Bluegrass great Earl Scruggs dead at 88
By the CNN Wire Staff
March 29, 2012 -- Updated 0204 GMT (1004 HKT)
Earl Scruggs died Wednesday of natural causes in Nashville, his son told CNN
Scruggs and Lester Flatt were part of the musical team that made modern bluegrass
He developed the three-finger style that made the banjo a "front" instrument
"The Ballad of Jed Clampett" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" are signature tunes
(CNN) -- Earl Scruggs, who as a child developed the distinctive picking style that forever changed banjo playing, and whose association with Lester Flatt cemented bluegrass music's place in popular culture, died Wednesday of natural causes at a Nashville hospital, his son Gary Scruggs said. He was 88.
"I realize his popularity throughout the world went way beyond just bluegrass and country music," Gary Scruggs told CNN. "It was more than that."
For many of a certain age, Scruggs' banjo was part of the soundtrack of an era on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" -- the theme song from the CBS sitcom "The Beverly Hillbillies," which aired on CBS from 1962 to 1971 and for decades afterward in syndication.
But much more than that, he was the originator of the three-finger picking style that brought the banjo to the fore in a supercharged new genre, and was an indispensable member of the small cadre of musical greats who created bluegrass music.
Scruggs was born in 1924 to a musically gifted family in rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, according to his official biography. His father, a farmer and a bookkeeper, played the fiddle and banjo, his mother was an organist and his older siblings played guitar and banjo, as well.
Young Earl's exceptional gifts were apparent early on. He started playing the banjo, and he developed his famed three-finger banjo style at the age of 10.
"The banjo was, for all practical purposes, 'reborn' as a musical instrument," the biography on his official website declares, "due to the talent and prominence Earl Scruggs gave to the instrument."
In 1945, Scruggs met Flatt when he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, for whom Flatt was the guitarist and lead vocalist. Along with the group's mandolin-playing namesake were fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts (alias: Cedric Rainwater).
In an article on the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's website, bluegrass historian Neil V. Rosenberg described Scruggs' style as "a 'roll' executed with the thumb and two fingers of his right hand" that essentially made the banjo "a lead instrument like a fiddle or a guitar, particularly on faster pieces and instrumentals. This novel sound attracted considerable attention to their Grand Ole Opry performances, road shows, and Columbia recordings."
Scruggs and Flatt left Monroe in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame website. Along with guitarist/vocalists Jim Eanes and Mac Wiseman, fiddler Jim Shumate and Foggy Mountain alum Rainwater, the group played on WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee, and recorded for the Mercury label.
The Foggy Mountain Boys' roster changed over the years, but Flatt & Scruggs became the constants, the signature sound of the group on radio programs, notably those sponsored by Martha White Flour, and as regulars at the Grand Ole Opry. They became syndicated TV stars in in the Southeast in the late 1950s and early '60s, and they hit the country charts with the gospel tune "Cabin on the Hill."
But it was during an appearance at a Hollywood folk club that brought them into contact with the producer of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and led to "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." It was their only single to climb to No.1 on the country charts.
The 1967 film, "Bonnie and Clyde," featured their 1949 instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," with its distinctive Scruggs-style banjo solo perhaps the most ubiquitous of bluegrass sounds.
My comment ......
Some may also recall that Earl Scruggs participated in the march on Washington DC protesting the Viet Nam war. He was a pariah in his musical set for some time thereafter (and precipitated the break up of the duo Flatt and Scruggs). He was interviewed at the time - Earl said - "In my opinion the people who are not here today are missin' the boat". A man of talent - and nerve. Let's not debate the politics, but instead celebrate the soul of one who followed his consience truly and boldly. One with a talent few will see again.