Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Listen to the story of a man named Earl

There ain't that much to a banjo -- four or five strings, plastic or parchment or an animal skin stretched across a round frame, a bridge and a neck.

Some have backs, others don't. It's a pretty humble instrument, brought to this country by African slaves and put to good use by hill people in the American South.

But, boy, did Earl Scruggs make it sing, sing like no one had before. And ol' Earl -- who rose to fame with his bluegrass partnership with Lester Flatt -- was a pretty fair guitar picker, too.

People my age first made the acquaintance of Flatt and Scruggs via The Beverly Hillbillies -- they performed the theme song of the 1960s comedy and made a guest appearance or three. If we were smart, we took notice because we were amazed at the musicianship.

It's kind of like
"What's the banjo without Earl Scruggs?"

WE'RE going to find out. Earl Scruggs died today at age 88, according to this Associated Press story:
Scruggs' son Gary said his father died of natural causes Wednesday morning at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital.

Earl Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered the modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the clawhammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or a comedian's prop — to a lead instrument.

His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as "the Scruggs picking style" and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music.

The debut of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys during a post-World War II performance on The Grand Ole Opry is thought of as the "big bang" moment for bluegrass and later 20th century country music. Later, Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.

They were best known for their 1949 recording "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," played in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from "The Beverly Hillbillies," the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing.


Scruggs will always be remembered for his willingness to innovate. In "The Big Book of Bluegrass," Scruggs discussed the breakup with Flatt and how his need to experiment drove a rift between them. Later in 1985, he and Flatt were inducted together in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"It wasn't a bad feeling toward each other as much as it was that I felt I was depriving myself of something," Scruggs said. "By that, I mean that I love bluegrass music, and I still like to play it, but I do like to mix in some other music for my own personal satisfaction, because if I don't, I can get a little bogged down and a little depressed."

He said he enjoyed playing because "it calms me down. It makes me satisfied. Sometimes I just need to pick a few tunes."

I GUESS NOW we'll have to make do with the records. And the old videos of our memories of a time when giants strode across our culture.

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