The man who developed a whole new way of playing the banjo, and turned it from not much better than a comic prop into the defining sound of bluegrass music, died on Wednesday aged 88. Obituaries at the NYT, the Guardian, the Guardian music blog, and an excellent short video here from the BBC, which makes the point that, unlike so much of the Country music establishment, which turned its back on the counter-culture in the late Sixties and headed down the road to Muskogee, Scruggs moved with the times, playing with the likes of Bob Dylan and performing at anti-war demonstrations.
In 1945, when he first stood on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had ever heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations. He performed tunes he wrote as well as songs they knew, with clarity and speed like no one could imagine, except him. When the singer came to the end of a phrase, he filled the theatre with sparkling runs of notes that became a signature for all bluegrass music since. He wore a suit and Stetson hat, and when he played he smiled at the audience like what he was doing was effortless. There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.
As boys in the little community of Flint Hill, near Shelby, North Carolina, Earl and his brother Horace would take their banjo and guitar and start playing on the porch, then split up and meet behind the house. Their goal was to still be on the beat when they rejoined at the back. Momentously, when he was ten years old, after a fight with his brother, he was playing his banjo to calm his mind. He was practicing the standard “Reuben” when found he could incorporate his third finger into the picking of his right hand, instead of his usual two, in an unbroken, rolling, staccato. He ran back to his brother, shouting, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” He was on the way to creating an entirely new way of playing the banjo: Scruggs Style.
He was only twenty-one when he was in on the founding of bluegrass music, adding the Scruggs’ banjo sound to Bill Monroe’s great blend of guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, and Monroe’s iconic high, lonesome voice, singing, “It’s mighty dark for me to travel.” He had already been playing Scruggs style for eleven years. On the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium stage, the banjo had been played well, but mostly in the old style, and mostly by comedians, prompting Uncle Dave Macon, a beloved regular, to say about Earl from the wings, “That boy can play the banjo, but he ain’t one damned bit funny.” [...]
A grand part of American music owes a debt to Earl Scruggs. Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix.
He was best known for Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Here's another one: