Legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs, one of the pioneering figures of bluegrass music, has died of natural causes in a Nashville hospital at 88.
Thanks in large part to his ongoing activity on the concert circuit as an octogenarian, Scruggs had hardly been forgotten in the years and months leading up to his death. Just two months ago, writing in the New Yorker, Steve Martin said, "A grand part of American music owes a debt to Earl Scruggs. Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix."
But his stardom continued to give him a healthy touring career to the very end, especially at roots-music gatherings like the Newport Folk Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass or Stagecoach, on top of well-attended shows at performing arts centers. In recent years, Scruggs had toured with a band packed with family members and let his sons and grandson do all the talking as he sat impassively between solos. Fans would sometimes worry whether he was up to the task as he slowly made his way to center stage, only to gape in awe when his fingers would come to life, as spry as the rest of his body was not.
Scruggs had played in Los Angeles as recently as November, when he headlined UCLA's Royce Hall. "Picking his instrument in the fleet three-finger style he's thought to have perfected, Scruggs calmly reaffirmed the basis of his fans' worship," the Los Angeles Times wrote in a review of the show four months ago... Scruggs' playing arrived in short, sharp bursts overflowing with notes."
After the "Ballad of Jed Clampett" breakthrough, they entered the mainstream zeitgeist once again with the unlikely popularity of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," a Scruggs instrumental that was used to accentuate the violent action in the film Bonnie and Clyde. Today, the tune is such a staple in the bluegrass canon that it's practically a running joke to break into a few bars, at least for the instrumentalists who can handle it (and, indeed, it was part of Steve Martin's standup act back in the 1970s).
The duo didn't capitalize on that newfound popular notoriety for long though, as Flatt and Scruggs split in 1969, in a breakup believed to be largely due to musical differences, as Scruggs was more interested than his partner in covering contemporary acts like Dylan and the Byrds. Scruggs had been recording and touring with his own band and/or family ever since.
Flatt & Scruggs were named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985, and, on his own, Scruggs received the National Medal of the Arts in 1992. In 2003, he got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, CMT named Flatt & Scruggs as among the "40 Greatest Men of Country Music."
In 2001, an all-star cast joined the legend for a tribute album, Earl Scruggs and Friends, which featured contributions from performers as disparate as Elton John, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam, Sting, John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, and Melissa Etheridge.
Talking with the Associated Press after news of Scruggs' passing hit, country star Dierks Bentley—who released a bluegrass-oriented album two years ago—talked about how iconic Scruggs' once-idiosyncratic picking style had become. "There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from," Bentley said. "That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing."
Brad Paisley was one of the stars weighing in via Twitter, saying, "Thanks for being one of our musical Thomas Edisons."
Scruggs' funeral has been scheduled for Sunday, April 1 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the one-time home of the Opry—and site of the recording of Scruggs' final release, 2008's Live at the Ryman.
The funeral takes place the same day as the ACM Awards in Las Vegas, where it's believed some sort of tribute is in the works. Martin, for one—who won a Grammy for collaborating with Scruggs on their "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" remake in 2001—was already scheduled to join Rascal Flatts for a performance of (what else) "Banjo," which should now become a de facto homage, if nothing else.
- Steve Martin