It is rare for a performer to get a standing ovation at any music venue, much less the Grand Ole Opry. But that is just what happened to Trousdale County native Risey Scruggs when he recently played an original song for the crowd on the stage of the nation’s most prominent country music radio program!
And, as if that is not enough to be proud of, Risey is an energetic 95 years old!
We need to backtrack a little.
Risey Scruggs, a 95-year-old Trousdale County native, recently got the chance to perform on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Risey, along with his brothers Monk, William, Carl and Ped, grew up on Lick Creek in Trousdale County a long time ago. The boys’ father, Bill Scruggs, had a fiddle, but he was very proud of the instrument and told his boys not to touch it.
Boys being boys, when Daddy was away they would pick it up and try to play like their daddy did. They eventually taught themselves to do just that. One day, their father came home early and caught them, but when he heard how well they were playing all thoughts of punishment went away and he welcomed their interest.
Eventually, Bill Scruggs handmade a number of fiddles so the family wouldn’t have to fight over his!
Now, let’s point out one thing – Risey learned to play his daddy’s fiddle without any formal instruction. He just plugged away at that old fiddle till he got the sound that he was aiming to get. When he got it, he remembered where it was!
To this day, Risey Scruggs plays by ear; he can’t read a note of music printed on a page!
The song he played on the stage of the Opry was one he wrote when he was only 14. We say “wrote” but the correct term would be “memorized.” He never set it down on paper, but he did play it regularly and even taught a few friends to play it. One friend asked Risey what the name of the tune was and Risey replied, “It don’t have a name.” So the friend took to calling it “The Scruggs Reel!”
First chance at Opry
Risey and his brothers all did well playing as young men, often accompanying their father as he played for local square dances, fiddle contests and such.
In fact, Risey played so well that he was asked to take the place of the fiddle player in the “Possum Hunters Band,” one of the original bands that played on the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
At that time, Risey and his wife had just bought a small farm and had two kids. The job meant a long drive into Nashville to the Ryman Auditorium and back again, plus it only paid eight dollars a night.
So Risey suggested his brother Monk instead, and Monk took the job and played with the group from 1949-59.
Since then, Risey has put some time under his belt, buried a beloved wife, all of his brothers, and even one of his eight kids. Over the years he has played here in Hartsville and entertained at nearby towns; enjoying making music and watching people tap their toes to a good tune.
And he can still play the fiddle at age 95!
A few months back, his reputation as an old-time fiddle player in the old Texas style caught the attention of the Music Department at Middle Tennessee State University. School officials got with Risey, came to Hartsville and recorded and filmed him playing. He now has a place in the school’s permanent collection of music recordings for future generations to enjoy.
And they did something else. They contacted someone who loved old-style music like they did – Mike Snider, an old-time string instrument musician and member of the Grand Ole Opry. They told him, “You need to hear him play,” and he told them, “Send me a tape.”
Snider got the tape, listened to it and he liked what he heard.
The very next day, Mike Snider contacted the Scruggs family and said, “I want him to play on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry with me, this Friday night!”
Well, the family needed an extra day to contact all the relatives and for everybody to get tickets to the nationally broadcast show. So they talked Mr. Snider into letting him play on Saturday night’s show…and, Snider told them, “Fine, but we may only have time for half a song.”
The big night came and the family joined a packed house. Jennie Sealy introduced Risey, who sat down in a chair on stage set there just for him while Snider told his story.
He told how Risey had been given the chance to play on the Opry “way back when,” how he had written this song when he was only 14 and how he was now 95 years old and finally getting his chance to play on that famous stage.
Risey lit into his fiddle, with Mike Snider and his band playing as backup, and wowed the crowd!
As soon as he finished – the whole song we might add – the crowd rose up to their feet and gave him a standing ovation!
Mike Snider said, for the benefit of the radio audience, “Risey is grinning like a Cheshire cat!”
And the announcer said, “I believe they want a little more!”
So Risey and the boys played the “Peacock Rag” as every member of the family had their smartphones recording, just as they had for the first song. The performance can be found on Youtube.
For a few minutes that Saturday night, in this fast-paced world, the crowd at the Opry House swayed to and fro in their seats, as they and a national radio audience listened to some fine, old-time country music.
After more applause, Risey took a bow and disappeared behind stage to join his family and return home. But what a night!
We can certainly say that Risey enjoyed his time on stage, although he did admit to being a little nervous before he went on. Now he’s back at home, content to return to his regular schedule.
But he keeps an ear open for the phone to ring just in case it’s Hollywood calling or some big record company. You know, it’s never too late to start a recording career!