The legend of Earl Scruggs

The death of Earl Scruggs at the age of 88 represents the passing of a giant. Even if you have never heard of him, you’ve heard his music. He made the banjo an instrument to be reckoned with in the three-finger picking style that he perfected and popularized on the instrument.

As Chris Talbot writes in his AP tribute: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of 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.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupts’s New York Times obituary builds on and extends the AP tribute. The Los Angeles Times obituary by Randy Lewis is also a keeper.

Scruggs rose to fame as a member of the postwar version of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs auditioned for Monroe after the comic banjo player Stringbean departed Monroe’s group. According to Neil Rosenberg, in Bluegrass: A History, Bluegrass Boys guitarist Lester Flatt was not crazy about replacing Stringbean, but the audition changed his mind. The audition left him “[j]ust dumbfounded. I had never heard anybody pick a banjo like he did. He could go all over the neck and do things you just couldn’t hardly believe.” (Rosenberg also explores the origins of Scruggs’s three-finger style.) Flatt and Scruggs struck out on their own in 1948 and the rest is history. His influence on the Cosmic American Music is deep and lasting.

One of Scruggs’s best-known songs is “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” In the video below, Scruggs plays the song accompanied by Nashville all-star pickers including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Jerry Douglas. This is what I now understand to be heavy metal. What goes under the name, not so much.

In the video below, posted here several times previously, Scruggs visits Joan Baez at home in California and asks her to play Bob Dylan’s “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” for his 1972 special, Earl Scruggs: His Family & Friends. Scruggs takes a solo, as does Earl’s son Randy. The video illustrates his love of new music, his great taste, his beautiful playing and his extension of the boundaries for the instrument of which he was a virtuoso. RIP.

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