Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2012

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:13 pm

NY Times March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies at 88


Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced a generation of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music, died on Wednesday in Nashville. He was 88.

His son Gary said his father died at a hospital of natural causes.

Mr. Scruggs was probably best known for performing alongside the guitar-playing Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys. Among their signature songs were “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used as the getaway music in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of the 1960s television sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Mr. Scruggs began developing his picking style at an early age. Born on a North Carolina farm to a large family of musicians, he took up the banjo at age 4, about the time his father, who also played the banjo, died. He also learned to play guitar, modeling his style after Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family.

With little else to do but chores on a Depression-era farm, he became obsessed with the banjo. He depended mainly on a two-fingered picking style until he was about 10. Then one day, alone in his bedroom and brooding about an argument he had just had with an older brother, he found himself picking a song called “Lonesome Reuben” (or “Reuben’s Train”) using three fingers instead of two — the thumb, index and middle finger. It was a style, indigenous to North Carolina, that he had been trying to learn.

By tuning his banjo in different keys, he found he could play any tune, but the notes sounded undifferentiated at first. “I can’t hear the melody,” his mother would tell him, he said. So he learned to emphasize melody by plucking it with his strong thumb in syncopation with harmonic notes picked with his first two fingers. The sound was like thumbtacks plinking rhythmically on a tin roof.

The technique lent a harder edge to the bluegrass sound — named after Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys — which Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, characterized as “a fusion of American music: gospel harmony and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations.”

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, near Shelby, N.C., to George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper, and the former Georgia Lula Ruppe, who played the pump organ in church. He attended high school in Boiling Springs, N.C.

As Earl’s mastery of the banjo grew, the demands for his performance increased, and he soon found himself playing at dances and on radio shows in the Carolinas with various bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians.

In December 1945, after Mr. Miller’s group disbanded, Mr. Scruggs quit school and took the first major step of his career by joining the Blue Grass Boys for $50 a week plus $10 extra if he worked on Sundays. Besides Mr. Scruggs, the band came to include Mr. Monroe on the mandolin and singing; Mr. Flatt playing guitar and singing duets with Monroe; Howard Watts (a k a Cedric Rainwater) on bass, and Chubby Wise on fiddle.

With them Mr. Scruggs helped the group achieve the hard-driving “high, lonesome sound” that Monroe, called by many “the father of bluegrass,” was striving to achieve. When Mr. Scruggs stepped up to the microphone to play an instrumental break, “listeners would physically come out of their seats in excitement,” Richard Smith wrote in “Can’t You Hear Me Calling: The Life of Bill Monroe.”

Mr. Scruggs stayed with the Blue Grass Boys for two years as they starred on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show and recorded classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Blue Grass Breakdown” and “Molly and Tenbrooks (The Race Horse Song)” for Columbia Records. He also sang baritone in the group’s gospel quartet.

Early in 1948, he and Mr. Flatt, weary of the low pay and exhausting travel, decided to strike out on their own, despite Monroe’s pleas to stay. In a famous feud, he did not speak to them for 20 years.

Although the two said they hadn’t planned to get together when they quit, they ended up forming a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys, after the Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top,” which they took as their theme song. With other musicians joining them, they moved bluegrass away from Monroe’s stronghold in Kentucky and central Tennessee to North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and Virginia.

Aided by the former Louise Certain, whom Earl had married in 1948 and who acted as the group’s manager and booking agent, and by the corporate sponsorship of Martha White Mills, they not only survived the onset of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll but also surpassed Monroe in popularity. In 1954 they traveled to New York to appear in a Broadway show, “Hayride,” and Mr. Scruggs’s banjo-picking style began to spread among young folk musicians.

In 1955 they finally joined the “Grand Ole Opry,” thanks to pressure from Martha White Mills. In 1959 the group appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival, an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival. The Foggy Mountain Boys entered the folk-music revival, and the band began to play the college folk-festival circuit. As Mr. Scruggs broadened his musical interests he began to work with his growing sons, Gary Eugene, Randy Lynn and, during school vacations, Steve Earl, and to record material by Bob Dylan and other folk-rockers.

Mr. Flatt, by contrast, disliked the new music and felt it was alienating the band’s grass-roots fans. In 1969 the two broke up. Mr. Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mostly acoustic group with drums and electric bass, which further broadened its repertory to include rock and touches of modern jazz, sometimes combining genres in a single number. The group stayed together for the remainder of Mr. Scruggs’s career, during which he performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Wembley Festival in London as well as in films and on television specials.

Mr. Flatt died in 1979. Mr. Scruggs’ wife, Louise, died in 2006; his son, Steve, died in 1992. Besides his sons Gary and Randy, his survivors include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.



  1. Let’s not forget that in the late 50s and early 60s, when country music as a whole was either consciously politically conservative, unthinkingly patriotic and often a racist milieu Scruggs and Flatt appeared openly with blacklist veterans like Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel. They also appeared with black performers such as Leon Bibb, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry.

    Comment by David Berger — March 29, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  2. I discovered Flatt and Scruggs on television back in the sixties at the age of eleven or so. The sound was incredible to me. Alas! Life only allows us so many such blinding moments. R.I.P., Earl Scruggs.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — March 31, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

  3. If you have the time, I highly recommending the Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends documentary from ca. 1970, following Earl, Randy, and Gary Scruggs as they embrace new folk/rock/country music. They play with Dylan in his “Nashville Skyline” phase, the Clarence White-era Byrds (my favorite), and Joan Baez, in addition to bluegrass/folk pioneers Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. They also perform at an anti-Vietnam War rally! Earl Scruggs was such an incredible musician and wonderful human being.

    Comment by WB — April 1, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

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