Country Music Hall of Famer Earl Scruggs, a singular talent of collective
import, died Wednesday morning at a Nashville hospital. He was 88.
A quietly affable presence, Mr. Scruggs popularized a complex, three-fingered style of
playing banjo that transformed the instrument, inspired nearly every banjo player who followed
him and became a central element in what is now known as bluegrass music.
But Mr. Scruggs’ legacy is in no way limited to or defined by bluegrass, a genre that he and
partner Lester Flatt dominated as Flatt & Scruggs in the 1950s and ‘60s:
His adaptability and open-minded approach to musicality and to collaboration made him a bridge
between genres and generations.
Rather than speak out about the connections between folk and country in the war-torn,
politically contentious ‘60s, he simply showed up at folk festivals and played, at least when
he and Flatt weren’t at the Grand Ole Opry. During the long-hair/ short-hair
skirmishes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he simply showed up and played, with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez
and The Byrds. And when staunch fans of bluegrass - a genre that would not exist in a
recognizable form without Mr. Scruggs’ banjo - railed against stylistic experimentation, Mr. Scruggs
happily jammed away with sax player King Curtis, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar,
piano man Elton John and anyone else whose music he fancied.
“He was the man who melted walls, and he did it without saying three words,” said his
friend and acolyte, Marty Stuart in 2000.
In truth, Mr. Scruggs could sometimes be quite loquacious, but he rarely made an utterance that
wasn’t considered. He said what he thought, but never before he thought.
Asked about recording with Baez during a time period when Baez was viewed by many in Nashville
as hyper-liberal and undesirable, Mr. Scruggs said, “Well, I didn’t look at it from a
political view. And I thought Joan Baez had one of the best voices of anybody I’d ever heard sing.”
Of course, none of that would have been notable or possible had Mr. Scruggs not mastered the banjo
in a way that no one before him had, and in a way that almost everyone after him sought to.
Before Mr. Scruggs came to popular attention in December of 1945 when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue
Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry, the banjo was as likely to be employed
as a clattering comedy prop as it was a serious music-making tool.
Perhaps Mr. Scruggs did not “invent” the technique of striking the banjo strings with three right-hand
fingers in a way that produced sounds of far greater intricacy than could be summoned through
the then-popular “frailing” style of banjo playing. But while others in Mr. Scruggs’ native
North Carolina and in neighboring South Carolina practiced with three fingers,
Mr. Scruggs perfected and popularized the style.
When a 21-year-old Mr. Scruggs auditioned for Monroe, the bandleader heard the final piece in
a sound he’d been working to construct. And Mr. Scruggs’ first performance with the Blue
Grass Boys, on Dec. 8, 1945, was the “Big Band of Bluegrass,” offering a template - guitar,
mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and Scruggs-style banjo - still employed today.
During Monroe’s performances, Opry boss George D. Hay often introduced Scruggs
as “The boy who made the banjo talk.” If others had made it speak, Mr. Scruggs taught
it a master class in what must have seemed a foreign language, offering a vocabulary and
clarity of expression never before attained and rescuing the instrument from creeping oblivion.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born in Shelby, N.C., and raised on a farm in the Flint Hill area,
nearer to the Piedmont region hamlet of Boiling Springs than to the town of Shelby. Father
George and four siblings played banjo. Mr. Scruggs’ father died in 1928, following
an eight-month illness, and Earl began playing banjo that year, at age 4.
“Dealing with the trauma of the death of his father at a young age, his emotional outlet
turned to music,” wife Louise Scruggs wrote in the liner notes to 2001’s Earl Scruggs
and Friends album.
At age 10, he began experimenting with playing the banjo by using his thumb and two
fingers of his right hand to strike the strings in a syncopated manner. Later, as a teen,
he would travel the hour or so from Flint Hill to Spartanburg to WSPA radio, where
he’d watch banjo player Don Reno play live on the air. Between listening and practicing,
Mr. Scruggs was developing a noteworthy style, though going pro was far from his mind. With
the family farm failing, he took a job at Lily Mills in Shelby.
“Me and Grady Wilkie would sit in the backseat of my ’36 Chevy and play music,” Scruggs told
The Tennessean. “He’d play guitar and I’d play banjo until they’d motion us to come back
into the mill. That’s when I finally realized that what I was doing was of interest
to other people. They’d stand around and watch us pick. One of them hadn’t heard nothing
like that before, and he took his hat off, threw it on the ground and said, ‘Hot damn!’ That’s
the only time I’ve run into a guy that when he got excited would throw his hat down and
dance on it... That’s hard on a hat.”
Note: See Thursday's Tennessean for a full appreciation on the life and work of Earl Scruggs.
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