Earl Scruggs: Musician whose work on the banjo remains the benchmark on the country scene


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few musicians are able to dominate their instrument in the way Earl Scruggs did the banjo. Other players may have enjoyed success and acclaim, but Scruggs' work, first with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, then with his partner Lester Flatt and later with his own Revue, remains the benchmark against which other picker's efforts are measured.

Scruggs' characteristic three-finger style was not wholly of his own devising, having been developed by a grouping of now-forgotten musicians such as Smith Hammett and the blind banjoist Mack Woolbright. What Scruggs brought to the technique was a drive, dexterity and attack that emphasised the melody line and left the traditional frailing approach of strummed chords languishing largely in the dust.

Earl Scruggs was born in Cleveland County, North Carolina in 1924. He began playing at the age of six, taking inspiration from a local musician named Snuffy Jenkins. While still in his teens he performed with noted "brother" act Wiley and Zeke Morris in neighbouring Spartanburg before leaving school to work in a parachute factory.

The lure of music proved too strong, however, and he found himself working with the Knoxville-based "Lost" John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians, making his debut on Nashville's famous Grand Ole Opry only to have Miller quit the music business shortly after. Luckily, Scruggs had been spotted by the bluegrass maestro and Opry star Bill Monroe, who offered him the place in his band vacated by David "Stringbean" Akeman. Scruggs joined what is now regarded as the classic Bluegrass Boys line-up: Monroe, guitarist, vocalist and MC Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bass player Cedric Rainwater. Together, they cut many of the genre's defining sides including "Blue Moon of Kentucky", "Molly and Tenbrooks", "I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling" and "Will You Be Loving Another Man".

In 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own outfit, and with an initial line-up including Jim Eanes on guitar, Cedric Rainwater on bass and fiddler Jim Shumate, they signed to Mercury. Billed as Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, their sessions produced several classics including "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" and a fine version of the country blues standard "Salty Dog Blues". A 1948 instrumental, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", would gain a new lease of life 20 years later when it featured in the film Bonnie and Clyde.

In 1951 they switched to Columbia and became one of the biggest country acts of the era. Unusually for a bluegrass act, (a term neither was comfortable with), they regularly charted, with "Tis Sweet To Be Remembered" (1952), "I'll Go Stepping Too" (1953), "Cabin On The Hill" (1961), "Crying My Heart Out Over You" (1960) and "Go Home" (1961). In 1962 their "The Ballad of Jed Clampett", taken from The Beverley Hillbillies TV series, proved an international crossover success. That their particular brand was more eclectic and more approachable than that of "purist" rivals like the Stanley Brothers ensured that they remained the most popular act in the field, eclipsing even Monroe.

In 1953 the duo began a long association with Martha White Flour on the Nashville radio station WSM, later becoming hosts of the Martha White-sponsored portion of the Opry, which they had joined in 1956. Even today Lester's smooth vocal coupled with Earl's dexterous picking heralds the Martha White section of the weekly Opry broadcast.

The early 1960s saw some of their finest work, including the all-instrumental album Foggy Mountain Banjo (1961) and the excellent Songs of the Famous Carter Family (1961) which featured Maybelle Carter's wonderful autoharp playing. For the latter album Maybelle, whose picking style had proved so influential in the formative years of the genre, loaned Earl her guitar, a tribute to his often underrated ability on the instrument. Both projects owed a great deal to the business and creative instincts of Earl's wife Louise, whose sure hand in guiding Flatt and Scruggs' careers has often been credited for much of their success.

In 1963 came their landmark Carnegie Hall concert, which proved a big seller on disc. That morning, Dorothy Killgallan of The New York Times wrote, "The hicks from the sticks are coming to town. I want to warn you in time to get out." That evening Earl surveyed a full house and said wryly, "I see a lot of you didn't read the paper today."

They became mainstays of the college and festivals circuits, but as the decade progressed and their repertoire became increasingly eclectic, encompassing folk-rock and jazz as well as country, tensions grew and in 1969 they split. While Flatt followed a traditional path, Scruggs founded the Earl Scruggs Revue, a progressive outfit which featured his sons Gary and Randy on bass and guitar, fiddler Vassar Clements and dobro player and ex-Foggy Mountain Boy Josh Graves. A third son, Steve, later joined them on drums, replacing Jody Maphis. The Revue was to prove an important element in revitalising bluegrass, attracting younger audiences and the attention of musicians from outside the country arena.

In 1971 Scruggs joined other veterans including Roy Acuff, "Mother" Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark triple album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a successful attempt – though controversial at the time – to bring generations of country musicians together. He appeared, too, on the Dirt Band's similar Circle II (1989).

Scruggs reconciled with Flatt before the latter's death in 1979, and 16 years later they were elected to Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame. Meanwhile his status rose: his albums became "events" and younger musicians queued to appear with him, as the guest list on 1983's Top Of The World testifies, and to have him on their albums. In 1982 he joined the songwriter Tom T Hall on a unique and entertaining duet project, The Story Teller And The Banjo Man, and has made telling contributions to the discs of acts as different as Sawyer Brown and Iris DeMent.

In 2001 he was joined by admirers including Elton John, Sting, Johnny Cash and Steve Martin on Earl Scruggs And Friends, picking up another Grammy for his re-recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". A collaboration with Little Roy Lewis and fiddler Lizzy Strong, Lifetimes, surfaced in 2007 and a live album from the one-time home of the Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, in 2008. In that same year he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.

Earl Scruggs was a shy and modest man, and his contributions to country music remain incalculable.

Paul Wadey

Earl Scruggs, banjo player and guitarist: born Flint Hill, North Carolina 6 January 1924; married Louise Cirtain (died 2006; three sons, and one son deceased); died Nashville, Tennessee 28 March 2012.