The phrase "cultural icon" is overused in popular media, but in the case of legendary musician Earl Scruggs, it may be too small an accolade. Scruggs, 88 passed away earlier this week in Nashville. As such, it's fitting that we pause to reflect upon the immense influence of this musical genius.
The phrase “cultural icon” is overused in popular media, but in the case of legendary musician Earl Scruggs, it may be too small an accolade. Scruggs, 88 passed away earlier this week in Nashville. As such, it’s fitting that we pause to reflect upon the immense influence of this musical genius.
Scruggs had his biggest successes in a duo with Lester Flatt, a guitarist and singer. The song, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” recorded with Flatt in 1949, was featured in the film Bonnie and Clyde two decades later. Flatt and Scruggs also played on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme of the Beverly Hillbillies television series.
Scruggs’ early years sound like fodder for a novel. Born amid the Great Depression in the Appalachians of North Carolina, Scruggs took to the banjo at age 4. The Scruggs were a musical family, finding relief from the rigor of farm work in the folk songs of the region. Earl’s talent grew quickly. In addition to the banjo, he learned to play the guitar, emulating the style of Mother Maybelle Carter.
Until age 10 Scruggs played predominantly in the two-finger banjo picking style that was most common at the time. Scruggs recounted that he was brooding in his room one day after a fight with his brother when he first experimented with the regionally popular three-finger style for which he is now known.
It’s rare that one individual’s talent is so profound that it changes the whole world’s approach to an instrument. Before Scruggs elevated the three-finger style to high art, the banjo was largely relegated to the status of a folksy hillbilly comedy prop. The B.E. (Before Earl) era of banjo playing was largely a time of jangly claw-hammer or flailing clatter.
Scruggs brought light to a dark place. He transcended everything that had come before him. He took the hillbilly folk music of Bill Monroe and gave it the hard edged sound we now recognize as bluegrass. In an article for The New York Times, Jon Pareles characterized the new sound as “a fusion of American music gospel harmony and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations.”
This mélange of influences would be reflected again and again throughout Scruggs’ career. He played music with whomever he thought had talent. A memorable instance of this is his collaboration with Joan Baez. Scruggs played with the folk singer at the arguable height of her controversial status. Asked about it, Scruggs simply remarked that she had a wonderful voice. Even in this Scruggs demonstrated that music has a power greater than politics and ideology.
Scruggs’ virtuosity was deceptively sublime. He could unleash a fusillade of staccato picking with no apparent effort or movement other than a tentative smile. He was so good, he made you think it was easy, but that’s how masters of their craft always do it.
It is no overstatement to say that Scruggs’ three-finger picking style gave birth to several generations of new players. His treatise “Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo” remains one of the most popular musical instruction books ever published.
Actor and comedian Steve Martin, who started playing banjo as a teenager, recorded a Grammy Award-winning song with Scruggs in 2001. “Earl Scruggs was my inspiration.” said Martin. On his Twitter feed, Martin referred to Scruggs as “the most important banjo player who ever lived.”
We would go further. Scruggs’ influence extends far beyond the five-strings of a Gibson Mastertone banjo. He took the world to the hills of the Carolinas and in so doing wrung all sorrow and joy one could from a skin and strings stretched tight on wood and metal. He is an icon, indeed.