Earl Scruggs in 2005.
|Birth name||Earl Eugene Scruggs|
January 6, 1924|
Cleveland County, North Carolina--Flint Hill community near Boiling Springs, NC,
|Origin||Shelby, North Carolina, United States|
|Died||March 28, 2012
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
|Genres||Bluegrass, country, gospel|
|Instruments||5-string banjo, guitar|
|Labels||MCA Nashville Records|
|Associated acts||Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, Earl Scruggs Revue|
|A 1934 Gibson Granada previously owned by Don Reno and Snuffy Jenkins, and "Nellie", a 1935 Gibson RB-3 flathead|
Earl Eugene Scruggs (January 6, 1924 – March 28, 2012) was an American musician noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style now called "Scruggs style" that is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. The three-finger style of playing was radically different from the ways the five-string banjo had been historically played, and it elevated the banjo from its role as a comedian's prop or background rhythm instrument into prominent status as a featured solo instrument.
Scruggs' career began at age 21 when he was hired to play in a group called Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. The name "bluegrass" stuck and eventually became the eponym for this entire genre of county music. Despite considerable success with Monroe, performing on the Grand Ole Opry and recording classic hits like "Blue Moon of Kentucky", Scruggs gave notice in 1946 that he was quitting the band because of the exhausting schedule of touring. Another band member, Lester Flatt resigned as well, and later the two men paired up again in a new group called "Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys". Scruggs' banjo instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", released in 1949, became a hit, and the song had a rebirth of popularity in 1967 when it was featured in the film Bonnie and Clyde. The song won two Grammy Awards and in 2005 was selected for the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.
Flatt and Scruggs brought bluegrass music into mainstream popularity in the early 1960s with their country hit, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett". This song was the theme music for the successful network television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies and was the first bluegrass recording to reach number one on the Billboard charts. The duo broke up in 1969, in part because Scruggs wanted to include a more modern sound and Flatt was a traditionalist who did not want to change the style because he thought it would alienate a fan base of bluegrass purists. Each of them formed a new band that matched his own vision, but neither man ever regained the success they had reached together.
In 1985, Flatt and Scruggs were inducted together into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the duo was named number 24 on CMT's 40 Greatest Men of Country Music. Scruggs received four Grammy awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and The National Medal of Arts. He became a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and was given a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. He was awarded a National Heritige Fellowship given by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the U.S. After Scruggs' death in 2012 at age 88, the Earl Scruggs Center near his birthplace in Shelby, North Carolina was founded with the aid of corporate donors. The center features the musical contributions of Scruggs with historical and musical education geared largely to middle school and high school students.
Scruggs was born January 6, 1924 just outside of Shelby, North Carolina, in a community called Flint Hill, about 50 miles west of Charlotte. His father, George Elam Scruggs, was a farmer and a bookkeeper who played an open back banjo using the frailing technique. George died of a protracted illness when Scruggs was four years old. Scruggs' mother, Georgia Lula Rupee (called Lula), was left to take care of the farm and five children, of which Earl was the youngest. The family members all played music. Mrs. Scruggs played the pump organ. Earl's older brothers, Junie and Horace, plus his two older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby, all played banjo and guitar. Scruggs recalls a visit to his Uncle's home at a very early age to hear a blind banjo player named Mack Woolbright, who played a finger picking style rather than strumming. This made an impression on Scruggs, who said, "He'd sit in the rocking chair, and he'd pick some and it was just amazing. I couldn't imagine — he was the first, what I call a good banjo player." Scruggs then took up the instrument— he was too small to hold it then and played his brother Junie's banjo by sitting it beside him on the floor. He moved it around depending on what part of the neck he was playing. After his father's death, Scruggs seemed to take solace in playing music, and he practiced in nearly every spare moment not spent in school or doing farm chores; however, he was still picking with two fingers, and had not yet formulated his signature playing style.
Scruggs is noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo-picking style now called "Scruggs style" that has become a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. Prior to Scruggs, most banjo players use the frailing or clawhammer techniques (these are synonymous) which basically involve holding the fingers bent like a claw, moving the entire hand in a downward motion so that the strings are struck with the back of the middle fingernail. This motion is followed by striking the thumb on a single string on the downbeat. This is the way Scruggs' father played. The three-finger style of playing is radically different from this— the hand itself remains stationary and only the digits move, somewhat similar to classical guitar technique. It also involves using picks on three digits plucking three individual stings — downward with the thumb, then upward with the index and middle finger in sequence. When these motions are done skillfully and in rapid sequence it allows the thumb to play a melody and the fingers to form arpeggios of the melody line. The use of picks gives each note a more percussive attack creating an exciting effect, described by the New York Times as, "like thumbtacks plinking rhythmically on a tin roof". This departure from traditional playing allowed the banjo to become more of a solo instrument instead of providing background rhythm.
Scruggs said the three finger style was the most common way to play the five string banjo in his hometown in western North Carolina. An early influence was a local banjoist DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins who was plucking in a finger style. At age ten, when Scruggs first learned the technique, he recalled that he was at home in his room after a quarrel with his brother. He was idly playing a song called "Reuben" and suddenly realized that he was playing with three fingers, not two. "That excited me to no end", he later recalled, and said he ran through the house repeatedly yelling "I've got it". From there he devoted all his free time to perfecting his timing and to adding syncopation and variations to it. Controversy exists as to the actual origin of this three finger picking style. A noted banjo player who also played this style and who knew Scruggs at that young age was Don Reno, who described Scruggs' early playing as similar to Snuffy Jenkins. Scruggs, however, consistently referred to it as his own saying that he adapted to it "a syncopated roll that was quite different." On the subject, John Hartford said, "Here's the way I feel about it. Everybody's all worried about who invented the style and it's obvious that three finger banjo pickers have been around a long time— maybe since 1840. But it's my feeling that if it wasn't for Earl Scruggs, you wouldn't be worried about who invented it."
With Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass BoysEdit
At age 15, Scruggs played in a group called "The Morris Brothers" for a few months, but quit to work in the Lily Textile Mill near his home in North Carolina. Earning 40 cents an hour, he worked there about two years until the draft restriction for WW II was lifted, at which time he returned to music, performing with "Lost John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians" on WNOX in Knoxville. At this point, in 1945, an opening with Bill Monroe became available.
Bill Monroe, 13 years older than Scruggs, was prominent in country music at the time. His career started with the "Monroe Brothers", a duo with his brother Charlie. Bill sang the high tenor harmony parts for which he became noted, a sound called "high lonesome". The brothers split up in 1938 and Bill, a native of "the Bluegrass State" of Kentucky, formed a new group called "Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys". They first played on the Opry in 1939 and soon became a popular touring band featuring a vocalist named Lester Flatt. The name "bluegrass" stuck and eventually became the eponym for this entire genre of county music and Monroe became known as "the father of bluegrass."
When Scruggs was 21, Monroe was looking for a banjo player for his group because David Akeman, known as Stringbean, was quitting. At the time, banjo players often functioned in the band as comedians, and the instrument was often held as a prop— their clawhammer playing was almost inaudible. Monroe, along with band member Lester Flatt, auditioned several banjo players who had the same traditional playing style as Akeman. When Scruggs auditioned for them at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville, Flatt said," I was thrilled. It was so different! I had never heard that kind of banjo picking". Scruggs joined Monroe in late 1945, earning $50 a week. At that time the Blue Grass Boys included Bill Monroe (vocals /mandolin), Lester Flatt (guitar /vocals), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Chubby Wise (fiddle), and Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts) on bass. This group of men became the prototype of a what bluegrass band would be.
With Monroe and Lester Flatt, Scruggs performed on the Grand Ole Opry and in September 1946 recorded the classic hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky", a song that was designated by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. The work schedule was heavy in Monroe's band. They were playing a lot of jobs in movie theaters all over the south doing up to six shows a day, finishing up about eleven at night. Lester Flatt said, "It wasn't anything to ride two or three days in a car. We didn't have buses like we do now, and we never had our shoes off". The self-imposed rule was to always make it back from their travel in time to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville every Saturday night. Scruggs said, speaking of Monroe, "Bill would never let the music go down no matter how tired we were. If a man would slack off, he would move over and get that mandolin up close on him and get him back up there".
Despite the group's success, after two years years of being road-weary and over-scheduled, Scruggs decided the demands were too great and turned in his resignation, planning to go take care of his mother in North Carolina. Flatt had also made up his mind to leave but he had not told anyone but later gave his two week notice; before the notice was up, the bass player Howard Watts announced that he was leaving too. Despite Monroe's pleading, they left the band. Monroe thought Flatt and Scruggs had a secret understanding, but both men denied it. Monroe did not speak to either one for 20 years thereafter, a feud well known in country music circles.
Flatt and ScruggsEdit
In 1948 Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs formed "Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys" — the name came from a song by the Carter Family called "Foggy Mountain Top" that the band used as a theme song at the time. Flatt later acknowledged that they consciously tried to make their sound different from Monroe's group. In the mid 1950s they dropped the mandolin and added a Dobro, played by Buck "Uncle Josh" Graves. In the spring of 1949, their second Mercury recording session yielded the classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". Previously, Scruggs had performed something similar, called "Bluegrass Breakdown" with Bill Monroe, but Monroe had denied him songwriting credit for it. Later, Scruggs changed the song, moving an F to a D minor, thus creating "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" The song won a Grammy and became an anthem for many banjo players to attempt to master. The song's popularity later resurged when it was featured in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. In 2005, Foggy Mountain Breakdown was selected for the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.
In October 1951, the band recorded "Earl's Breakdown" which featured a technique where Scruggs would manually de-tune certain strings of the banjo during a song using a cam device he put on the instrument, giving the surprise effect of a downward string bend. He and his brother Horace had experimented with it when they were growing up. For Earl's Breakdown, Scruggs had drilled some holes in the peghead of his banjo to install the device and chipped the pearl inlay. He covered the holes with a piece of metal, which can be seen on the album cover of Foggy Mountain Jamboree. The technique became popular and led to improvement of the design (without drilling holes) by Bill Keith, and manufacture of Scruggs-Keith Tuners
In 1953, Martha White Foods sponsored the band's regular early morning radio shows on WSM in Nashville, where the duo sang the company's catchy bluegrass jingle written by Pat Twitty. About this time, country music television shows, on which Flatt and Scruggs appeared regularly, went into syndication, vastly increasing the group's exposure. WSM did not allow Flatt and Scruggs to become members of the Grand Ole Opry at first. According to Tennessean writer Peter Cooper, Bill Monroe worked behind the scenes to keep Flatt and Scruggs off the Opry. In 1955 Martha White Foods' CEO Cohen E. Williams intervened by threatening to pull all of his advertising from WSM unless the band appeared on the Opry in the segment sponsored by his company. As years went by, the band became synonymous with Martha White to the extent that the advertising jingle itself became a hit, and the band rarely played a concert without it. Fans shouted requests for them to play it, even at Carnegie Hall.
On September 24, 1962, the duo recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" for the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. Sung by Jerry Scoggins, the theme song became an immediate country music hit and was played at the beginning and end of each episode of the series. The song went to number one on the Billboard country charts, a first for any bluegrass recording. The song spent 20 weeks on the charts, also reaching number 44 on Billboard's pop music chart. Flatt and Scruggs appeared in several episodes as family friends of the fictional Clampetts. In their first appearance (season 1 episode 20), they portray themselves in the show and perform both the theme song and "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl".
By the end of the 1960s, Scruggs was getting bored with repetition of the classic bluegrass fare. By now, his sons were professional musicians, and he was caught up in their enthusiasm for more contemporary music. Scruggs also wanted to play concerts in venues that normally featured rock and roll acts. Columbia Records executives told Flatt and Scruggs that they were going to try a new producer, Bob Johnston, instead of their long-time producer Don Law. Johnston had produced Bob Dylan's records. This association produced Changin' Times, Nashville Airplane, and The Story of Bonnie and Clyde albums. Flatt was not happy with some of this material — he didn't like singing Bob Dylan songs and refused to perform them saying, "I can't sing Bob Dylan stuff, I mean. Columbia has got Bob Dylan, why did they want me?". Even the success of the Bonnie and Clyde album was not enough to prevent their breakup in 1969. After the split, Flatt formed a traditional bluegrass group with Curly Seckler and Marty Stuart called The Nashville Grass, and Scruggs formed "The Earl Scruggs Revue" with his sons.
Earl Scruggs RevueEdit
In early 1969, Scruggs formed the "Earl Scruggs Revue" consisting of two of his sons, Randy (guitar) and Gary (bass) and later Vassar Clements (fiddle), Josh Graves (Dobro) and Scruggs' third son, Steve (drums). On November 15, 1969, Scruggs performed live with the newly formed group on an open-air stage in Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. He becoming one of the few bluegrass or country artists to give support to the anti-war movement. The act gained popularity on college campuses and live shows. They recorded for Columbia Records and made frequent network television appearances though the 1970s. Their album I Saw the Light with a Little Help from my Friends featured Linda Ronstadt and Arlo Guthrie, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This collaboration sparked enthusiasm by the latter to make the album Will the Circle be Unbroken. Earl and Louise Scruggs made phone calls to eminent country stars like Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter to get them to participate in this project to bring a unique combination of older players with young ones. Bill Monroe refused to participate saying he had to remain true to the style he pioneered, and this "is not bluegrass"
Scruggs had to retire from the road in 1980 because of back problems, but the Earl Scruggs Revue did not part ways until 1982. Despite the group's commercial success, they were never embraced by bluegrass or country music purists. Scruggs remained active musically, and released The Storyteller and the Banjoman with Tom T. Hall in 1982, and a compilation album Top of the World in 1983. In 1994, Scruggs teamed up with Randy Scruggs and Doc Watson to contribute the song "Keep on the Sunny Side" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country. In 2001, Scruggs broke a 17-year personal album hiatus with the album Earl Scruggs and Friends featuring Elton John, Sting, Don Henley, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakum, Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Martin. It includes the song 'Passin' Thru', written by Johnny Cash and Randy Scruggs. He also released a live album The Three Pickers with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs, recorded in Winston-Salem in December, 2002.
Awards and honorsEdit
Flatt and Scruggs were inducted together into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1989, Scruggs was awarded a National Heritige Fellowship given by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the U.S. He was an inaugural inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1991 and into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009. In 1992, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, presented by the President of the United States for outstanding contributions to the arts in the nation. Flatt and Scruggs won a Grammy Award of 1968 for Scruggs' instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". Scruggs won a second Grammy in 2001 for the same song featuring artists Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Leon Russell, Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas, Glen Duncan and Scruggs' two oldest sons, Randy and Gary. He totaled four Grammy awards over his career and in 2008 received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards.
In 2005, Scruggs was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. The Coen Brothers made a reference to The Foggy Mountain Boys in the 2000 film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, by naming the movie band "The Soggy Bottom Boys"
On September 13, 2006, Scruggs was honored at Turner Field in Atlanta as part of the pre-game show for an Atlanta Braves home game. Organizers won a listing in "The Guiness Book of World Records" for the most banjo players (239) playing one tune together (Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown"). The pickers formed two groups, one on each side of home plate, and a video tribute to Scruggs' life was shown.
In January 1973, a tribute concert was held for Scruggs in Manhattan, Kansas. Among the artists playing were Joan Baez, David Bromberg, The Byrds, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Doc and Merle Watson. The concert was filmed and turned into the 1975 documentary film Banjoman. It premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center, attended by both Tennessee senators (Brock and Baker), Ethyl Kennedy, and Maria Schriver. Scruggs attended the event in a wheelchair, recuperating from a crash of his private plane.
On December 14, 1946, 26 year old Anne Louise Certain attended the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She went backstage after the performance to meet some of the performers including Scruggs, who had been with Bill Monroe's band about a year at that time. Scruggs and Certain began dating and fell in love. They were married about a year and a half later in April 1948. Louise had a business mind and when Flatt and Scruggs formed the new group, she became the manager and booking agent, Nashville's first female to become prominent in that role. Her acumen and skills in the job were prescient. She turned the band into TV personalities, and helped propel them into what today would be called rock stars, touring with Joan Baez and performing at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival. She helped market the group to younger audiences at college campuses and arranged a live album to be recorded at Carnegie Hall. Earl Scruggs said, "What talent I had never would have peaked without her. She helped shape music up as a business, instead of just people out picking and grinning". Louise died on February 2, 2006 at age 78. In 2007, The Country Music Hall of Fame created The Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, an annual event to honor a music industry business leader.
In 1955, Scruggs received word that his mother, Lula suffered a stroke and heart attack in North Carolina. Earl and Louise Scruggs, with sons Gary and Randy, were driving all night from Nashville October 2 to see her when they were involved in an automobile accident just east of Knoxville about 3 AM. Their car was hit by a drunk driver, a Ft. Campbell soldier who had pulled out from a side road into their path then fled the scene after the collision. The children were not hurt, but Earl suffered severe hip injuries which would bother him for years, and Louise had been thrown into the windshield receiving mutiple lacerations. They were flown to a Nashville Hospital where Scruggs had an artificial hip implanted and remained hospitalized for about two months. He received thousands of letters from well-wishers. Seven years later the other hip required similar surgery. The first hip began hurting 40 years after the 1955 operation, and he had a total hip replacement in October 1996. After this hip surgery, while still in the recovery room, Scruggs suffered a heart attack— he was returned to the operating room later the same day for quintuple coronary bypass surgery. Despite the dire circumstances, he recovered uneventfully and returned to his musical career.
Scruggs was also involved in a solo plane crash in October 1975. He was flying his 1974 Cessna Skyhawk II aircraft home to Nashville around midnight from a performance of the Earl Scruggs Revue in Murray, Kentucky. He got into dense fog on his landing approach and overshot the runway at Cornelia Fort Airpark in Nashville and the plane flipped over. The automatic crash alert system in the plane did not function, and Scruggs remained without help for five hours. He crawled about 150 feet from the wreckage with a broken ankle, broken nose, and facial lacerations, afraid that the plane might catch fire. His family was driving home from the same concert, and was unaware of the crash, but his niece became worried when he did not arrive. She called police at about 4 AM, and they went to the airport, where they heard Scrugg's cries for help from a field near the runway. He recovered uneventfully, but was in a wheelchair for a few weeks.
Steve Scruggs, the youngest son was the drummer for the Earl Scruggs Revue at one point. He died tragically in September 1992 of a self-inflicted gun shot after killing his wife, according to prosecutor Dent Moriss.
Every February for many years, Earl Scruggs' birthday was celebrated by a party at Scruggs' home on Franklin Road in Nashville. After a buffet dinner, all would gather in the living room for an informal "pickin' party" where some of country music's best known stars would sing and play with no one around but family and close friends. The attendees over the years included Tom T. Hall, Bela Fleck, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Tim O'Brien, Emmy Lou Harris, Mac Wiseman, Marty Stuart, Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Jerry Douglas, Josh Graves and many others. At Scruggs 80th birthday party in 2004, country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl is to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was”, Wagoner said, “and the best there ever will be.”
Earl Scruggs died from natural causes on the morning of March 28, 2012, in a Nashville hospital. His funeral was held on Sunday, April 1, 2012, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and was open to the public. He was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in a private service.
The Earl Scruggs CenterEdit
The Earl Scruggs Center opened January 11, 2014, in the historic court square in Shelby, North Carolina in Cleveland County and was celebrated by a sold-out concert by Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Sam Bush and others. The Scruggs Center showcases the history and cultural traditions of the American South, and the unique musical contributions of Earl Scruggs, the most eminent ambassador of the music of that region. It serves as an educational center providing classes and field trips for students.
|US Country||US||US Heat||US Bluegrass|
|1967||Strictly Instrumental (with Lester Flatt and Doc Watson)|
|1967||5 String Banjo Instruction Album|
|1968||The Story of Bonnie and Clyde (with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys)|
|1972||I Saw the Light with Some Help from My Friends|
|Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends|
|Live at Kansas State||20||204|
|1973||Rockin' 'Cross the Country||46|
|The Earl Scruggs Revue||169|
|1976||The Earl Scruggs Revue 2||161|
|1977||Live from Austin City Limits||49|
|1978||Bold & New||50|
|1979||Today & Forever|
|1982||Storyteller and the Banjo Man (with Tom T. Hall)|
|Flatt & Scruggs|
|1983||Top of the World|
|1998||Artist's Choice: The Best Tracks (1970–1980)|
|2001||Earl Scruggs and Friends||39||33||14|
|2002||Classic Bluegrass Live: 1959-1966|
|2003||Three Pickers (with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs)||24||179||2|
|2004||The Essential Earl Scruggs|
|2005||Live with Donnie Allen and Friends|
|2007||Lifetimes: Lewis, Scruggs, and Long|
|US Country||CAN Country|
|1970||"Nashville Skyline Rag"||74||—||Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends|
|1979||"I Sure Could Use the Feeling"||30||41||Today & Forever|
|"Play Me No Sad Songs"||82||66|
|1980||"Blue Moon of Kentucky"||46||—|
|1982||"There Ain't No Country Music on This Jukebox"
(with Tom T. Hall)
|77||—||Storyteller and the Banjo Man|
|"Song of the South" (with Tom T. Hall)||72||—|
|1998||"Same Old Train"||Various Artists||59||Tribute to Tradition|
|1992||"The Dirt Road" (with Sawyer Brown)||Michael Salomon|
|2001||"Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (Earl Scruggs and Friends)||Gerry Wenner|
- Earl Scruggs – His Family and Friends (2005)
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Flatt and Scruggs
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