Obit of the Day: Earl Scruggs, Legend of Bluegrass
Earl Scruggs auditioned for Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, in 1945. Only 21 at the time Scruggs showed Monroe his unique three finger style and so impressed band member Lester Flatts that he told Monroe to hire Scruggs, “whatever the cost.” Monroe did and Scruggs joined the group that started bluegrass, “The Blue Grass Boys.”
Lester Flatts liked what he saw and in 1948, he and Scruggs became forever connected as they partnered to present bluegrass, a niche style of country music, to a more varied audience with performances outside of the traditional venues for country, including the Newport Folk Festival. It was at the Festival that Paul Henning first heard the duo. Several years later Henning was creating a television show about a family of “country folk” who discover oil on their property and head to Beverly Hills - The Beverly Hillbillies. Flatts and Scruggs would write the theme song for the show, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” A few years later, Warren Beatty, asked that Flatts & Scruggs to play their signature tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the soundtrack of Beatty’s new film, Bonnie and Clyde. The performance earned the duo their first Grammy award.
Scruggs taught himself how to play the banjo as a child. He eschewed the “claw hammer” style of simply strumming the strings and used the now-prominent three-finger picking. (The style was first made popular by the “grandfather of bluegrass,” Wade Mainer.) Unlike some of his contemporaries Scruggs was willing to collaborate with musicians across genres and, thus, making bluegrass, and the banjo a more mainstream sound. Some of the performers he worked with included: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Elton John, and Don Henley. His penchant for collaboration earned Scruggs a second Grammy for a re-recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” featuring Steven Martin - yes, that Steve Martin - as well as Vince Gill and Paul Shaeffer. (His last Grammy was a Lifetime Achievement Award received in 2003.)
Flatts and Scruggs, and their band “The Foggy Mountain Boys” (the Coen brothers paid homage to the group by naming the fictional group in O, Brother Where Art Thou “The Soggy Bottom Boys”), played together for twenty years before disbanding in 1969. Scruggs then partnered with his four sons and would continue to perform through 2009 as “The Earl Scruggs Revue.”
Scruggs, who died at the age of 88, was inducted, with Lester Flatts, into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
(The Essential Earl Scruggsis copyright 1972 Capitol Nashville/2004 Sony Entertainment)
In July 2011, another member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Kenny Baker, who Monroe called “the greatest fiddler in bluegrass,” passed away. You can read OOTD’s post on Mr. Baker here.