Friday, April 6, 2012

Goodbye Earl Scruggs

Supposedly, only five forms of art are natively American— jazz, musical comedy, the mystery story,  comic books, and the banjo. Earl Scruggs, its grandmaster, died on March 29 at the age of 88. Here he is in a short clip with the equally legendary Doc Watson.

"Bill Monroe described the banjo as the filth child in the bluegrass family" writes the revered folk magazine Sing Out! in a lengthy profile.
"However, in the hands of Earl Scruggs, it has become the single most identifiable element of the high-lonesome sound. The syncopated rolling lines of notes that flow from countless banjos staunchly epitomize the spirit of bluegrass music and are a direct result of the art of Earl Scruggs.... Scruggs-style banjo was perfect for the music that grew from the muse of Bill Monroe. The technique combines a series of ascending and descending finger-picked roll patterns that provided a rapid-fire contrast to the strict rhythms that remain an essential element in the bluegrass sound. The rolls are continuous arpeggios that separate the beat and maintain a choral connection despite the regular dissonance supplied by the regular inclusion of the droned fifth string. Often Scruggs utilized his thumb to pick out the melody, which was injected into the rolling note groupings and modernized his sound though the use of metal picks affixed to his index and middle fingers."
"I fell for the banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs' playing on The Beverly Hillbillies," banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck told the World-Herald just before Scruggs' death. "I don't know why it hit me so hard, but it sure did." Like Scruggs, Fleck has truly picked up the torch and taken the banjo in new directions. Here he is in two virtuosic tributes—one short and one long—from recent concerts.

In a recent New Yorker article, Steve Martin wrote, "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." Right, Scruggs at the age he picked up his instrument; below, with partner Lester Flatt and as eminence grise.
I had the unforgettable joy of hearing Scruggs live at a bluegrass festival. I and his millions of fans will sure miss him.


  1. Gorgeous tribute to someone I knew next to nothing about... I'll have to remedy that. I had literally no idea about his influence. Thank you for this!

  2. Growing up in West Virginia, I was around lots of Earl Scruggs fans in the music community. I was never a huge bluegrass fan, but definitely appreciate its influence! There is no doubt that Scruggs made an impression on many musicians.