Earl Scruggs, the most influential banjo player in the history of bluegrass music, died Wednesday morning (March 28) at a Nashville hospital at age 88.
Through the medium of television in the 1960s, Scruggs and his musical collaborator, Lester Flatt, introduced the banjo — and bluegrass music — into millions of households each week through their performance of the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies television series. It is reported that their appearances on the popular program resulted in skyrocketing banjo sales in the U.S.
More than six decades after Scruggs picked his first notes with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, bluegrass fans and scholars are still debating the origins of the music. Some say it begins and ends with Monroe, while countless others cite Scruggs’ contributions (along with those of Flatt, Cedric Rainwater and Chubby Wise) as the genre’s defining moment.
Songwriter and musician John Hartford once stated that “bluegrass was invented on the stage of the Ryman,” where Scruggs made his debut with Monroe. Even Opry founder George D. Hay was prompted to single out Scruggs and his “fancy banjo” when introducing Monroe to Opry audiences in the late 1940s.
Scruggs’ contributions to the music cannot be overstated. Few banjo players before or since have had such impact on the instrument as has Scruggs. His distinctive three-finger approach to the instrument heralded a new era in country music.
Born Jan. 6, 1924, his musical journey began in Cleveland County, N.C., where he grew up in a house filled with the music of his brothers. At an early age, he was exposed to the music of fellow North Carolinians Snuffy Jenkins and Smith Hammett, who both played the three-finger style. (Although Scruggs did so much to spread style throughout his life, he has been erroneously credited with having developed it.)
At age 6, Scruggs began performing with his brothers’ band. By age 15, he was appearing on radio with the Morris Brothers, Zeke and Wiley (the composers of “Salty Dog”), as well as the Carolina Wildcats. After graduating from high school, Scruggs went to work in a textile mill to help support his widowed mother but soon hooked up with singer-musician Lost John Miller. After working with the band on radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn., Scruggs found himself at a musical crossroads when Miller disbanded the group. Fiddler Jim Shumate, with whom Scruggs was acquainted in North Carolina, recommended that Scruggs apply for the banjo slot in Monroe’s outfit that had recently been vacated by Dave “Stringbean” Akeman. Scruggs auditioned for — and landed the job with Monroe — making his Opry debut on June 17, 1944.
During his tenure with Monroe, Scruggs recorded what many fans consider to be the bedrock of bluegrass music. All of the 28 sides recorded with Monroe for Columbia are now generally regarded to be bluegrass classics and include “Blue Grass Breakdown,” “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” “Why Did You Wander,” “Will You Be Loving Another Man,” “Molly and Tenbrooks” and “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky.”
In early 1948, Scruggs left Monroe’s band, as did Flatt, and the two joined forces and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. After working on radio station WDNA in Danville, Va., the group settled in at WCYB in Bristol, Va., briefly before making the rounds at WROL in Knoxville, WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., and WVRK in Versailles, Ky.
Scruggs also formed another important partnership in 1948 when he married Ann Louise Certain. Beginning in 1956, Mrs. Scruggs served as the group’s business and booking manager and was herself one of Nashville’s pioneer female executives. In addition to booking the band, she aggressively promoted the act within the folk music community and is generally credited with having inspired the group’s excellent series of concept albums such as Songs of the Famous Carter Family and Folk Songs of Our Land.
The group launched their recording career in 1948 on Mercury Records, where they recorded more than two dozen sides for the label, including “Pike County Breakdown,” “My Cabin in Caroline” and “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear.” In 1950, the group moved over to Columbia Records, where they enjoyed their greatest chart success. The band’s first chart single for the label, “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered,” debuted in early 1952 and managed to peak at No. 9. During the course of Flatt & Scruggs’ 21-year partnership, the group managed to place some 20 singles on the charts, thus achieving the greatest chart success of any major bluegrass act.
The following year, Flatt & Scruggs began their long business relationship with the Martha White Mills when they were selected to head up the company’s morning program on WSM radio, Martha White Biscuit Time. Two years later, after much pressure from the company — and against Monroe’s wishes — Flatt & Scruggs joined the Grand Ole Opry family.
After television’s popularity took hold, Flatt & Scruggs advanced to that medium with their series traveling to a five-city area in the southeastern U.S. that included the cities of Knoxville, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Huntington, W.Va. With the advent of video tape, the group began taping their programs from WSM’s Nashville television studio for syndication throughout the region beginning in 1959.
For younger music fans who felt disenfranchised from the rock scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the folk movement happening across the U.S. proved to be a haven for those who wanted more meaningful music than what was being provided by teen idols. Flatt & Scruggs played a vital role in the soundtrack of that movement, culminating in a 1959 article in Esquire magazine. That same year, after Scruggs journeyed to the East Coast to appear at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, the group reappeared on the record charts with their recording of “Cabin on the Hill,” which managed to break into the Top 10.
Throughout the ’60s, Flatt & Scruggs’ popularity surged. In 1960, they made their first network television appearance on the CBS television special, Spring Festival of Music — Folk Sound USA. In 1962, they were tapped to perform the theme song for a new CBS television series, The Beverly Hillbillies. Scruggs was initially against being associated with a program about “hillbillies.” He later recalled, “We had worked so hard to get away from what you might call the ’hillbilly’ image.” After seeing a pilot of the program, however, Flatt & Scruggs agreed to provide the musical landscape for the series, which ran for six years. From 1962 to 1968, the duo made a cameo appearance on the show each year and usually performed a number or two for Jed, Granny and the rest of the Clampett family. Their 1962 recording of the theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” proved to be the first No. 1 Billboard single by a bluegrass act.
Throughout most of the ’60s, the group were regular visitors to the music charts with singles that included “Pearl, Pearl, Pearl,” “Petticoat Junction” and unlikely covers of rock songs such as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” In 1968, Scruggs’ signature instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” was selected as the theme for the hit movie Bonnie and Clyde, thus setting the stage for yet another revival in interest of bluegrass among younger fans.
It was perhaps this change in direction that led to the breakdown — and dissolution — of the group in 1969. Scruggs, who had three young sons following in his musical footsteps, was exposed to folk and pop music and became interested in expanding his musical base. Flatt, however, preferred to return to a more traditional sound. Shortly after representing the state of Tennessee on the Grand Ole Opry float at Richard M. Nixon’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 1969, Flatt and Scruggs went their separate ways.
Scruggs then joined forces with his sons — Gary, Randy and Steve — to form the Earl Scruggs Revue, which was an amplified, hopped-up version of bluegrass and country-folk-rock. The group signed with Columbia and released a succession of albums beginning with Nashville’s Rock in 1970. That same year, NET television produced a documentary on the banjo legend titled Earl Scruggs — His Family and Friends. In the program, Scruggs appeared in intimate jam session with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It also included footage of Scruggs and his sons performing at the Vietnam War Moratorium event staged in Washington, D.C., in 1969. The group toured extensively on college campuses, but die-hard traditional country fans were turned off by the group’s repertoire, electric sound and — at least to some degree — politics.
In 1972, Scruggs played a pivotal role in helping the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record their landmark album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Scruggs recruited many of his country music colleagues, including Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter to appear on the three-disc set, which sold more than 1 million copies. In 1989, Scruggs appeared on the sequel to the album, which garnered numerous music industry awards. He also played on the third volume of the Circle series released in 2002.
Scruggs continued to tour and record with the Revue until 1980 when chronic back problems forced him off the road. After that, Scruggs was semiretired but continued to perform select tour dates and record, collaborating at different times with Tom T. Hall on The Magnificent Music Machine and The Storyteller and the Banjo Man as well as with Rodney Dillard, Lacy J. Dalton and the Burrito Brothers on Sitting on Top of the World. He also made guest appearances on numerous albums, including Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim and IIIrd Tyme Out’s 1996 gospel recording, Living on the Other Side. In 2007, he teamed with banjo player Little Roy Lewis and fiddler Lizzy Long for Lifelines. Scruggs released his own Ultimate Collection: Live at the Ryman in 2008.
In 1985, Scruggs and his longtime partner became the second bluegrass act to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1991, Scruggs was among the three charter inductees into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor (along with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt). Scruggs was also the recipient of the National Heritage Award and, in 1999, fellow North Carolinian Andy Griffith inducted him into the North Carolina Hall of Fame during an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Scruggs received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.
Flatt & Scruggs were presented a Grammy in 1969 for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and Scruggs received another Grammy in 2002 for an updated version of the instrumental. The track from his 2001 album, Earl Scruggs and Friends, featured Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Leon Russell, Marty Stuart and Paul Shaffer. Scruggs received two other Grammys — in 1999 for his involvement in the multi-artist project, Same Old Train, and in 2005 for his collaboration with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on “Earl’s Breakdown.” In 2008, he was awarded the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th annual Grammy Awards ceremony.
Scruggs’ wife and longtime manager Louise Scruggs died in 2006 following a lengthy illness. He is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy, both of Nashville. He is preceded in death by a son, Steve, who died in 1992.
A service celebrating Scruggs’ life will be held Sunday (April 1) at 2 p.m. at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.