Banjo Legend and Innovator Earl Scruggs Dies at 88

Written by March 29th, 2012 at 11:41 am

Banjo legend and Country Music Hall of Famer Earl Scruggs died of natural causes Wednesday at age 88, according to The Tennesseean.

On the banjo, Mr. Scruggs’ three-finger picking style was fast, intricate, and just what bluegrass needed in order to acheive the hard-driving, passionate sound now associated with Appalachian music. He was the first to popularize the North Carolina three-finger technique, still emulated by young bluegrass banjoists today.

Mr. Scruggs is perhaps best remembered alongside guitar player Lester Flatt, as half of Flatt & Scruggs and as one of the Foggy Mountain Boys. The Foggy Mountain Boys are best known for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which in 2005 was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Mr. Scruggs and Mr. Flatt expanded bluegrass eastward, from its Kentucky roots to Virginia and Mr. Scrugg’s home state of North Carolina. In 1959, the duo joined the Grand Ole Opry and played together until they broke up in 1969.

As a solo performer and in the Earl Scruggs Revue, Mr. Scruggs was able to experiment by blending rock and jazz influences into his bluegrass sound. Spanning genres and political lines, he played alongside artists like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Steve Earl, and Joan Baez, incorporating whatever sounds he liked, while continuing to evolve his own trademark banjo sound.

“He was the man who melted walls, and he did it without saying three words,” his friend and acolyte Marty Stuart told The Tennessean in 2000.

Celebrated banjoist Béla Fleck also admired Mr. Scruggs as an innovator. “He took the banjo to where it became a major musical instrument in the world,” Fleck told The Tennessean. “So many people’s first exposure to the banjo was hearing Earl Scruggs. … When they heard him playing, it flipped them out and shook them up.”

Scruggs received the National Medal of Arts in 1992, and his recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2005. The Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South is set to open later this year in Shelby, N.C.

In a blog post on The Gibson Brothers’ web site, Eric Gibson writes:

I’ll never forget meeting Earl Scruggs in 1995. I acted like a fool falling over myself in the presence of my hero. He was in the lobby of a hotel in Owensboro, KY, just trying to mind his own business. I ran up to him like a blue-tick hound all starry-eyed. I don’t know if my tongue was out or not. “I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to do my whole life!” Earl took this as a warning and took a step back from the over-eager farm boy. His wife, Louise, took a step forward. “No, I just want to shake your hand,” I explained. Real smooth. It was enough for me though. I got to meet Earl Scruggs and shake his hand, the right hand that changed music forever. He left this world last night at the age of 88. I feel thankful that I was able to live in the Age of Earl.

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