One of the most influential figures in American music during the second half of the 20th century, a pioneer who was an architect of bluegrass and helped shape country music, has died. Banjo master Earl Scruggs died of natural causes Wednesday morning at 88 in a Nashville hospital.
Scruggs’ “three-finger roll,” perfected during his time with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the late 1940s, became the signature sound of bluegrass and helped create the modern country music sound.
After Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt broke away from Monroe in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, they became the most prominent bluegrass act of the period, raising the profile of the genre. A prolific writer, Scruggs created much of the modern bluegrass songbook.
Two Flatt & Scruggs recordings in particular helped expose bluegrass to a wider audience: “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song to the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” released in 1962; and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the theme to the 1967 Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway film “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Flatt & Scruggs made a series of appearances on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” won a Grammy in 1969 for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” written by Scruggs, and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
Following the breakup of Flatt & Scruggs in 1969 — often attributed to Scruggs’ desire to broaden the group’s musical base beyond pure bluegrass — Scruggs formed his own band, the Earl Scruggs Revue, and continued touring and recording until recently. Lester Flatt continued as a solo act as well before his death in 1979.
Scruggs is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most imitated musician in the world, with “Scruggs Style” banjo playing having become the predominant style on the instrument.
He was an inaugural member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, inducted in 1991. He received the American National Medal of the Arts in 1992, awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts. He won a Grammy with Scruggs in 1969 for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and received a second Grammy for a new version of the song, recorded with Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Leon Russell, Marty Stuart, Paul Shaffer and others, in 2002.
Here’s a video of Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin and others performing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on “Late Show with David Letterman”:
Finally, here’s Flatt & Scruggs’ theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies":