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Earl Scruggs is a bluegrass musician who pioneered the Scruggs Style, a method of banjo playing.
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Earl Scruggs earned his place in music history when he stumbled across a unique banjo-playing style at the age of 10. He was the first to master and refine a three-finger picking method. During his later years, he experimented with the electric banjo and helped expand the instrument's traditional bluegrass repertoire to include rock 'n' roll.
Banjoist. Earl Scruggs was born January 6, 1924 in Cleveland County, North Carolina, outside the town of Shelby. He was the fifth and last child born to Lula Ruppe Scruggs and George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper. The Piedmont region of North Carolina was steeped in bluegrass music, and the entire Scruggs family was very musical. Scruggs' father played fiddle and banjo, his mother played the organ and all four of his siblings played guitar or banjo or both.
Earl Scruggs endured an early childhood tragedy at the age of four when his father passed away. Although Scruggs retained some early memories of his father, he regrettably does not remember his old man's banjo playing. "Due to his eight month illness prior to his death, I never remembered his picking although I do remember him," Scruggs recalled. To cope with his father's death and honor his memory, Scruggs took up the banjo — although at the age of four he was barely big enough to hold it. "The only way I could pick [older brother] Junie's banjo, or the old one my father played," Scruggs later remembered, "was to sit on the floor with the body part of the banjo to my right and slide it around quite a bit, depending on what position on the neck I was attempting to play."
For the rest of his childhood, Scruggs spent practically every waking hour that he was not in school or helping out on the family farm playing the banjo. Like most five-string banjo players, as a child Scruggs used a two-finger picking style. Although some North Carolina banjo players employed an experimental three-finger style, Scruggs' first attempts to master this new style failed. Then one day, mindlessly playing a tune called "Ruben," Scruggs looked down to discover that he was picking with three fingers — his thumb, middle and index fingers. He recalled that he ran around the house shouting, "I've got it! I've got it! I can play with three fingers!" Over the ensuing years and decades, Scruggs became the first banjoist to truly master and refine three-finger picking, developing a style that emphasized melody lines and a syncopated rhythm. In fact, he so profoundly influenced the three-finger picking technique that it is still known as the Scruggs Style and has remained essentially ubiquitous for bluegrass banjo music to this date.
Scruggs attended Bolling Springs High School while also working at a local textile mill to help support himself and his family, all the while practicing the banjo obsessively. Upon his graduation in 1942, Scruggs, who never especially liked manual labor, decided instead to attempt to make his living as a musician. He landed a gig playing banjo for a popular country band called the Morris Brothers on a radio station in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
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The "high, lonesome" style that defines the bluegrass sound comes from the experiences of the music's original composers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of Appalachia. Early bluegrass musician Lester Flatt brought the sound of the genre into the popular lexicon in 1948, when he helped found The Foggy Mountain Boys. He was joined by fellow musician Earl Scruggs, who expertly picked his banjo in the three-finger style that is carried on in the music of bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Alison Krauss snagged more than 26 Grammy awards for putting a contemporary twist on the music of her bluegrass predecessors—proof that the genre still resonantes with listeners.
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