Redefining an instrument and creating a new genre are rare musical feats, creative accomplishments that come once in a generation, at best. The death of Earl Eugene Scruggs on Wednesday at the age of 88 marked the passing of such an innovator, an American artist who built a brand new sound out of folk traditions and country cues. With a career that spanned decades, Scruggs and his name became shorthand for a distinctive, three-finger approach to picking the five-string banjo. A fine guitarist to boot, his work with Lester Flatt in the 1950s mapped the direction of bluegrass music for years to come. His voice would show up in the work of contemporaries like Johnny Cash and later disciples like Béla Fleck.
Born in Shelby, North Carolina in 1924, Scruggs grew up in a rustic environment seeped in folk music traditions imported by Irish, Scottish and European immigrants and developed by successive generations. It's a sound and a legacy that's clear in Scruggs' earliest work with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, an approach to the banjo that featured fast runs, dizzying picking styles and rapid, contagious rhythm.
As Scruggs honed his sound with Monroe and later struck out on his own with guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, that style would become more and more distinctive and innovative. Scruggs' three-finger picking approach and his expertise on the five-string banjo distinguished the pair's energetic and frenetic work as something distinct and separate from the traditional country music of North Carolina.
While songs like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" boasted the same cues derived from the old-time music of Appalachia, Scruggs' work was definitive in the first generation of bluegrass, a genre that took its name from the work of Bill Monore's outfit, the Blue Grass Boys. The Foggy Mountain Boys would later pare down their title to Flatt and Scruggs. By the time the group broke up in 1969, they'd left their own stamp on U.S. popular culture, launching their own TV show and penning the theme to the series The Beverly Hillbillies. As unlikely as it seems, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" became a crossover hit, bringing the sounds of bluegrass to television viewers across the country.
Scruggs himself found his own ways to lend his voice to national issues and movements, going beyond the traditional role of the country musician. In 1969, he played his seminal "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at an anti-war forum in Washington D.C., lending his voice to the protests over the escalating Vietnam War.
Scruggs' influence blossomed in successive decades, as new generations of bluegrass players used Scruggs' recordings from the 1950s and 1960s as a launch point. Folk artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and David Bromberg looked to the banjo picker from North Carolina as an icon. His 25th anniversary revue show in 1975 drew input from unlikely collaborators like Leonard Cohen and Billy Joel. That sway continued for decades to come. Everyone from Béla Fleck to Steve Martin cited Scruggs as a distinctive influence, an innovator who redefined American folk music. That legacy is bound to endure.
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