I first heard that banjo picker (and bluegrass legend) Earl Scruggs has passed away via a tweet from comedian/musician Steve Martin who wrote, “Earl Scruggs, the most important banjo player who ever lived, has passed on.” Martin linked to this story in The New Yorker, that he wrote about Scruggs earlier this year.
Scruggs’ fame and impact spread far beyond the mountains where he was raised, but his memory has special importance in WNC. Born in Shelby, N.C., Scruggs’ career was launched in 1945 when he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys; a few years later he and guitarist Lester Flatt left that band to form their own Foggy Mountain Boys, aka Flatt and Scruggs.
It was in ‘62 that Scruggs, Flatt and vocalist Jerry Scroggins recorded “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and Flatt and Scruggs went on to appear on that show as friends of the Clampetts.
Scruggs was also known as one of but a few bluegrass artists to lend his talent to the anti-Viet Nam war movement. You can hear him talk about it here. “I’m disgusted and saddened about the boys we’ve lost over there,” he says, before performing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Washington D.C.
Another example of activism: In 1994, Scruggs, Doc Watson and Scruggs’ son Randy contributed the song “Keep on the Sunny Side” to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country.
Here, closer to home, Scruggs performs “Old John Hardy” with Doc and Merle Watson at the Watson home.
In 2005, local artist Connie Bostic wrote about how, “at his wife’s urging, banjo genius Earl Scruggs forsook hardcore bluegrass circles for the college circuit beginning in 1959.” Read that interview here. (By the way, according to Bostic’s story, “Mrs. Scruggs [who passed away in 2006] became the first female booking agent and manager in country music.”)
Scruggs inspired generations of musicians, from Martin to Bela Fleck to local banjo player Akira Satake (read about that connection here). And many more are sure to be inspired by Scruggs’ unique three-fingered picking style. He lived to be 88, and (happily) continued his career up to the end of his life.
Photo of Scruggs and his sons from the Flat and Scruggs website.