Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies at 88

The New York Times
March 29, 2012

In this June 10, 2005 file photo, Earl Scruggs, performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. (AP2005)

Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced a generation of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music, died on Wednesday in Nashville. He was 88.

His son Gary said his father died at a hospital of natural causes.

Mr. Scruggs was probably best known for performing alongside the guitar-playing Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys. Among their signature songs were “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used as the getaway music in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of the 1960s television sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Mr. Scruggs began developing his picking style at an early age. Born on a North Carolina farm to a large family of musicians, he took up the banjo at age 4, about the time his father, who also played the banjo, died. He also learned to play guitar, modeling his style after Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family.

With little else to do but chores on a Depression-era farm, he became obsessed with the banjo. He depended mainly on a two-fingered picking style until he was about 10. Then one day, alone in his bedroom and brooding about an argument he had just had with an older brother, he found himself picking a song called “Lonesome Reuben” (or “Reuben’s Train”) using three fingers instead of two — the thumb, index and middle finger. It was a style, indigenous to North Carolina, that he had been trying to learn.

By tuning his banjo in different keys, he found he could play any tune, but the notes sounded undifferentiated at first. “I can’t hear the melody,” his mother would tell him, he said. So he learned to emphasize melody by plucking it with his strong thumb in syncopation with harmonic notes picked with his first two fingers. The sound was like thumbtacks plinking rhythmically on a tin roof.

The technique lent a harder edge to the bluegrass sound — named after Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys — which Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, characterized as “a fusion of American music: gospel harmony and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations.”

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, near Shelby, N.C., to George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper, and the former Georgia Lula Ruppe, who played the pump organ in church. He attended high school in Boiling Springs, N.C.

As Earl’s mastery of the banjo grew, the demands for his performance increased, and he soon found himself playing at dances and on radio shows in the Carolinas with various bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians.

In December 1945, after Mr. Miller’s group disbanded, Mr. Scruggs quit school and took the first major step of his career by joining the Blue Grass Boys for $50 a week plus $10 extra if he worked on Sundays. Besides Mr. Scruggs, the band came to include Mr. Monroe on the mandolin and singing; Mr. Flatt playing guitar and singing duets with Monroe; Howard Watts (a k a Cedric Rainwater) on bass, and Chubby Wise on fiddle.

With them Mr. Scruggs helped the group achieve the hard-driving “high, lonesome sound” that Monroe, called by many “the father of bluegrass,” was striving to achieve. When Mr. Scruggs stepped up to the microphone to play an instrumental break, “listeners would physically come out of their seats in excitement,” Richard Smith wrote in “Can’t You Hear Me Calling: The Life of Bill Monroe.”

Mr. Scruggs stayed with the Blue Grass Boys for two years as they starred on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show and recorded classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Blue Grass Breakdown” and “Molly and Tenbrooks (The Race Horse Song)” for Columbia Records. He also sang baritone in the group’s gospel quartet.

Early in 1948, he and Mr. Flatt, weary of the low pay and exhausting travel, decided to strike out on their own, despite Monroe’s pleas to stay. In a famous feud, he did not speak to them for 20 years.

Although the two said they hadn’t planned to get together when they quit, they ended up forming a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys, after the Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top,” which they took as their theme song. With other musicians joining them, they moved bluegrass away from Monroe’s stronghold in Kentucky and central Tennessee to North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and Virginia.

Aided by the former Louise Certain, whom Earl had married in 1948 and who acted as the group’s manager and booking agent, and by the corporate sponsorship of Martha White Mills, they not only survived the onset of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll but also surpassed Monroe in popularity. In 1954 they traveled to New York to appear in a Broadway show, “Hayride,” and Mr. Scruggs’s banjo-picking style began to spread among young folk musicians.

In 1955 they finally joined the “Grand Ole Opry,” thanks to pressure from Martha White Mills. In 1959 the group appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival, an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival. The Foggy Mountain Boys entered the folk-music revival, and the band began to play the college folk-festival circuit. As Mr. Scruggs broadened his musical interests he began to work with his growing sons, Gary Eugene, Randy Lynn and, during school vacations, Steve Earl, and to record material by Bob Dylan and other folk-rockers.

Mr. Flatt, by contrast, disliked the new music and felt it was alienating the band’s grass-roots fans. In 1969 the two broke up. Mr. Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mostly acoustic group with drums and electric bass, which further broadened its repertory to include rock and touches of modern jazz, sometimes combining genres in a single number. The group stayed together for the remainder of Mr. Scruggs’s career, during which he performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Wembley Festival in London as well as in films and on television specials.

Mr. Flatt died in 1979. Mr. Scruggs’ wife, Louise, died in 2006; his son, Steve, died in 1992. Besides his sons Gary and Randy, his survivors include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Bluegrass banjo great Earl Scruggs dies at 88

By Thomas Goldsmith -
The News & Observer
March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs, the quiet farm boy from North Carolina who grew up to transform acoustic music with his fiery five-string banjo style, died Wednesday at 88 at a Nashville hospital, his family said.

A native of Shelby, Scruggs won international fame initially as the duet partner of guitarist Lester Flatt between 1948 and 1969. The duet and their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, lived briefly in Raleigh in 1952 while playing on radio station WPTF.

Scruggs was known nationally and internationally for intricate tunes such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” made famous in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme. He attracted fans all over the world and admirers as diverse as comedian Steve Martin, actress Angelina Jolie and pop-rocker Elton John.

At the time Scruggs achieved stardom, the banjo was an instrument most closely associated with the cornball humor and rowdy songs of traveling medicine shows. In later years, the New York Times famously dubbed him the Paganini of the banjo, a reference to the famed violinist.

Triangle resident and award-winning banjo man Jim Mills spoke for acoustic music fans everywhere Wednesday night when he lauded Scruggs as the man most responsible for the creation of the blues-tinged, quicksilver bluegrass style.

“His contribution to bluegrass music cannot be overstated,” said Mills, for years a sideman to fellow Scruggs acolyte and country star Ricky Skaggs. “There would be no bluegrass music without the playing of Earl Scruggs.

“He’s known the world over and in all types of music. He was very happy to be with anyone playing good music.”

Scruggs had been in poor health for months; his family said his death came as a result of “natural causes.” In January, likely aware of Scruggs’ fragile state, Martin wrote a eulogistic piece for The New Yorker praising the performer who heavily influenced Martin’s own banjo style.

Genius with a quick style

“In 1945, when he first stood on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had ever heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations,” Martin wrote. “He performed tunes he wrote as well as songs they knew, with clarity and speed like no one could imagine, except him.”

Scruggs, a soft-spoken, modest person who generally found time to give an ear to the fans who wanted just a word with the legendary figure, won virtually every award that popular music could present. From membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame to three Grammy awards to performances at the White House, he was recognized widely as a genius of folk music.

Born Jan. 6, 1924, Scruggs worked around the family farm and in area mills as he developed a more sophisticated, revved-up version of the area’s three-finger banjo style. While in his early 20s, he earned a place, along with Flatt, in the band of Kentucky singer and mandolin master Bill Monroe, another giant figure in the formation of bluegrass.

With Flatt and Scruggs to spur him to new musical heights, Monroe created tremendous musical excitement as the band played regular engagements on the Grand Ole Opry and crisscrossed the South playing auditoriums, country churches and schoolhouses.

In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs went on their own to create a band that would surpass Monroe’s in popularity, both with their original songs and their blazing-fast, intricate picking.

“He was so far ahead of his time, that so many players today are still trying to figure out the little things he did 60 years ago,” Mills said.

Scruggs was the behind-the-scenes business force of the act, working in concert with his business-savvy wife, Louise, who died in 2006. The group toured constantly, moving around the South to bases such as Bristol, Tenn., and Raleigh, where son Randy was born in 1952.

Adventurous music

With such famed sidemen as North Carolinian Curly Seckler, singer Mac Wiseman, fiddler Johnny Warren and Dobro man Josh Graves, Flatt and Scruggs achieved greater peaks of popularity when moving to the far-reaching radio show the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. The folk boom of the 1960s brought even greater rewards to the act, as they started performing songs by Bob Dylan and other rock artists, a direction that Scruggs approved and Flatt disliked.

Always a more adventurous musician than Flatt, Scruggs parted ways with the guitarist in 1969 and started a band with sons Randy, Gary and Steve. They perfected a country-rock sound that brought them widespread acceptance in the burgeoning youth culture of the day.

Scruggs was plagued by injuries and left the Earl Scruggs Revue to issue solo records beginning in the 1980s. He and Louise were famous as hosts of picking parties where bold-face names such Chet Atkins and Vince Gill rubbed elbows with new pickers in town and hosts of family members.

Scruggs always remembered North Carolina fondly. His home area is repaying the favor with the development of the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby as a monument to the farm boy who brought fame to the banjo, even as it brought fame to him.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929