Perhaps the most influential banjo player of the past century, Earl Scruggs was known as the “Father of Bluegrass Banjo.” Scruggs popularized a three-finger picking style that defined bluegrass banjo playing and spread like wildfire among banjo players all over the world. Today, Scruggs-style banjo playing is still the standard in bluegrass.
Earl Scruggs grew up in Shelby, in Cleveland County. He lived near the border of Rutherford County, where Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammett, and other banjos players were experimenting with three-finger picking styles. He loved playing the banjo and practiced during all of his free time. He started with a two-finger style, but gradually learned three-finger rolls like Jenkins and others in the area were playing. Earl practiced until he could play with incredible speed and precision. Another important influence during this time was an old fiddling farmer named Dennis Butler, who played for hours with Earl.
In 1939, Scruggs started playing with the Morris Brothers (Zeke, Wiley, and George), his first professional gig. After a brief stint in a textile mill, Earl returned to music, playing with Lost John Miller and Allied Kentuckians on WNOX in Knoxville. He met fiddler Jim Shumate during this time. Shumate was playing with Bill Monroe, and when the banjo spot opened up, Shumate recommended Scruggs. After an audition with Monroe and Shumate, Earl was invited to join Monroe’s band, forming what many say is the beginning of the bluegrass sound.
After performing and recording with Monroe for a short but important time, Scruggs and guitar player and singer Lester Flatt formed Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs were one of the most successful and influential bluegrass bands of all time. Between performing on radio and television, performing at festivals and in concert, and selling commercial recordings and merchandise, they forged through the years of early rock-and-roll when many bluegrass bands were hard-pressed for gigs. Flatt and Scruggs became household names through their Hollywood connections, providing the theme music for television shows (The Beverly Hillbillies) and feature films (Bonnie and Clyde).
Flatt and Scruggs split up in the 1960s, and Earl continued his musical career with his sons, experimenting with the banjo in styles other than bluegrass, such as folk rock, with the Earl Scruggs Review. He participated in the famed Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1972. He was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship in 1989, and the National Medal of Arts in 1992. Earl won several Grammy Awards over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Earl Scruggs passed away on March 28, 2012 at the age of 88.