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. Then, in 1944, the great bandleader Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, invited Scruggs to play with his famous Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. For the next four years, Scruggs performed with Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry, the famous country radio show broadcast live from Nashville, as well as on several nationwide tours.
In addition to Scruggs, Monroe's Blue Grass Boys also included a talented young guitarist named Lester Flatts, with whom Scruggs became fast friends. In 1948, ready to step out of Monroe's shadow and make names for themselves, Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys to form their own band.
The Foggy Mountain Boys
Named the Foggy Mountain Boys, but also frequently referred to simply as Flatt and Scruggs (or, alternatively, Flatt & Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys), the band landed its first gig on a popular Bristol, Virginia radio show called Farm and Fun Time. After gaining exposure through radio airplay and ceaseless touring, by 1953 Flatt and Scruggs returned to Grand Ole Opry as headliners alongside the likes of country music greats such as Chet Atkins and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.
One of the first songs the band recorded in 1949, Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," while not especially popular upon its release, would eventually become a bluegrass classic after it was featured in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The Foggy Mountain Boys signed with Columbia Records in 1951 and their first single for the label, 1952's "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," became a major country hit. However, the band would not score another big smash until the 1959 song "Cabin in the Hills." Propelled by its success, The Foggy Mountain Boys churned out a slew of 1960s bluegrass hits, including "Go Home" (1961), "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl" (1962), "You are My Flower" (1964), "I Still Miss Someone" (1965) and a new recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (1968). However, by far their most popular song was "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" — the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies — recorded in 1962, which topped the country music charts for several weeks and even reached No. 44 on the pop charts.
Citing creative differences, Flatt and Scruggs split ways in 1969.
The Earl Scruggs Revue
Scruggs had married his wife, Louise Certain Scruggs, in 1948, and they had three sons: Randy, Gary and Steve, all musicians. In 1970, Earl Scruggs and his three sons formed a new band called the Earl Scruggs Revue. Inspired by the youthful tastes of his children, Scruggs sought to move beyond traditional bluegrass and use the banjo — often an electrified banjo — to achieve a more modern, rock and roll sound. "I saw where the banjo was more versatile than just straight bluegrass," Scruggs said. "And it sounded so good to me until I just couldn't get it off my mind." After focusing on touring and performing during the early 1970s, in 1974 the family band recorded the soundtrack for the movie Where the Lilies Bloom. In 1975, with the support of such superstars as Johnny Cash and Billy Joel, Scruggs recorded the Earl Scruggs Revue Anniversary Album Volume I, following with Volume II the next year. Other notable late 1970s albums include Family Portrait (1976), Live from Austin City Limits (1977) and Bold & New (1978).
The Earl Scruggs Revue parted ways in 1982 so that Scruggs' sons could focus on their own careers and lives. Scruggs has continued to record sporadically since that time. He released an album titled The Storyteller and the Banjo Man in 1982 and then a 1983 compilation album called Top of the World. Scruggs was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Lester Flatts in 1985. More recent albums include Earl Scruggs and Friends (2001) and Three Pickers (2003).
On March 28, 2012, country music lost one of its most legendary talents. Scruggs died of natural causes at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 88. He is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy.
One of the greatest banjoists of all time, Earl Scruggs enshrined his place in the history of bluegrass music when he stumbled across a unique three-finger picking style at the age of ten, going on to perfect it over the course of his long and illustrious career. During his later years, when he experimented with the electric banjo, he helped expand the instrument's traditional repertoire to include rock and roll.
The banjoist Rodney Dillard summed up Scruggs' profound influence on the instrument's history and development like this: "Earl Scruggs created a banjo style with no preconceptions of how it should be done, which gave him the freedom as an innovator and a true creative musician. Banjo styles post-Scruggs are only variations on a theme established by him. Earl is the father and the child of the five string banjo. For me, trying to describe Earl's playing would be very much like taking a black and white photograph of a rainbow."
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