Earl Scruggs died last week and though not a Kentucky boy, his banjo playing was so elemental to what we now know as bluegrass that it defines our indigenous music.
There is much more that defined the man, but most important is the hard picking banjo sound he brought to the music we know today as bluegrass. Legendary Kentucky musician Bill Monroe’s band was named the Blue Grass Boys before he joined them, but it was Scruggs’ playing that moved the banjo from the back row, and with Monroe’s other frontman, guitarist Lester Flatt, blew Grand Ole Opry fans away and set the standard for what had been previously and informally known as hill music, hillbilly, high lonesome and many other names.
Born in Shelby, NC in 1924, Scruggs picked up his deceased father’s banjo at age four and began playing traditional two-fingered banjo. In an interview he gave late in his life, Scruggs said his mother complained that she couldn’t hear the melody in his songs so he started using his thumb to play a songs melody. In another account, Scruggs said his three-fingered style came out of an argument with his brother. Regardless, though other people played three-fingered banjo before Scruggs, no one played it like him and the style now bears his name.
Scruggs left Monroe’s band in 1948 with Flatt and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys, a band that was better known by bore names, Flatt and Scruggs. The two played together for the next 21 years, recording songs that were to become standards in any bluegrass bands repertoire as well as the iconic theme for the Beverly Hillbillies TV show, The Ballad of Jed Clampett.
During his life, Scruggs frequently diverged from the highly regimented Nashville mainstream on social issues. He played his signature Foggy Mountain Breakdown at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam to the half million protestors assembled in Washington, DC in in 1969.
Scruggs has received multiple Grammy awards, was inducted with Flatt in the Country Music Hall of Fame and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1992, but of all of the the tributes to the seminal banjo picker the most touching was the recounting by friends his melancholy over the death of his wife of 57 years, Louise, who died of respiratory disease six years ago. Do you need anything else to respect a man than the fact he kept his wife for half a century and mourned her until his own passing?
The man who described his life on stage as “a joyous time” died last Wednesday of natural causes in Nashville. Dead at 88, Earl Eugene Scruggs, RIP
"A joyous time with the music"
Earl Eugene Scruggs, RIP
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.