NASHVILLE: Earl Scruggs, who helped profoundly change country music with Bill Monroe in the 1940s and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, has died at the age of 88. Scruggs’ son Gary said his father died of natural causes Wednesday morning at a Nashville, Tennessee, hospital.
Scruggs, born Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, North Carolina, learned to play banjo at age 4. He appeared at age 11 on a radio talent scout show. By age 15, he was playing in bluegrass bands. ”My music came up from the soil of North Carolina,” Scruggs said in 1996 when he was honoured with a heritage award from his home state.
Earl Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered the modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the claw hammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument.
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as ”the Scruggs picking style” and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music. The debut of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys during a post-World War II performance on The Grand Ole Opry is thought of as the ”big bang” moment for bluegrass and later 20th century country music.
Later, Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.
They were best known for their 1949 recording ”Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” played in the 1967 movie ”Bonnie and Clyde”.
”The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from ”The Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing.
After the breakup, Scruggs used three of his sons in The Earl Scruggs Revue. The group played on bills with rock acts like Steppenwolf and James Taylor. Sometimes they played festivals before 40,000 people.
In 2001 he released a CD, ”Earl Scruggs and Friends,” his first album in a decade and an extension of The Earl Scruggs Revue. Over 12 songs, he collaborated with an impressive stable of admirers: Elton John, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Vince Gill, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Johnny Cash and actor Steve Martin, a banjo player, were all featured.
Over the course of his career, Scruggs performed with a horde of his contemporaries such as Doc Watson, Alisson Krauss, two among the most respected names in country music. While country may have taken a backseat to the more popular rock ’n’ roll of his era, his name will forever be synonymous with the roots of the music of the American.