NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It may be impossible to overstate the importance of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash’s baritone or Hank Williams’ heartbreak.
Mr. Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.
“It’s not just bluegrass, it’s American music,” bluegrass fan turned country star Dierks Bentley said. “There’s 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today’s country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them, and they don’t realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere.”
Country music has transcended its regional roots, become a billion-dollar music and tourist enterprise, and evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on “The Grand Ole Opry” on Dec. 8, 1945. Though he would eventually influence American culture in wide-ranging ways, Mr. Scruggs had no way of knowing this as he nervously prepared for his first show with Monroe. The 21-year-old Mr. Scruggs wasn’t sure how his new picking style would go over.
“I’d heard 'The Grand Ole Opry,' and there was tremendous excitement for me just to be on 'The Grand Ole Opry,'” Mr. Scruggs recalled during a 2010 interview at Ryman Auditorium, where that “big bang” moment occurred. “I just didn’t know if or how well I’d be accepted because there’d never been anybody to play banjo like me here. There was Stringbean and Grandpa Jones. Most of them were comedians.”
There was nothing jokey about the way Mr. Scruggs attacked his “fancy five-string banjo,” as Opry announcer George D. Hayes called it. In a performance broadcast to much of the country but unfortunately lost to history, he scorched the earth and instantly changed country music. With Monroe on mandolin and Flatt on guitar, the pace was a real jolt to attendees and radio listeners far away, and in some ways the speed and volume he laid down predicted the power of electric music.
Tut Taylor, a friend of the Scruggs family who heard that first performance on the radio in his Georgia home, called it an unbelievably raucous moment, “a lot like some of the rock ‘n’ roll things they had, you know. But this was a new sound. It was a pretty sound and a welcome sound.”
Mr. Scruggs‘ use of three fingers — in place of the limited clawhammer style once prevalent — elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or even a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument that was as versatile as the guitar and far more flashy.
Country great Porter Wagoner probably summed up Mr. Scruggs‘ importance best of all: “I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”
Mr. Scruggs‘ string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style,” and the versatility it allowed helped popularize the banjo beyond the traditional bluegrass and country forms. Today the banjo can be found in almost any genre, largely because of the way Mr. Scruggs freed its players to experiment and find new space.
That was exactly what Ralph Stanley had in mind when he first heard Mr. Scruggs lay it down. A legendary banjo player in his own right, Mr. Stanley said in an interview last year that he was inspired by Mr. Scruggs when he first heard him over the radio after returning home from military service in Germany.
“I wasn’t doing any playing,” Mr. Stanley said. “When I got discharged, I began listening to Bill, and Earl was with him. I already had a banjo at that time, but of course I wanted to do the three-finger roll. I knew Earl was the best, but I didn’t want to sound like him. I wanted to do that style, but I wanted to sound the way I felt, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Dave Rawlings, a Nashville singer-songwriter and producer, said Mr. Scruggs remains every bit as influential and fresh seven decades later. He said it’s impossible to imagine nearly every guitar player mimicking Jimi Hendrix, but with Mr. Scruggs and the banjo, that’s the reality.
“The breadth and clarity of the instrument was increased so much,” he said. “He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that’s a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing.”
News of Mr. Scruggs‘ death quickly spread around the music world and over Twitter. Mr. Bentley and bluegrassers such as Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated him at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville, and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of “The Grand Ole Opry.” On the Internet, actor and accomplished banjo player Steve Martin called Mr. Scruggs, with whom he collaborated in 2001 on “Earl Scruggs and Friends,” ”the most important banjo player who ever lived.” Hank Williams Jr. sent prayers to the Scruggs family, and Charlie Daniels tweeted: “He meant a lot to me. Nobody will ever play a five string banjo like Earl.”