Earl Scruggs, Pioneering Bluegrass Banjoist, Dies at 88

Earl Scruggs
Musician Earl Scruggs, seen here performing onstage during California's Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, California, on April 25, 2009. Photographer: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Earl Scruggs, whose banjo-picking technique on hits such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” changed the way people play the instrument, has died. He was 88.

Scruggs died yesterday of natural causes at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, the Associated Press reported, citing his son, Gary.

Scruggs invented his style as a child in North Carolina, where many banjoists picked with three fingers instead of the usual two. His variation on that method let him play a song’s melody and rhythm simultaneously, making his sound unique.

“Earl Scruggs was my inspiration,” said Steve Martin, who started playing banjo as a teenager and recorded a Grammy Award-winning song with him in 2001. The actor and comedian referred to Scruggs as “the most important banjo player who ever lived” in a posting yesterday on his Twitter feed.

“Scruggs style,” as his approach to five-string banjo playing was known, emerged when he performed with Bill Monroe, known as the Father of Bluegrass.

He had his biggest successes in a duo with Lester Flatt, a guitarist and singer. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” recorded with Flatt in 1949, was featured in the film “Bonnie and Clyde” two decades later. Flatt and Scruggs also played on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme of the “Beverly Hillbillies” television series.

Country Rock

Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring his three sons, after the duo split. The Revue helped lay the groundwork for country rock by combining bluegrass with more contemporary music and playing songs by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on Jan. 6, 1924, and raised in Flint Hill, North Carolina, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Charlotte.

Scruggs was part of a musical family. He was 4 years old when his father, George Elam Scruggs, who played the fiddle and banjo, died. His mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs, played the organ. Junie and Horace, his older brothers, and Eula Mae and Ruby, his older sisters, learned to play banjo and guitar. Another sister, Bessie, died as an infant.

Scruggs learned the three-finger style from Smith Hammett, a relative, and played before his first audience at the age of six. By 10, he came up with Scruggs style.

Nashville Radio

World War II sidetracked his budding musical career. He got a job at a nearby thread mill and worked as much as 72 hours a week to support his mother.

After the war, he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and played with Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians, a band with a weekly radio show in Nashville.

Miller quit the business in November 1945, and Scruggs auditioned for Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He played his first show with the band at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry a week later.

At one of Monroe’s Opry concerts in 1946. Scruggs met Louise Certain, an accountant living in Nashville, The couple married two years later and had three boys: Gary, born in 1949; Randy, in 1953, and Steve, in 1958. She died in 2006 at 78.

Scruggs played with Monroe until February 1948, about two months before the wedding. Flatt, one of his band mates, quit right after him. They formed Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, named for their theme song, “Foggy Mountain Top” by the Carter Family. Mercury Records signed the duo, which spent two years there before moving to Columbia Records.

Joining the Opry

Flatt and Scruggs lived in a dozen cities in the South between 1948 and 1955, when they settled in Nashville. Louise became their booking agent and manager, making her the first woman to hold those jobs in country music.

The duo then joined the Opry, where they hosted a segment sponsored by Martha White Mills, a Nashville-based flour maker. They have previously done radio and television shows, starting in 1953, for the company.

Injuries from an accident in October 1955 forced Scruggs off the road for eight months. The mishap occurred while he was taking his family to see his mother, who had suffered a stroke. He dislocated his hips, which were replaced, and broke his pelvic bone. His mother died while he was recuperating.

Paul Henning, the “Beverly Hillbillies” creator, saw them perform in Los Angeles in 1961 and hired them for “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” The duo had a No. 1 country single with its own version of the song and appeared on the series seven times.

How-To Book

As the 1960s progressed, Flatt and Scruggs broadened their sound and their audience. The duo even performed at rock venues and festivals, as Scruggs wrote in “Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo,” an instructional book last revised in 2008.

“Lester wasn’t happy with the path we were on,” he wrote. “He expressed his desire to get back to the more rural circuit that we once had traveled.”

The duo gave their final performance in 1969. Days later, they received a Grammy for a re-recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” an honor made possible because the original was used in “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Scruggs then began the Revue, which lasted until 1980. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band collaborated with him on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (1972), an album of traditional songs that the country-rock band recorded with country and bluegrass stars. Scruggs also played on follow-up albums in 1989 and 2002.

After the Revue split, Scruggs went into semi-retirement. In 1992, his youngest son Steve committed suicide after killing his wife in the couple’s home near Nashville.

Scruggs had a health scare in 1996, when he checked into a Nashville hospital for a new pair of artificial hips. After the surgery, he had a heart attack in the recovery room. Doctors found he had six blocked arteries and did bypass surgery.

“Earl Scruggs and Friends,” his first album in 17 years, was released in 2001. The album featured a version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with Martin, as well as performances by Elton John, Sting, Melissa Etheridge and John Fogerty.

The new version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” won him a Grammy. He also received the award for playing on “Same Old Train” (1998), an all-star recording, and for “Earl’s Breakdown” (2004) done with the Dirt Band. In 2008 he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

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