Legendary bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs passed away Wednesday at 88. Scruggs was a major force in shaping country music as well as the wellspring of the modern banjo sound. Scruggs was known for developing what became the “Scruggs picking style,” where three fingers are used rather than the traditional “clawhammer” picking technique.
Earl was born in 1924 in North Carolina, and began playing banjo at an early age. His father, George, was a farmer and bookkeeper who played banjo and fiddle, and his mother played church organ. By 11, he had appeared on the radio and by 15 was playing in bluegrass bands. At 21, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, a group that also included guitarist Lester Flatt, creating a massive stir when they first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1945. Their high-speed, high-energy performance on the show was so groundbreaking that it was said that the band instantly changed country music forever. Dobroist Tut Taylor, a friend who heard the performance said it was “a lot like some of the rock ‘n’ roll things they had, you know. But this was a new sound. It was a pretty sound and a welcome sound.” Scruggs innovative use of string bending and fast lead runs proved the banjo could be versatile and flashy, and pushed the instrument beyond its previous place in the rhythm section and as a comedian’s prop. According to author Richard D. Smith, when Scruggs stepped up to play his solos, “listeners would physically come out of their seats in excitement.”
In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe’s band due to low pay and heavy travel to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, resulting in a famous feud with Monroe that lasted 20 years. The band became immensely popular and were important in the folk music boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, appearing in the Broadway musical Hayride in 1954 and at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Flatt and Scruggs became even more popular in 1962 when their song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” became the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies TV series. The duo also appeared on the show several times. In 1967, their “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the movie Bonnie and Clyde.
Flatt and Scruggs ended their partnership in 1969 due to artistic differences — Scruggs wanted to pursue more experimental directions, and had played with Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, King Curtis, The Byrds, Joan Baez, and others, while Flatt wanted to stick to traditional bluegrass. Flatt passed away in 1979.
Scruggs formed The Earl Scruggs Revue with three of his sons and began playing bluegrass at large festivals and at rock concerts supporting acts such as Steppenwolf and James Taylor.
In 1985, Scruggs was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with Lester Flatt. In 1992, he was awarded the National Medal of Art. In 2003 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2005, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, followed by “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” on which Scruggs was a guest artist with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; he was also instrumental in securing the participation of artists such as Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter on the recording. He was a four-time Grammy winner and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
He continued recording and performing until his death. In 2001, Earl Scruggs and Friends was released, which paired Scruggs with guest artists such as Elton John, Travis Tritt, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Don Henley, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Martin. He performed at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2005.
At Scruggs’ 80th birthday party, country legend Porter Wagner stated that “…Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He was the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
For an excellent career overview, timeline of his achievements, and more, visit here.