I’m just kind of writing this without putting a ton of research or forethought into it, so please bear with me if it’s a little choppy.
When I got home from church tonight, I sat down at the computer and clicked around a little, eventually finding a link on Facebook (from my local awesome record store, Vintage Vinyl) that told me that Earl Scruggs had died at the age of 88. If you don’t know who Earl Scruggs is, then you have probably never heard of the banjo. He is perhaps most famous for being half of Flatt and Scruggs and writing the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies. But there is SO MUCH MORE to Earl Scruggs than that.
Comedian/Actor/Musician/Severalotherthings Steve Martin took to Twitter after hearing of Scruggs’ death and called him, “The most important banjo player that ever lived.” He is absolutely correct. Scruggs played the five-string banjo like nobody’s business, and developed a finger-picking style using three fingers that has influenced everyone to pick up the banjo since. Others used a three-finger style before him, but he perfected it. And it’s not just ME saying that…in the banjo world, that style of playing is now referred to as “Scruggs Style” picking. He literally revolutionized the way people played the banjo. For examples of Scruggs at his best, do a Google search for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Earl’s Breakdown.” Or just go out and buy the first “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” record that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put together. Earl’s heavily featured on that.
How impactful and influential was Earl Scruggs? Well…that three-finger picking method? The Scruggs Style? When I was playing bass as a TEENAGER (I am now in my 30s), I got into learning how to produce chords and melodic lines on the bass. I began exploring fast picking methods, different approaches to chording, and experimenting with keeping a root note going while moving melody parts around on other strings. And I did it by using the Scruggs Style picking method. I just didn’t know it was CALLED that. I was playing prog-rock, punk, and metal songs, using a picking style pioneered by a Bluegrass musician, meant for a five-string banjo. And I still employ the Scruggs Style on the bass today. That’s how far his influence reached and reaches.
There will NEVER be another Earl Scruggs. There CAN’T be. You only get to have one “most important banjo player that ever lived.” And today, he died. I mourn him as a fan of bluegrass music, as a fellow banjo player (albeit a four-stringer), and as a member of a generation of entertainer that is quickly fading. As sad as it is to lose another country/bluegrass icon, I admit that a small smile crosses my face when I consider the Circle forming in the guitar-pull in the sky. Cash, Scruggs, The Carters, The Louvin Brothers, Hank Sr, Waylon, etc… That’s one hell of a Circle. We’re poorer for not having them here, but I can’t wait to see that when I get there.
Rest in peace, Earl. You’ll always be the king of the five-string.