Without Earl Scruggs, there would be no innovation in bluegrass music. Earl Scruggs left a mark on our music world that has been felt for multiple generations. With his early connections to Kentucky native, Bill Monroe, as part of the Bluegrass Boys, Scruggs has been a part of the music scene for quite some time. However, the banjo notes stopped in time with the passing of Earl Scruggs. Wednesday morning, at the age of 88, Earl Scruggs passed away due to natural causes.
Born in the hills of North Carolina, Earl Scruggs learned to play banjo at the tender age of four. Fast forward to 1945 with the debut of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry. That magical moment in time made history as the world listened to what would soon become known as bluegrass music. Bluegrass music got its name as Bill Monroe was from Rosine, Kentucky, which was known as the bluegrass state. The name stuck and the instrumentation of blending the country music acoustic sounds with mandolin and banjo. Preservationists still argue today of what truly defines bluegrass music.
That night in Grand Ole Opry history was significant as Earl Scruggs showcased what would become the Scruggs banjo picking style. Rather than a claw-hammer style, the Scruggs style would be of a finger roll. It proved a fluid smoother sound as compared to the plucking claw-hammer style. It was soon “picked up” by banjo players and continues to be used today.
It wasn’t long after that Opry debut that Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt would leave Monroe’s band to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. That name would later change to Flatt and Scruggs. They became a household name thanks to the Ballad of Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies tv show. Flatt and Scruggs brought bluegrass music to a new audience by putting it on tv. They would later record Foggy Mountain Breakdown that was featured on Bonnie and Clyde movie soundtrack.
Later on, Flatt and Scruggs were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. Earl Scruggs would receive a National Heritage Fellowship, National Medal of Arts, and inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
Without Earl Scruggs – we would not have ventured through a new road of creating a sound that is literally music to the ears. We would not have the soundtrack to the Beverly Hillbillies or many other movies and tv shows. For now, his influential sound lives on to many banjo pickers including Steve Martin. Dave Rawlings was interviewed by CBS news and said, “He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that’s a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing.”
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.