A peerless musician who can only be described as one of the finest and most important instrumentalists of the last century—and, on his instrument, the greatest who ever lived—bluegrass legend and world-champion banjo shredder Earl Scruggs died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 88.
Scruggs lived such a long, eventful life that in some ways he outlived the breadth of his influence. The footprint he put on modern music is still indelible, and hearing it is as easy as turning on a radio or a TV. He is an architect of country music, a model for every player who picks up a banjo, and a major contributor to what we’ve come to know as a sound that forms part of our national identity. Scruggs’ influence is so big and wide-ranging that it’s hard to believe that one guy could have actually originated it. Not that Scruggs invented bluegrass music (that credit usually goes to Bill Monroe, who Scruggs played with in the 1940s) but Scruggs played an integral role in popularizing the form, and exploding its possibilities. As a banjo player, Scruggs’ achievements have been likened to what Paganini did for the violin, or what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar. Scruggs’ playing technique—he used three fingers instead of the standard clawhammer style—transformed the instrument into a vessel for electrifying leads and awe-inspiring feats of virtuosity, as well as previously untouched areas of personal expression. He made the banjo the cornerstone of a new sound that would change the course of American pop culture.
A North Carolina native born in 1924, Scruggs was only 21 when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945. He made his debut with Monroe in the most nerve-wracking of settings, appearing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for a radio broadcast that was heard across almost the entire country. Scruggs admitted years later that he was nervous about the appearance, because he wasn’t sure how his revolutionary style of playing would go over. Scruggs didn’t go over as much as he zoomed over stunned listeners like a Learjet. While no recordings of the Dec. 8, 1945 broadcast were left behind, the show has been described in terms that make it sound like the era’s “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment, with the sheer velocity, clarity, and power of Scruggs’ playing instantly recalibrating people’s ideas of what this music could be. A friend of Scruggs who was listening likened it to rock ‘n’ roll, a “new sound” that would capture the public’s imagination for years to come.
In 1948, Scruggs left Monroe’s band with guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, which later became known as Flatt & Scruggs. For the next 21 years, until they parted ways in 1969 due to the inevitable creative differences, Flatt & Scruggs reigned as the best bluegrass band of all-time. Among their first recordings was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a song that’s become a stand-in for the boilerplate bluegrass sound, only at the time it was something that these two players simply conjured out of their imaginations.
Flatt & Scruggs became the most recognizable ambassadors for bluegrass, touring constantly and appearing in films and on radio and TV shows. In the ’50s, they crossed-over to the budding folk-music market, and they even became pop stars, scoring a series of hit singles on the country charts, including “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett,” also known as the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Flatt & Scruggs’ successful partnership started to come undone as the ’60s waned, with Scruggs pushing to expand the group’s sound and image (he wanted to record Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and play rock venues) while Flatt favored a more traditional approach. In 1969, Scruggs performed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at an anti-war rally in Washington D.C., which further set him apart from the country-music establishment. In the ’70s, Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons Randy and Gary, and drifted toward a country-rock sound, covering songs by Dylan and Elton John, among others.
Lester Flatt’s death in 1979 prevented the dream reunion that many bluegrass fans hoped for, but Scruggs kept playing shows and collecting awards for the next several decades. He had hip replacement surgery, and then a heart attack, in 1996, but as soon as he was well he went back to playing gigs. Over time, his innovative style seeped into the playing of thousands of other players. After a while, if you didn’t know any better, it might’ve been hard to tell what exactly made Earl Scruggs so special at one time. But only until he’d fire up another fierce banjo lick, and remove all doubt.