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Country and bluegrass giant Earl Scruggs dies in Nashville
TRIBUTES are continuing to pour in about one of the founding fathers of bluegrass music, Earl Scruggs, who died aged 88 in a Nashville hospital on 28th March 2012. The banjo player, singer and committed Christian popularized a complex, three-fingered style of playing banjo that transformed the instrument, inspired nearly every banjo player who followed him and became a central element in what is now known as bluegrass music.
The youngest of five, Scruggs was born in rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, and started playing banjo as a child, perhaps absorbing ideas from local banjoists such as Mack Woolbright, Smith Hammett and Snuffy Jenkins. In his mid-teens he played with the then popular Morris Brothers, but soon returned home to be with his long-widowed mother and took a job in a local textile mill. In 1945, he joined Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, not long after the singer and guitarist Lester Flatt. This was the lineup that shaped the music, and its broadcasts and recordings inspired a generation. "It was hard work," Scruggs remembered. "We played in rain, we played in snow, we played where the power would go off and we would have to play by lantern light with no sound. We had two bad wrecks, but nobody got hurt. The way we had to drive to make dates, it's a wonder we weren't killed. But we made it, and it toughened you up."
In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs set out on their own, jointly leading the Foggy Mountain Boys (hence the Soggy Bottom Boys of the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). "At the time," Scruggs noted, "our type of music was more or less limited to the south. And the people up in the New England states and some of the northern states started talking about the 'new' sound of Flatt and Scruggs - and we'd been playing it for years." The group made sparkling recordings such as Flint Hill Special, named after Scruggs's home town; Randy Lynn Rag, for his eldest son; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, used in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and winner of a Grammy; and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett", the theme tune of the popular TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and a No 1 on the country chart in 1962.
From the 1980s onwards he played less often, but the awards for his innovation rolled in: election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985, a National Heritage fellowship in 1989, the National medal of arts in 1992. On the album Earl Scruggs and Friends (2001) he remade Foggy Mountain Breakdown, sharing the banjo part with the comedian Steve Martin, and the tune won its second Grammy. In 2008 Scruggs received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. His wife, Louise, who was his manager for many years, died in 2006. He is survived by sons Gary and Randy, the latter a well known country and Christian music producer.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.