Earl Scruggs, the banjo virtuoso whose blazing three-finger attack – now commonly called “Scruggs style” – revolutionized the instrument’s use in bluegrass and country music, died Wednesday morning at a Nashville hospital. He was 88.
After attaining fame as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the late ’40s, Scruggs helped popularize the high-energy string band genre in tandem with his longtime musical partner, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt.
Scruggs scored his best-known hits via TV and film. In 1962, Flatt and Scruggs’ “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the amiably corny theme for the CBS comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies,” became a No. 1 country hit. (They also recorded the theme for another CBS hayseed sitcom, “Petticoat Junction.”)
Flatt and Scruggs’ remake of their 1949 instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” won a Grammy Award and became a media ubiquity after it was used as an antic motif in Arthur Penn’s sensational 1968 gangster pic “Bonnie and Clyde.”
After Flatt and Scruggs split up in 1969, the banjoist formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a family affair featuring his sons Randy, Gary and Steve that emphasized modern material and a sometimes rock-influenced sound.
Scruggs was born into a musical family in Shelby, N.C. His father, brothers and sisters all played the five-string banjo, and he took up the instrument at age 4.
He originally picked it with two fingers, but soon used the three-finger style — employing the thumb, index and middle finger — that had developed in the region, with local performer Snuffy Jenkins its best-known exponent.
After years of playing in regional groups, Scruggs made his way to Nashville station WSM with Lost John Miller’s Allied Kentuckians. He became friendly with Jim Shumate, fiddler in the Blue Grass Boys. A 1945 audition for Monroe’s pathfinding band impressed the bandleader and his guitarist Flatt, who later said he was “just dumb-founded” by Scruggs’ picking.
Between 1946-48, Flatt and Scruggs appeared on Monroe’s famous early bluegrass recordings — “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” “Molly and Tenbrooks,” “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’.” Scruggs’ revelatory banjo work established the genre as a showplace for instrumental prowess.
After nearly three years of grueling touring, Flatt and Scruggs quit Monroe’s band in early 1948 and formed their own unit. Moving to Columbia Records in 1950 after two years at Mercury, the duo’s group the Foggy Mountain Boys became bluegrass’s most prominent attraction for two decades, outstripping even founding father Monroe. The pair hosted their own TV show, played Carnegie Hall and (appropriately) guested on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Flatt’s impatience with Columbia producer Bob Johnston’s attempts to modernize the duo’s sound led to his ’69 split with Scruggs. Flatt died in 1979. Flatt and Scruggs were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame together in 1985.
Scruggs aligned himself with country’s progressive elements in the Revue. He also accepted an invitation — rejected by his former boss Monroe — to appear on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 country-rock album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with such other pioneering country artists as Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter. (He received a Grammy in 2005 for an instrumental performance on the Dirt Band’s third “Circle” set.)
After disbanding the Revue in the late ’70s, Scruggs recorded less frequently. He later appeared in star-studded sessions like “Earl Scruggs and Friends” (2001), which contained a second Grammy-winning version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and “Three Pickers” (2002), on which he was joined by Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs.
He received the National Medal of Arts in 1992 and a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005.
Scruggs’ wife Louise, who managed his career from 1955 on, died in 2006.
His survivors include sons Randy and Gary.