“Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips. Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”–Steve Martin
88-year old legendary Bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs died this week of natural causes, but he left behind a legacy that will live in his fans forever.
North Carolina-born Scruggs was from a farming family, but they lived in a community well-known for a love of banjo music. His own father, George, was a banjo and fiddle player and passed on his love of the instruments to his son. In fact, the entire family was musically inclined, including Earl’s mother, Lula. Later, as an adult, Earl would pass on this tradition to his own children; his sons Gary and Randy are accomplished musicians and songwriters.
Sadly, George passed away when Earl was just four years old. It was around that time that he began picking the banjo, using either his sister’s or the one his father had used. Growing up in a small farming town during the Depression limited Earl’s options for fun, especially when there was so much work to be done. Music became his emotional outlet, the thing he turned to every day for comfort. And he got very, very good at it.
By the age of ten he had taught himself a picking style using three fingers–which came about because he was distracted by an argument with his brother and realized he was using his thumb, index and middle finger to play–that would become known as “Scruggs Style Picking”. Earl single-handedly revolutionized the way the banjo was played and brought new life to an old instrument…all before he could even drive a car.
In later years, Earl fostered his picking style and made it even more his own by executing a smooth roll with his fingers, which gave the banjo a more distinctive sound. In 1945, he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and stayed with them for three years, forming a tight bond with bandmate Lester Flatt. In 1948 the two of them left the band to form their own: The Foggy Mountain Boys.
They began to do what no one else had done before; they took the banjo–which until then had widely been regarded as something of a joke, to be used for comedic purposes rather than make good music–and brought it into the spotlight as an instrument to be revered, as well as the talent it takes to play one well.
The Foggy Mountain Boys had several different members, but Earl and Lester remained the core of the group. They became regulars at the Grand Ole Opry and found quite a bit of fame with their tune “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett”, which most of us know as the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies”. They went on to have their music featured in the film “Bonnie and Clyde” and became role models for many, including filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen–whose film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” featured a bluegrass group called “The Soggy Bottom Boys” as well as a soundtrack full of amazing bluegrass musicians–and aspiring musicians, including actor and noted banjo player Steve Martin.
“A grand part of American music owes a debt to Earl Scruggs,” Steve Martin wrote in The New Yorker. “Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix.”
In fact, Scruggs shared a stage with many noted rock and folk musicians over the years, such as Bob Dylan, Elton John, John Fogerty, and The Byrds. Musicians of all genres appreciated his style and what he brought to a song; one didn’t have to play bluegrass to get it.
Though they ended their time with the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1969, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were honored by an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. And six years later, they were the first-ever inductees to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Their legacy will never be forgotten.