Earl 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 their own group that did the most to build, and eventually 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 — which is to say, among the most popular, successful and influential country groups — around. Their records were consistent sellers, and sometimes made the country charts; their appearances were attended, wherever they went, by legions of devoted fans, and their music was studied obsessively by budding musicians who learned to play their banjos “just like Earl” (studied, too, by savvy colleagues). But while all due respect goes to singer-guitarist Flatt and all the other members of the band through the years, there’s no doubt that the one who held it all together musically was Earl — and not only with his banjo picking (including his marvelous, infinitely varied accompaniments), but also with his deft, distinctive guitar playing, and even with 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 — mostly because, rather than insisting 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) though was that it was great.
That same impulse led him, after a period of relative inactivity induced by poor health (which ended in the early '90s), 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 (and music business pioneer) Louise. 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 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 Earl’s presence and influence isn’t simply a matter of records and videos, but direct, personal and all the more enduring for it.
One of the more startling things to see in the hours since the first news of Scruggs’ passing were the pictures, videos and articles of and about Earl 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 the proof is there 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, but in the end, 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 for as long as music is being made is just the plain truth.