Here’s the irony of being asked to write about the highlights of Earl Scruggs’ career as king of the banjo and a bluegrass pioneer: What doesn’t make the cut as one of his top achievements would be the crowning moment for just about every other picker.
First, of course, is the three-finger style that he perfected after learning to play it, almost by accident, at the age of 10 or 11. Others played that style long before him, but there’s a reason the smooth, syncopated roll is named for him – he played it better than anybody and helped define bluegrass music.
Next are the bands Earl was associated with. After playing with a couple of groups that are footnotes in the rich history of the music we love, he took star turns in two of the all-time headliners. First, starting in late 1945, was a three-year stint with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Then came more than 20 years with Lester Flatt in a band that started out being called the Foggy Mountain Boys and later morphed into, simply, Flatt & Scruggs.
After he and Lester couldn’t settle their style differences – perhaps a precursor to today’s Big Tent debate about bluegrass – they went their separate ways in 1969 and Earl started the Earl Scruggs Revue. To this day, some bluegrass purists who honor his pioneering role can’t bear to listen to his music from this era, which featured electric guitars, drums and – gasp! – harmonica.
Then there are two musical accomplishments. For starters, Earl wrote one of the most-recognizable and most played bluegrass tunes, Foggy Mountain Breakdown. He wrote other tunes, too, but this is his signature accomplishment as a writer.
But there’s a broader musical milestone, too. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys already had quite a following when Earl joined the band and took bluegrass into a whole new dimension. When Sammy Shelor accepted IBMA’s banjo player of the year award in 1995, he said: “If it weren’t for Earl, none of us would be here.” I don’t want to put words in Sammy’s mouth, but he wasn’t just talking about banjo players. I’m here to argue that without Earl’s inventiveness and drive, bluegrass might not have developed enough of a following to survive the one-two punch of Elvis in the 1950s and the British rock invasion in the following decade.
And there’s also Earl, the teacher. His instruction book, Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo, first published in 1968, sold more than one million copies in the first five years. Thousands of bluegrass pickers are direct descendants.
Finally, there are the honors: Two Grammy awards, for different versions of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. And a special Grammy for lifetime achievement to boot. Induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995. Joining the inaugural class – at the same time as Bill Monroe – in the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1991. Recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1992. And getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.
Not bad for a boy who got mad at his brother, locked himself in his room and picked up his banjo, only to realize – after many attempts and failures – that he was picking with three fingers instead of two. Not bad at all.
Those of us who knew Earl Scruggs, personally or through the music, owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
And I can’t help but think that those he now joins are having one heck of a jam session right about now.
Earl Scruggs passed away earlier today in Nashville at the age of 88.