Arts, Culture & Media

Legendary bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs dead at 88

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Earl Scruggs was an innovating banjo player and pioneer of bluegrass music. (Photo from Flick user Volker Neumann.)

Earl Scruggs, a pioneer of Bluegrass music and the banjo playing style to which he lends his name, died Tuesday night in a Nashville hospital at the age of 88.

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Some time ago, Scruggs talked about the aforementioned three-fingered-banjo-picking "Scruggs style" and his legendary status in music.

"I started when I was very young, four-five years old, trying to pick — they call it 'two-finger,' which was a little bit misleading. It was the thumb and index finger," Scruggs said. "When I was about 10 years old, I was sitting in a room, just almost in a daydream by myself, picking a tune I still pick today. It was called 'Reuben,' and I was picking that tune, (and I) suddenly realized I had a smooth roll going with the middle finger."

Scruggs would go on to popularize his playing style when he joined Bill Monroe's (known as "the father of bluegrass) band, the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs and Lester Flatt, another member of the Blue Grass Boys, later left the group to form the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948. The Coen Brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" paid tribute to the legendary bluegrass band when the protagonists of the film played music as the "Soggy Bottom Boys."

Scruggs' three-finger style of play allowed for a greater part for banjo players in bands, rather than needing to play as solo artists. Despite his immense influence of the bluegrass genre, and music itself, Scruggs said he wasn't one for the spotlight on stage.

"When I started playing, I could play with the singers and back them up. I liked to play backup as good or better than I do taking the lead, so I put a lot of thought into what I'm doing while somebody is singing. I don't like to play while they're singing — you know, when they've got a line, but at the end of the line when nothing is doing, I'll do a little fill in or something," Scruggs said.

While bluegrass may be a niche genre, it's likely many have heard, and even sung along with, Scruggs' music.

In 1962, Scruggs, along with Lester Flatt and Jerry Scoggins, recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Scruggs said recording the theme song for "The Beverly Hillbillies" was one of the proudest accomplishments of his life. He praised the song for having a more respectful depiction of "hillbillies" than others in the media.

"They assured us they were real hillbillies, but they were very intelligent as far as common sense was concerned. Education, no, but they would outsmart the doctors and lawyers as far as common sense was concerned," Scruggs said. "I think that plays a big part in a person's intelligence, how much common sense they have."

In 2003, Earl Scruggs received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is survived by sons Gary and Randy Scruggs.

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