Earl Scruggs shaped bluegrass music and more
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 12:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 at 12:18 p.m.
It may be impossible to overstate the importance of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash's baritone or Hank Williams' heartbreak.
Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.
Scruggs' passing hit famed Dunnellon banjo player Mark Johnson hard.
“He was amazing and a direct influence on me. Very sad tonight,” Johnson noted Wednesday night. Much like Scruggs was known for his distinct picking style, Johnson is widely known for a picking style dubbed clawgrass — a method, Johnson said, that was influenced by Scruggs.
In an industry cautious in crowning “legends,” few can argue Scruggs earned the title. In fact, imagining life without Scruggs is like “imagining a world without electricity,” Johnson noted Thursday as he was traveling to Savannah to perform with his musical partner, mandolin player Emory Lester.
Dierks Bentley agrees.
“It's not just bluegrass, it's American music,” said Bentley, a bluegrass fan turned country star. “There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere.”
Country music has transcended its regional roots, become a billion-dollar music and tourist enterprise, and evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on The Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 8, 1945.
Scruggs' use of three fingers — in place of the limited clawhammer style once prevalent — elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or even a comedian's prop — to a lead instrument that was as versatile as the guitar and far more flashy.
Country great Porter Wagoner probably summed up Scruggs' importance best of all: “I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style” and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo beyond the traditional bluegrass and country forms.
Dave Rawlings, a Nashville singer-songwriter and producer, says Scruggs remains every bit as influential and fresh seven decades later. “The breadth and clarity of the instrument was increased so much,” he said. “He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that's a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing.”
News of Scruggs' passing quickly spread around the music world and over Twitter. Bentley and bluegrassers like Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated him at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
On the Internet, actor and accomplished banjo player Steve Martin called Scruggs, with whom he collaborated in 2001, “the most important banjo player who ever lived.” Hank Williams Jr. sent prayers to the Scruggs family and Charlie Daniels tweeted, “He meant a lot to me. Nobody will ever play a five string banjo like Earl.”
Flowers were to be placed on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Thursday. Scruggs earned that star when he and Flatt weaved themselves into the fabric of American culture in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe. Flatt died in 1979. They were best known for their 1949 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” played in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular TV series that debuted in 1962.For many viewers, the endlessly hummable theme song was their first introduction to country music.
Flatt and Scruggs' popularity grew, and they even became a focal point of the folk music revival on college campuses. Scruggs' wife, Louise, was their manager and was credited with cannily guiding their career as well as boosting interest in country music.
Later, as rock 'n' roll threatened country music's popularity, Flatt and Scruggs became symbols of traditional country music.
In 2005, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was selected for the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.Scruggs had been fairly active in the 2000s, returning to a limited touring schedule after frail health in the 1990s.
In 1996, Scruggs suffered a heart attack in the recovery room of a hospital shortly after hip-replacement surgery. He also was hospitalized late last year, but seemed in good health during a few appearances with his sons in 2010 and 2011, though he had switched to playing the guitar by then.
Scruggs is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy. Louise, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. He often talked of her, recounting how their eyes had met while she watched him perform at the Ryman.
Bentley attended Scruggs' birthday party in January and had a chance to pick one more song in a circle with the legend. He even snapped a picture with his 3-year-old daughter, something he says he'll cherish forever. “I think Earl was ready to go see Louise,” Bentley said. “I think he was ready to go. But we're lucky. We've got a lifetime of his music that's recorded to listen to and he's in a better place.”
Ocala Star-Banner Entertainment Editor Dave Schlenker and Associated Press writer Joe Edwards contributed to this report.