With the passing of Earl Scruggs on March 28, the world — and that term is used with considered precision — has lost one of its greatest musicians. It goes almost without saying that Scruggs' banjo played the critical role in bringing a new and highly particular style of music into being, so pivotal was he to the birth of bluegrass in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.
But it's equally if less obviously true that the impact of that act — and all that followed — has been felt across the decades and around the globe. While he's gone now, there's little doubt that his legacy will continue to resound for as long as there are banjos to be played — and possibly even longer than that.
Scruggs was, of course, a key player in the group that created bluegrass back in 1946 and 1947, and the effect his banjo playing had on audiences and on fellow musicians is nearly impossible to overstate. But as important as that was, it was what happened after he left Bill Monroe's employ and partnered up with fellow former Blue Grass Boy Lester Flatt in the Foggy Mountain Boys — and beyond — that did the most to build, and cement, his reputation.
For more than two decades, Flatt and Scruggs were by any measure the most popular, the most successful and the most influential bluegrass group around — which is to say, among the most popular, successful and influential groups in country music. Their records were consistent sellers, and sometimes made the country charts; their appearances were attended, wherever they went, by legions of devoted fans; and budding musicians studied their music obsessively, hoping to play their banjos "just like Earl." (Savvy colleagues studied it just as closely.) More broadly, they were the lone degree of connection between two vastly different pop culture landmarks of the 1960s, The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde, and one of the few groups admired across worlds of folk, rock and country.
But while all due respect goes to singer-guitarist Flatt and the other members of the band through the years, there's no doubt that the one who held it all together musically was Scruggs. The key wasn't just his banjo picking, marvelous as his infinitely varied accompaniments were. Just as crucial were his deft, distinctive guitar playing and even his voice, as he refined subtle but indispensable baritone part-singing into high art.
It's a measure of both Scruggs' creativity and his devotion to family that, though the Foggy Mountain Boys could likely have continued indefinitely as an acclaimed act, he took the initiatives that led to the partnership's end in 1969, a prelude to the formation of The Earl Scruggs Revue. Rather than insist that his musician sons fit themselves into the Flatt and Scruggs mold, he wanted to carry his banjo into their musical territory.
"Playing with my boys was the most fun I've ever had, and the best music, too," he said in a 2005 interview. And it seemed clear that he didn't much care what anyone else thought about the matter — though, as it turned out, what most folks outside of the bluegrass world (and many within it) thought was that it was great. Nor did he care what anyone else thought when he decided to take his band to perform at a rally against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. He didn't make a big deal about going his own way, but whether in music or in life, it was the only way he would go.
In the 1990s, after a period of relative inactivity due to poor health, that same impulse led him to seek out not so much old friends as young musicians to accompany him on shows and at "pickin's" held at the home he shared with his wife, the late music business pioneer Louise Scruggs. Of course, there was always room for colleagues like Mac Wiseman, but the focus was on the youth.
"He likes to pick with young people," Louise said in that 2005 interview. "They're always coming up with some innovative idea or lick, and Earl, it turns him on, too, so he'll go and play something crazy that they haven't heard, and they'll come off stage, 'Did you hear what Earl played? I never heard him do that before.' "
As a result, there's a legion of younger musicians — from country stars like Dierks Bentley, to bluegrass stalwarts like Ronnie McCoury and The Infamous Stringdusters' Andy Hall, to up-and-comers like Blake Shelton band fiddler Jenee Fleenor and multi-instrumentalist Lizzy Long — for whom Scruggs' presence and influence aren't simply a matter of records and videos. To them, Earl Scruggs was the picker sitting next to them, and his guidance was direct, personal and all the more enduring for it.
One of the more startling, and telling, sights in the hours after the news of Scruggs' passing were the pictures, videos and articles posted to Facebook with comments in languages other than English. Bluegrass is often trumpeted as a uniquely American art form, and that's so in some respects. But in those photographs and messages was proof that it's something more, too — and whatever more that it is can be traced largely to the inspiration of one man. Earl Scruggs was a Nashville resident most of his life, and devoted to the city in meaningful ways. In the end, however, he was a citizen of the world, admired and emulated from little Kentucky towns to big Japanese cities.
A man who knew how great his talents were, and yet remained unceasingly humble about them; a man quietly but insistently devoted to family and friends; and a man whose deepest artistic allegiance was not to a single style but to the joy of making music and to creativity itself — that was Earl Scruggs. To say that he'll be missed and remembered for as long as music is being made is just the truth, as plain as it can be spoken.
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