Thursday, March 29, 2012

Godspeed Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player best known for his long partnership with guitarist Lester Flatt, passed on 28 March 2012 at the age of 88.

Earl Scruggs was born on 6 January 1924 in Shelby, North Carolina. He began playing the banjo at age 4 and would later learn to play the guitar as well. Eventually he began playing with various bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians. Once Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians broke up, Mr. Scruggs quit school in December 1945 to join Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. It was there that he met guitarist Lester Flatt.

Earl Scrugg would remain with the Blue Grass Boys until 1948. By that time both he and Lester Flatt were weary of the low pay and an often gruelling schedule. The two left the Blue Grass Boys and formed their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. More often than not in the following decades, the band would simply be known by the names of its founders "Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs" or, more simply, "Flatt and Scruggs."

It was in 1949 that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would make their first impact on music. Their song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" went to #9 on the Billboard Country charts. Over the years they would have several more hits, including "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," "Cabin in the Hills," "Go Home," "Just Ain't," "You Are My Flower," and "My Sara Jane." What might be their best known song of all time came from a television show. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs performed the theme song to the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies (it was sung by Jerry Scroggins), "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs released "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," which went to #1 on the Billboard country charts and #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. They would also release another song from The Beverly Hillbillies, "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl," which went to #8 on the country charts and #113 on the Hot 100. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs also performed the theme song to Petticoat Junction. It was also released as a single and went to #14 on the Country chart.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs not only performed the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, but they appeared on the show as recurring characters as well. They essentially played fictionalised versions of themselves.  Their wives were played by actresses Joi Lansing (who played Gladys Flatt) and Midge Ware (who played Louise Scruggs).

Despite their success, the team of Flatt and Scruggs would not last. Earl Scruggs took a progressive approach to bluegrass music, while Lester Flatt tended to be more of a traditionalist. These creative differences would eventually lead to the break up of the partnership in 1969. Earl Scruggs formed a new band, The Earl  Scruggs Revue. The Earl Scruggs Revue would often play on the same bill as rock and folk acts, something unusual for bluegrass groups at the time. Earl Scruggs continued to release albums into the 21st Century. His last album, Lifetimes: Lewis, Scruggs, and Long (recorded with Little Roy Lewis and Lizzy Long) was released in 2007.

Earl Scruggs was quite literally an innovator in the field of bluegrass music. He introduced a fingerpicking method of playing banjo known as the three-finger style, but perhaps better known as "the Scruggs style." After Earl Scruggs introduced it in 1946, it became the most common method of playing the banjo. Indeed, it is arguable that Earl Scruggs was the greatest banjo player of all time. He had a virtuosity with the instrument that few others could match, even in his later years. Indeed, Earl Scruggs' impact would not only be felt on bluegrass music, but on such other genres as country, folk, and rock. Over the years he would collaborate with such musicians as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Steve Martin, John Fogerty, Sir Elton John, and others. Quite simply, Earl Scruggs was a music virtuoso whose sheer talent transcended any genre.

1 comment:

Hal said...

The "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl" song is such a gem. I'd daresay impossible to forget the lyrics once you've heard it. "Don't you date that Lester Flatt, he slicks his hair with possum fat..."