Today we take a break from our usual grumblings about politics, economics, and the gradual decline of civilization to note the passing of one of the great men of American culture. Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88, and the nation is vastly poorer for the loss.
Scruggs wouldn’t have minded a bit that most of the obituaries will describe him as a banjo player, but anyone who ever heard him play that much-maligned instrument knows that he was much more than just another picker. He was a extraordinary virtuoso who revolutionized the way his instrument is played, became a key figure in the development of an important American musical genre in the process, and influenced musicians in fields ranging from country to rock ‘n’ roll to jazz. Just as important, he was widely respected for his character, helped bridge the musical generation gap of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and stood as an example of the democratic greatness of American music.
Born to a poor but loving family of talented musicians in the hills of North Carolina, Scruggs was a child prodigy who began to develop his own three-fingered technique for playing the five-string banjo by the age of 4. Passionate about the music, and free of the modern distractions that have doubtless derailed many young talents in a more affluent age, Scruggs was single-mindedly devoted to music and given to a legendarily rigorous practice regimen. By his teens he was ready to change the course of American music history, although he was probably only hoping to make a living.
He first came to prominence by joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a crack outfit that was beginning to attract attention with an innovative style of traditional rural music. Scruggs replaced the beloved David “Stringbean” Akeman, a capable banjoist of the old claw-hammer school whose main role in band was to provide cornball comedy between songs, and the change transformed the band. Although his shy, taciturn, and rigidly dignified personality made him ill-suited to the comedian’s role, Scruggs had a fast, flowing, propulsive style of playing — known to fans everywhere as “the roll” — that sped the band into a brand new style of music that became known as bluegrass.
Having played the pivotal role in creating bluegrass, Scruggs joined forces with fellow Bluegrass Boy Lester Flatt to do more than any other musicians to popularize it. The pair and their outstanding band introduced the music to the folk-crazed college students of the early ‘60s at numerous festivals, serenaded an audience of millions every week with their “Beverly Hillbillies,” and gave millions of others their very first taste of bluegrass by providing the soundtrack for “Bonnie and Clyde” with their signature tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
Bill Monroe had been famously hostile to the hippies who were already taking over his musical creation by the late ‘60s, but the easy-going open-minded Scruggs had a more accepting attitude than his old boss. When he formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring his long-haired sons, both fine musicians in their own rights, Scruggs added songs by Bob Dylan and The Byrds to his repertoire and welcomed the tie-dyed set to his shows. We had the privilege of hearing Scruggs play at the old Henry Levitt Arena in Wichita on a bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dave Bromberg, and a little-known comedian named Steve Martin back in the early ‘70s, and we vividly recall that everyone in attendance seemed to agree that the quiet, middle-aged hillbilly in the non-descript suit was by far the hippest cat they’d ever seen.
Scruggs has been a constant musical companion ever since, his finest recordings taking their place of honor our shelf along side those the other truly great musicians of the American tradition. In addition to the hours of happy listening, he also provided us with a cheering reminder that true greatness can come from anywhere, and in any form. Scruggs proved that greatness can be learned through family traditions as well as an academy, that it can be honed out behind the barn as easily as in a classroom, and that it can happen in the Grand Ole Opry as well as the fanciest opera halls.
– Bud Norman