The Beethoven Of The Banjo – Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, who died on March 28th is probably best known for his enduring duet with guitarist Lester Flatt – and for two numbers  – ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’, the theme song for the long running TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, and for ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ originally waxed in 1950 and used as the background music in car chases in the film ‘Bonnie And Clyde’ from 1967. Indeed that year was when I first saw an album by the duo issued in the UK (I think) on Hallmark, sold in Woolworth’s.

Born on January 6th 1924 at Flint Hill, North Carolina, he came from a family where everyone played music. Self taught on the banjo Scruggs acknowledged the influence of the banjo player Snuffy Jenkins and he developed a three-finger technique which bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg described as “a ‘roll’ executed with the thumb and two fingers of his right hand” turning the banjo into “a lead instrument like a fiddle or a guitar, particularly on faster pieces and instrumentals”.

In 1939 Scruggs performed on the radio with a local string band whilst working in a textile mill. Following the second world war he joined with Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians in Nashville but soon joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

Scruggs made his first recordings with the Blue Grass Boys in 1946 on debuting on ‘Heavy Traffic Ahead’. He went on the road with Munroe, but by 1948 frustrated by the long hours and low wages (Munroe was no spend thrift) he left the Blue Grass Boys along with Lester Flatt and formed Flatt & Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys. They soon bagged a record deal with Mercury and a slot on the Grand Ole Opry.

They developed a distinctive style and Scruggs’s technically superb banjo playing and improvisation made them into country music and bluegrass greats.

During the early 1960s folk music boom in the USA they they performed at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1962. ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’ gave them international fame – they also appeared on the show.

As folk-rock blossomed in the USA lead by bands such as The Byrds and the Dillards even greater interest was taken into roots music. Artists such as Bob Dylan name checked them and eventually Scruggs decided he wanted to play with the new breed of rock musicians and wanted to perform Dylan and country rock numbers.

Flatt was opposed to this move and the duo split in 1969. Scruggs, formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, cutting several albums and touring, with a variety of guest artists including Roger McGuinn, Byron Berline, Johnny Cash and members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Earl guested on many albums with other country stars and recorded with the likes of John Fogerty, Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt.

He continued to record and tour up until 2007 – revered as ‘the Beethoven Of The Banjo’. A great picker!

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