Banjo legend Earl Scruggs dies at age 88

Staff writerMarch 28, 2012 

By Thomas Goldsmith

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.

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, Scruggs 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.

“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 behind 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.

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 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.

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