin, Mother Maybelle, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and my good friend Vassar Clements.

Those guest artists listed above now rest beneath Dixie’s red soil, and Christie Hauck, 68, left cookies behind to get into the gelato and dessert retail dining business.

His LP stash indicates he’s neither a Lester nor an Earl man. “They (both) were terrific.”

In addition to the vinyl, he’s also purchased a pair of the Scruggs’ stereo speakers.

One thing I notice as I navigate the house (after promising the Scruggs family I’d stop interviewing folks and not photograph anything or anybody inside): The abundance of speakers and stereo equipment.

One cabinet holds a Fisher amplifier and cassette tape and dub deck. Its twin is my own 30-year-old stereo system. Indeed, the floor speakers attached to this setup match the ones I lost when Nashville’s 2010 flood washed away the lower level of my house and many of my hopes.

Alone in Louise’s office I smile when imagining her sitting at the desk, in front of the electric typewriter that’s next to a massive, well-used Canon calculator.

To me this room represents the kindness of the Scruggs, a place I called fairly often and where I enlisted, via telephone, Louise in a daylong pursuit of Bob Dylan.

Back before I was defrocked at the morning newspaper, I was helping my pals Peter Cooper and Brad Schmitt gather reactions on the day Johnny Cash died.

I spoke to many folks, from Bobby Bare to Marshall Grant to Tom T. and Dixie Hall. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott may have had somethin’ to do with it, too. Brad – who since has become Nashville’s model of sobriety, faith and clean living – likely was gathering the comments of young women he’d meet up with later for Grey Goose frivolity.

Peter was polishing his magical and respectful “main bar” to the Cash-is-dead special edition.

I really wanted to talk with Dylan, a close friend of both Cash and Earl. The three were not shy about swapping musical influences. So I called Louise, who answered the phone in this same office while Earl relaxed in an adjoining room.

I told her I wanted to get a quote from Earl…. and I really wanted one from Dylan. (Look on the internet and you can find footage of Dylan, along with Earl and sons Gary and Randy performing “East Virginia Blues” and “Nashville Skyline Rag.”).

“Tim, I’ll start working on this now,” she said, adding she shared my belief that if anybody could track down the press-shy Dylan for me, she was the one.

“I’ll get Bob for you,” she said, calling back repeatedly during the day to report that she couldn’t find him, but she’d keep trying. We stayed in close phone contact for several hours until Louise finally gave up. The chameleon-like folk-rock minstrel did not want to be found.

In our last phone conversation, Louise told me that if she ever found “Bobby,” she’d make sure he called me. (I’m still waiting on that call, Bobby. I’m in the book.)

I stop daydreaming and reflecting with melancholia as I begin to make it out of this house. I’d been in here for two hours, it was time to go home and write.

Out on the front lawn Justin draws passionately on a bottle of water. “Finally got it,” he says, looking at the brutalist sculpture on the flatbed trailer.

I congratulate him and – carefully holding the albums Mike Bubb helped me select – I begin the sweaty trudge to my beloved rheumatic car.

The first thing I’d play on the Fisher system when I returned so all alone to my office would be the lead track on the backside of “Nashville Airplane”: Flatt & Scruggs interpreting “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” It sounded like a good idea.

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