Beyond Bluegrass: The Legacy of Earl Scruggs

Banjo genius Earl Scruggs died last night. According to reports, the 88-year-old died of natural causes at a hospital in Nashville, Tenn.

Scruggs, an award-winning artist, started playing bluegrass music at a young age. He eventually joined Bill Monroe’s group. Scruggs gained even more notoriety when he formed the duo Flatt & Scruggs with guitar player Lester Flatt and as part of the Foggy Mountain Boys. He created a sound synonymous with an American narrative and Appalachian music. As a Tennessee girl, who was raised in the Great Appalachian Valley, Scruggs’ sound will always be home. But Scruggs was so much more than just that Appalachian sound—so much more than bluegrass. He constantly experimented with his sound and treasured collaborations with those outside his genre, such as the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sting, Elton John and Dwight Yoakam.

At a young age, his experimentation with the banjo brought the instrument into the forefront of bluegrass, allowing it to shine as a lead instrument in bands across various genres. “Scruggs popularized a complex, three-fingered style of playing banjo that transformed the instrument, inspired nearly every banjo player who followed him and became a central element in what is now known as bluegrass music,” according to The Tennessean. Today, artists ranging from Bela Fleck to Mumford & Sons owe thanks to Scruggs. Even banjo players who opt for the claw hammer-style instead of the “Scruggs picking style” appreciate Scruggs. For instance, comedian turned bluegrass performer Steve Martin said the first time he heard Scruggs play the five-string banjo he “completely flipped out.”

Here’s to Earl Scruggs:

“Mr. Scruggs’ legacy is in no way limited to or defined by bluegrass, a genre that he and partner Lester Flatt dominated as Flatt & Scruggs in the 1950s and ’60s: His adaptability and open-minded approach to musicality and to collaboration made him a bridge between genres and generations” – The Tennessean

“Virtually every time a banjo solo comes on the radio, it’s played in a Scruggs-inspired picking style, and every time a TV character steps onto a farm, you can hear the spirit of Earl Scruggs. You can even get a taste of it on Madonna’s new album, where her song ‘Love Spent’ opens with a Scruggs-suggestive lick.” – The L.A. Times

“Scruggs’ style of banjo playing set him apart. Rather than flailing at the banjo strings, as most of his contemporaries did, he delicately hit the strings with three right fingers, coaxing the instrument to produce precise melodies. His style influenced the likes of The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and others who took up the banjo because of the playing of Scruggs, a native of Shelby, North Carolina.” – Reuters

“On the banjo, Mr. Scruggs’ three-finger picking style was fast, intricate, and just what bluegrass needed in order to achieve the hard-driving, passionate sound now associated with Appalachian music. He was the first to popularize the North Carolina three-finger technique, still emulated by young bluegrass banjoists today.” – American Songwriter

“During Monroe’s performances, Opry boss George D. Hay often introduced Scruggs as ‘the boy who made the banjo talk.’ If others had made it speak, Mr. Scruggs taught it a master class in what must have seemed a foreign language, offering a vocabulary and clarity of expression never before attained and rescuing the instrument from creeping oblivion.” – The Tennessean

 

 

 

 

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