Earl. The name itself conjures the ringing of a five-string banjo. At age four he began playing and at 10 he refined a style of three-finger, syncopated banjo playing that defined the sound of Bill Monroe’s music, which would eventually become a major genre and called “Bluegrass.”
Bill Monroe is the undisputed “Father of Bluegrass Music.” In 1939 he formed The Blue Grass Boys, which played old-time mountain hillbilly music drawn from many roots: the Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes, Gospel, country, and African-American work songs. The band gained in popularity, touring as far away as Oklahoma and Ontario.
In late 1945, the 21-year old Earl Scruggs reluctantly agreed to audition for the vacant banjo spot. At the time, he had played in lesser known, regional bands to support his mother, who had been widowed since he was four. At the fateful audition, Scruggs played “Sally Goodin” and “Dear Old Dixie.” Monroe hired him on the spot and the rest is history. Thus began the “Golden Age of Bluegrass.” Scruggs’ tenure as a Blue Grass Boy lasted just over two years. In early 1948, Scruggs, tired of Monroe’s grueling road regimen, left the band to return to North Carolina, seeking other work and caring for his ailing mother. Lester Flatt, Monroe’s guitarist and lead singer, gave his two-week notice that same day. But, during that brief time the banjo played “Scruggs-style,” along with mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and harmony vocals transformed hillbilly music into a sound that would during the 1950 be emulated by many other bands and dubbed “Bluegrass.”
A few months after the departure of Flatt and Scruggs, the pair eventually formed their own band, much to the chagrin of the hard-headed Monroe, who, perceiving an economic threat to his livelihood, begrudged the pair, refusing to speak to them for 20 years.
But Flatt & Scruggs and their band The Foggy Mountain Boys went on to enjoy a long and successful career. Earl Scruggs delivered Bluegrass to American pop culture when he recorded “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which became the theme song for the long-running, popular TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used in the soundtrack of the movie “Bonnie & Clyde.”
So, while Bill Monroe fathered Bluegrass music, it was Earl Scruggs who popularized it beyond the bounds of its cultural hearth in America’s Deep South and Appalachian regions. Scruggs went on to inspire legions of banjo “pickers” both here in the States and around the world, especially in Japan and Europe where the music was carried by American GIs during and after World War II.
Earl Scruggs’ expand the traditional sound and definition of Bluegrass beyond Monroe’s vision. Scruggs incorporated electric guitar, drums, and covered songs by Bob Dylan, drawing in a broader, younger audience, which eventually embraced both traditional and progressive branches of Bluegrass. To Earl, we owe an enormous debt, as one of the 20th Century’s most influential musicians.