Music

Earl Scruggs, Banjo Pioneer: The Best Performances That Shaped His Legacy

MARK HUMPHREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

 You've certainly heard Earl Scruggs' influence on country music. The banjo-pickin' legend from rural North Carolina left a timeless stamp on country music, bluegrass music and Nashville by pioneering the three-finger banjo picking style, now fittingly known as the "Scruggs style."

Born in Cleveland County, North Carolina on January 6, 1924, Earl Scruggs grew up in a musical family. His father, who died when Scruggs was only four-years-old, owned a banjo, while his mother played the pump organ. All Scruggs siblings played as well. From his earliest days, Earl Scruggs took to the banjo. At 15 he joined a band called The Morris Brothers for a few months but went to work in a factory instead. After World War II Scruggs returned to music, playing with Lost John Miller and his Allied Kentuckians on WNOX in Knoxville before getting a chance to play with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.

Once Scruggs became one of the Blue Grass Boys, the band consisted of Bill Monroe (vocals/mandolin), Lester Flatt (guitar/vocals), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Chubby Wise (fiddle) and Howard Watts (bass). This motley collection of musicians and their instruments would become the prototypical setup for bluegrass bands from then on.

With Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Scruggs toured the country, played the Grand Ole Opry and recorded the legendary bluegrass hit, "Blue Moon of Kentucky".

However, eventually the demands of being a bluegrass boy became too much and Scruggs decided to leave the band. At the same time, fellow bluegrass boys guitarist Lester Flatt and Howard Watts also decided to leave the band. Monroe believed that Flatt and Scruggs had secretly decided to leave at the same time and furiously didn't speak to them for over 20 years. It was one of the most well-known feuds in country music history.

After the Bluegrass Boys, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs formed their own bluegrass band, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The Foggy Mountain Boys became best known for their own iconic bluegrass and banjo hit, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." The song went on to win a Grammy and has become a staple for banjo players to try and master. The song (and The Foggy Mountain Boys) saw a resurgence in the 1960s when "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was featured in the film Bonnie and Clyde. Because of the success of the film, which was hailed as the beginning of a new era in American filmmaking, Foggy Mountain Breakdown was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

But Earl Scruggs' hits weren't limited to the world of bluegrass and country music. It was thanks to Flatt and Scruggs that bluegrass hit the mainstream. In a big way. The duo was responsible for the first ever bluegrass song to hit number one on the Billboard charts. That song? None other than the beloved, five-string banjo-fueled "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" a.k.a. the theme song to the beloved American TV show The Beverly Hillbillies.

Read More: The 10 Best Ricky Skaggs Songs, Ranked

In 1969 The Foggy Mountain Boys broke up, with Flatt and Scruggs going their separate ways. By this point though, Earl Scruggs' children had become professional musicians themselves, and so Scruggs started the Earl Scruggs Revue with his two sons Randy Scruggs and Gary Scruggs.

Scruggs wound down his career over the next two decades. In 1980 back problems forced him to stop touring. Though the Earl Scruggs Revue did well commercially the band was never embraced in the same way his previous efforts were. Eventually, Scruggs retired, though not before releasing the album Earl Scruggs and Friends in 2001. The album featured Elton John, Sting, Johnny Cash, Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Martin.

Still, by this point, Scruggs had already changed the bluegrass banjo forever. For his legendary musical career, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was enshrined in the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Earl Scruggs passed away at the age of 88 on March 28th, 2012.

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Earl Scruggs, Banjo Pioneer: The Best Performances That Shaped His Legacy