Bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs dies at 88

Banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who with longtime musical partner Lester Flatt helped popularize bluegrass with modern audiences, has died of natural causes at a Nashville hospital at the age of 88.

Banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who with longtime musical partner Lester Flatt helped popularize bluegrass with modern audiences, has died of natural causes at a Nashville hospital at the age of 88.

In addition to helping define the very word "bluegrass" for generations of music fans, Scruggs was also a musical innovator, perfecting his own three-figured picking style, now known as the Scruggs Style. Others had played the banjo in a similar way before he began his career as part of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1945, but no one captured the public's attention as a performer the way Scruggs did.

"I realize his popularity throughout the world went way beyond just bluegrass and country music," Scruggs' son, Gary Scruggs, told CNN. "It was more than that."

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Earl Scruggs

In 1948, Scruggs and guitarist Flatt left Monroe's band to form their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys. The band, later known simply as Flatt and Scruggs, toured and recorded together for more than 20 years, producing many hits and widening the reach of bluegrass. The pair joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and continued to work together; in 1962 they recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" with singer Jerry Scoggins. The theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies" became one of the biggest crossover bluegrass/country hits of all time, and exposed them to a national television audience each week.

As the '60s wore on, Scruggs began veering toward a more progressive form of expression in his music, jamming with King Curtis and Ravi Shankar, among others, and appearing on concert stages with the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The more conservative Flatt did not approve of the direction his longtime partner was taking, and the pair dissolved their professional relationship in 1969, the same year they won a Grammy Award for "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which remains one of the genre's standards.

"Well, I didn't look at it from a political view," Scruggs once told an interviewer of working with names who might have been considered shockingly radical to the average country or bluegrass fan of the '60s. "And I thought Joan Baez had one of the best voices of anybody I'd ever heard sing."

Scruggs continued to stay busy through the remainder of his life, touring and recording almost constantly, even as the limelight shifted away. In 1994, he teamed with Doc Watson and son Randy Scruggs to contribute "Keep on the Sunny Side" to the compilation album "Red Hot + Country," which benefited AIDS research. In 2002 Scruggs won a second Grammy for a new recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" which featured Steve Martin on second banjo and a bevy of big names among the backing crew, including Leon Russell, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill and Albert Lee. --View Slideshow

 

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