News

Remembering Earl Scruggs

FILE - In this July 30, 2011 file photo, Earl Scruggs performs at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Scruggs performed at the original festival 52 years ago.
FILE - In this July 30, 2011 file photo, Earl Scruggs performs at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Scruggs performed at the original festival 52 years ago.
Katherine Cole

Earl Scruggs, whose distinctive style of bluegrass banjo picking influenced countless players and helped to shape the sound of modern country music, died in a Nashville hospital Wednesday, March 28.  He was 88 years old.

Before Earl Scruggs, most banjo players used a two-fingered picking style. But all that changed after the 21-year-old North Carolina native joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1945, and brought his three-fingered rolls to Nashville.

“I used to play with just the finger and thumb, which they call two-fingered style.  Then I started playing a tune when I was about 10 or 11 and this third finger started working, which filled in some spaces. And that excited me because I could play some other tunes that I couldn’t play with the two finger style. So I just kept working with what I had.”

Before Earl Scruggs, the banjo was often considered a novelty item in a band. It was usually played by a comic character, not a serious musician.  As fellow banjo player Bela Fleck explains, Earl Scruggs changed all that.

“I think it was a combination of an incredible rhythmic approach with a very simple and beautiful harmonic language," he said. "He plays the banjo and it grabs you just like the lead vocal would. An amazing technique.  They called him ‘the Paganini of the banjo’ in the New York Times when he played at Carnegie Hall.  And I think he was just a beautiful, beautiful player. I think the lessons that you learn from someone like that transcend bluegrass and are just about music.”

In 1948, Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt shocked the country music community by quitting Bill Monroe’s band and setting out on their own. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move, as Flatt and Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys soon became just as famous as their ex-boss. Their first hit, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” arguably became the most famous banjo instrumental in the world. The song was a favorite of a then-teenaged bluegrass fan named Warren Beatty, who later used it as the theme to his movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”  

By the time Warren Beatty used their music in “Bonnie and Clyde,” Flatt and Scruggs had outgrown the smallish world of bluegrass and had entered the mainstream. They played everywhere:  New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, college campuses, and even headlined the famous Newport Folk Festival in 1962. The next year, Earl Scruggs’ banjo was heard on the number one country song in the U.S., “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” known to fans around the world as the theme to the “Beverly Hillbillies” television program.  

Throughout the 1960s Earl Scruggs’ sound continued to evolve. He discovered new songs through his sons Randy and Gary, along with musicians like Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, who came to Nashville and wanted to meet and pick tunes with the legendary banjo master. In turn, Earl wanted to incorporate songs by Bob Dylan and other folk rockers into the Flatt and Scruggs sound, a move that didn’t please Lester Flatt. Nor did he agree with Scruggs’ liberal politics. These differences led to the breakup of Flatt & Scruggs in 1969.

The end of that legendary pairing was not, however, the end of Earl Scruggs. He teamed with his sons Steve, Gary and Randy to form the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mainly acoustic rock band that went on to record several albums and influence many groups. Among them was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who credited Earl and his sons for inspiring the groundbreaking project “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

Earl Scruggs continued to record and perform with the Revue through the 1970s and 1980s.  Son Steve’s death in 1992 deeply affected him. The loss, along with a serious heart attack four years later, forced him into an early retirement.

The new century, however, brought more music: Fans the world over were thrilled when he released “Earl Scruggs And Friends.” The Grammy-winning album featured collaborations with his sons along with Sting, Dwight Yoakam and others.

A member of just about every musical Hall of Fame and a recipient of numerous honors, Earl Scruggs continued to tour until soon before his death. He played in theatres, clubs and major festivals such as Bonnaroo, Stagecoach and last October’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Few musicians have changed the way an instrument is played and heard the way Earl Scruggs has. Today, most everyone who picks a banjo does it “Scruggs style.”  As the country singer Porter Wagoner said at Scruggs’ 80th birthday party, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball.”

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs