Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs, Banjo Pioneer, Passed Away at 88

Earl Scruggs, front, with long time partner Lester Flatt, rear
Out of Nashville Wednesday morning came the unfortunate news of banjo legend Earl Scruggs' passing at the age of 88. A true pioneer of the banjo, Scruggs not only popularized the instrument, but developed and perfected a playing style that was wholly his own. Known simply as "Scruggs Style," it uses the thumb, index and middle fingers to pick strings in rapid succession. While that may not sound revolutionary, it is important to bear in mind that Scruggs Style is credited with introducing the banjo to bluegrass music.

In 1945, when Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, the banjo was seen as little more than a novelty instrument, a holdover from the antebellum south. When they hit the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Scruggs' unique picking style would bring new life to the instrument and the Blue Grass Boys' lineup (upright bass, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo) would become the de facto standard for many bluegrass bands to follow.

In 1948, he and guitarist Lester Flatt split from Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, later simply known as Flatt and Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs recorded "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," whose syncopated banjo and soaring fiddle is immediately recognizable. Featured prominently in the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, the piece has been twice honored with a Grammy Award. In 1962, Flatt, Scruggs and vocalist Jerry Scoggins would record "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the story of a man named Jed, the rural mountaineer that winds up in the Hills of Beverly.

The duo would perform together until 1969, when Scruggs' open-mindedness, such as adding Bob Dylan songs to their repertoire, conflicted with Flatt's conservatism and the duo dissolved. The duo would go on to be inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1991 and '92, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Kentucky and received the National Medal of the Arts, respectively. 

As a pioneer of the banjo, Scruggs' legacy is cemented in the rich musical heritage he helped to create. Bela Fleck, banjo virtuoso and newgrass pioneer, cites Scruggs as an influence. It's obvious to make the connection, Scruggs' pioneering work in changing the public perception of the banjo by changing the way it was played would obviously influence Fleck, whose genre-bending banjo playing has revolutionized the instrument again. Now, we can hear Scruggs' work even on Top 40 radio and through major national acts, as The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops once again bring the syncopated Scruggs' style of banjo to a large national audience.

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