NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Bluegrass legend and banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who helped profoundly change country music with Bill Monroe in the 1940s and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, has died. He was 88.
Scruggs’ son Gary said his father died of natural causes Wednesday morning at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital.
Earl Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered the modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the clawhammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section – or a comedian’s prop – to a lead instrument.
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style” and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music.
The debut of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys during a post-World War II performance on The Grand Ole Opry is thought of as the “big bang” moment for bluegrass and later 20th century country music. Later, Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.
They were best known for their 1949 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” played in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing.
After the breakup, Scruggs used three of his sons in The Earl Scruggs Revue. The group played on bills with rock acts like Steppenwolf and James Taylor. Sometimes they played festivals before 40,000 people.
At an 80th birthday party for Scruggs in January 2004, country great Porter Wagoner said: “I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
In 2005, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit. The following year, the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” on which Scruggs was one of many famous guest performers, joined the list, too.
Scruggs, born Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, N.C., learned to play banjo at age 4. He appeared at age 11 on a radio talent scout show. By age 15, he was playing in bluegrass bands.
Louise Scruggs, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. He is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy. Gary Scruggs says funeral arrangements are incomplete.