Earl Scruggs dies at 88; banjo legend was half of Flatt & Scruggs

His distinctive three-finger playing style became the touchstone for thousands of instrumentalists who followed. With Flatt, he played the 'Beverly Hillbillies' theme. Later he teamed with his sons.

Bill Monroe, the man widely acknowledged as the father of bluegrass music, was in search of a new banjo player for his famed Blue Grass Boys when a young musician turned up backstage at Nashville's celebrated Ryman Auditorium during a 1945 Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, hoping to audition.

Once Monroe and his guitarist, Lester Flatt, heard the sparks fly from 21-year-old Earl Scruggs' instrument, the bandleader asked Flatt what he thought. “If you can, hire him," Flatt told Monroe, “whatever the cost."

Upon joining Monroe's band, Scruggs solidified a lineup that came to define bluegrass, a rural strain of country music typified by the “high lonesome sound" of tight vocal harmonies and frequently peppered with fleet instrumental interplay among guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and string bass, while wholeheartedly adopting the precepts of solo improvisation and collective empathy of jazz.

Scruggs, who died Wednesday in Nashville at 88 of natural causes, according to his son Gary, brought a distinctive three-finger playing style that became the musical touchstone for thousands of instrumentalists who followed in his wake—among them actor, comedian and banjo player Steve Martin—and helped popularize the banjo far beyond its traditional home in Southern regional music.

Both with Monroe in the 1940s and later during his long partnership with Flatt in Flatt & Scruggs, the North Carolina innovator transformed the instrument from what often had been perceived as a novelty or a prop for comedy into a vehicle for virtuosos. Grand Ole Opry head George D. Hay often introduced Scruggs when the Blue Grass Boys performed as “the boy who made the banjo talk."

“He was one of the first and the best three-finger banjo player," Scruggs' 85-year-old peer Ralph Stanley said Wednesday night in a statement. “He did more for the five-string banjo than anyone I know."

Scruggs brought the instrument to stardom in mainstream America through hits including “Foggy Mountain Breakdown," a song he wrote, and even more broadly when Flatt & Scruggs played the theme for a new TV show that became a sensation, “The Beverly Hillbillies," with the song titled “The Ballad of Jed Clampett."

Series creator Paul Henning had heard Flatt & Scruggs at the Newport Folk Festival in the late 1950s and invited them to record the song for the sitcom, which premiered in 1962.

“Within three weeks it was rated No. 1 and eventually shown in 76 countries," Scruggs' wife, Louise, wrote in the notes for the 2001 all-star tribute album “Earl Scruggs and Friends." “It spread country music and the five- string banjo all over the world."

During the height of popularity of “The Beverly Hillbillies," Flatt & Scruggs' “Foggy Mountain Breakdown" gained a new following from its prominent use in director Arthur Penn's hit 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde."

Flatt & Scruggs were hired at the behest of star and producer Warren Beatty, who vowed, “I am going to get Earl a hit record from this movie." He succeeded, and it also earned the duo their first Grammy Award. Scruggs eventually won three more for various collaborations.

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