Earl Scruggs did not invent the banjo. Nor did he even invent the three finger style of playing, although that is very much associated with him, of course. Scruggs did something much more important during most of his 88 years - he brought the banjo to the fore as a key, main instrument.
Scruggs died on Wednesday at 88 of natural causes in Nashville.
I hardly have any personal connection with Scruggs. I did see him play once - in September 2008 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in a very small setting. Dobro master Jerry Douglas was doing a residency, inviting guest musicians to play with him. I looked over my notes and even then at the ripe young age of 84, I wrote Scruggs "still plays really well." What a treat to see someone still able to play with great ability after a life-long career in music.
Scruggs wore a number of hats during his career. Of course, he first gained prominence as a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Then, he split off with Lester Flatt to form Flatt & Scruggs, one of bluegrass music's greatest bands ever. The Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mountain Breakdown were their best-known songs, the former the theme song for "The Beverly Hillbillies." Scruggs powered the songs along with great playing.
Eventually Flatt and Scruggs went their separate ways as Scruggs was intent on exploring new forms and styles. That led to the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons among others, playing folk and rock and various styles. Even country!
It's no wonder Scruggs made the Country Music Hall of Fame. He continued playing well into his 80s and was no slouch. He spread his love of music to new audiences far and wide from the Newport Folk Festival to the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Cal. in 2009. Check out his 2008 disc "The Ultimate Collection Live at the Ryman," recorded the previous year, and tell me he didn't have great playing.
I like the quote I read yesterday from Porter Wagoner in describing just how important Scruggs was. "I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was and the best there ever will be," Wagoner said.
We will miss you Earl Scruggs. You were a credit to music and brought much joy to the world as a result of your talents. Carry on.