Some people cried when Whitney Houston died. I’m going to cry tonight. One of my heroes, Earl Scruggs, passed away earlier today at a Nashville hospital. He was 88 years old.
Scruggs helped invent the music known as “bluegrass.” He pioneered a style of banjo playing — forever known as “Scruggs style” — that banjo players around the world have learned and will continue to learn as long as the instrument exists.
Contrary to popular belief, bluegrass is actually just a little older than rock and roll, created by Bill Monroe as an amalgam of old-time mountain music, the blues and a little gospel thrown in for good measure.
Monroe often gets all the credit for creating bluegrass (he is known as the Father of the music, after all), but it’s important to remember that even Mr. Monroe could not have created this music so many Americans love without the help of a boy from Flint Hill, North Carolina.
Before a 21-year-old Scruggs joined Monroe’s band in 1945, the Father of Bluegrass was still seeking his sound.
Monroe had banjo player Stringbean in his group before Scruggs joined up, and Stringbean employed an older banjo technique called “clawhammer.” It’s a style that relies more on strumming the banjo than picking it and, though it allows musicians to play melodies, does not provide the rapid-fire “rolls” bluegrass fans have come to love.
That all changed when Scruggs joined the band. His playing delivered the sound Monroe was looking for, so much so that even after Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948 to form his own group with singer Lester Flatt, Monroe would only hire banjo player that sounded like Earl.
Here’s a video of Earl, playing an instrumental called “Ground Speed.”
A lot of folks also forget that Earl was a master guitar player, in addition to his banjo skills. Here’s a video of him playing “You Are My Flower” with the legendary Maybelle Carter.
Rest in peace, Earl.