Nashville, Tenn. • It may be impossible to overstate the importance of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash's baritone or Hank Williams' heartbreak.
Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.
"It's not just bluegrass, it's American music," bluegrass fan turned country star Dierks Bentley said. "There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere."
Country music has transcended its regional roots, become a billion-dollar music and tourist enterprise, and evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on The Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 8, 1945. Though he would eventually influence American culture in wide-ranging ways, Scruggs had no way of knowing this as he nervously prepared for his first show with Monroe. The 21-year-old wasn't sure how his new picking style would go over.
"I'd heard The Grand Ole Opry and there was tremendous excitement for me just to be on The Grand Ole Opry," Scruggs recalled during a 2010 interview at Ryman Auditorium, where that "big bang" moment occurred. "I just didn't know if or how well I'd be accepted because there'd never been anybody to play banjo like me here. There was Stringbean and Grandpa Jones. Most of them were comedians."
There was nothing jokey about the way Scruggs attacked his "fancy five-string banjo," as Opry announcer George D. Hayes called it. In a performance broadcast to much of the country but unfortunately lost to history, he scorched the earth and instantly changed country music. With Monroe on mandolin and Flatt on guitar, the pace was a real jolt to attendees and radio listeners far away, and in some ways the speed and volume he laid down predicted the power of electric music.
Tut Taylor, a friend of the Scruggs family who heard that first performance on the radio in his Georgia home, called it an unbelievably raucous moment "a lot like some of the rock 'n' roll things they had, you know. But this was a new sound. It was a pretty sound and a welcome sound."
Scruggs' use of three fingers in place of the limited clawhammer style once prevalent elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section or even a comedian's prop to a lead instrument that was as versatile as the guitar and far more flashy.
Country great Porter Wagoner probably summed up Scruggs' importance best of all: "I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be."
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as "the Scruggs picking style" and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo beyond the traditional bluegrass and country forms. Today the banjo can be found in almost any genre, largely due to the way he freed its players to experiment and find new space.
That was exactly what Ralph Stanley had in mind when he first heard Scruggs lay it down. A legendary banjo player in his own right, Stanley said in an interview last year that he was inspired by Scruggs when he first heard him over the radio after returning home from military service in Germany.
"I wasn't doing any playing," Stanley said. "When I got discharged I began listening to Bill and Earl was with him. I already had a banjo at that time, but of course I wanted to do the three-finger roll. I knew Earl was the best, but I didn't want to sound like him. I wanted to do that style, but I wanted to sound the way I felt and that's what I tried to do."
Dave Rawlings, a Nashville singer-songwriter and producer, says Scruggs remains every bit as influential and fresh seven decades later. He said it's impossible to imagine nearly every guitar player mimicking Jimi Hendrix, but with Scruggs and the banjo, that's the reality.
"The breadth and clarity of the instrument was increased so much," he said. "He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that's a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing."
News of Scruggs' passing quickly spread around the music world and over Twitter. Bentley and bluegrassers like Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated him at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.
They were best known for their 1949 recording "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," played in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from "The Beverly Hillbillies," the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing. For many viewers, the endlessly hummable theme song was their first introduction to country music.
Remembering Earl Scruggs
The funeral for legendary bluegrass banjo artist Earl Scruggs will be today in Nashville at Ryman Auditorium, once home to the Grand Ole Opry.
With comedian and banjo player Steve Martin, one of his biggest fans, already scheduled to appear on The Academy of Country Music Awards tonight, the show's producers are planning a moment to remember the pioneering musician.