We continue our famous banjo player spotlight with the inimitable Earl Scruggs. You can’t talk about the history of the banjo without hearing his name come up frequently. He was said to be the father of the five-string banjo.
In 1924, Earl Scruggs was born on a farm near Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He was the last child born to George and Georgia (Lula) Scruggs. After a long illness, George passed away leaving Lula to raise five children and work their farm. Music was a huge part of their lives on the farm. George Scruggs played an open back banjo when Earl was younger, but since Earl was 4 at the time of his death, he doesn’t remember. His siblings played the banjo and guitar while his mom played the pump organ.
The person to make an impression on Scruggs at an early age was his blind uncle who played the banjo with a finger picking style. His uncle recorded for Columbia Records, and he made such an impression that Earl started playing even though he was too small to hold the banjo. His first radio performance was a talent show when he was 11 years old. Whenever Scruggs wasn’t doing chores on the farm, he was practicing. He picked up and modified his playing style based on the picking he saw his uncle do.
Start of His Musical Career
During his last years of high school, Earl worked at the textile mill to support his family while practicing the banjo constantly. After graduation, Scruggs decided he wasn’t interested in manual labor. Instead, he wanted to make his living as a musician.
For two years, he played banjo with a popular band called the Morris Brothers. They played on a radio station in Spartanburg, SC. BillMonroe heard Scruggs play and invited him to play with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. This was the start of his musical career. He went on tour, performed on the Grand Ole Opry, which was a live radio broadcast out of Nashville. It was very famous. At the same time, he became friends with the guitarist named Lester Flatt. By 1948, the two wanted to strike out on their own and get out from under the shadow of Monroe.
They named their duo the Foggy Mountain Boys. They were also called Flatt and Scruggs, too. They were constantly touring and playing on the radio. By 1953, they’d made such a name for themselves that they returned to play the Grand Ole Opry as headliners. They had much success over the years until they split in 1969 over creative differences. Scruggs wanted to pursue more contemporary music while Flatt wanted to stay traditional.
Scruggs married Louise in 1948. They had three sons total; Randy, Gary, and Steve who all became musicians. She was the force behind the success of Flatt and Scruggs. She would spend time on the phone booking their tours, recruited talented illustrators for their albums, and marketed the band to younger audiences. Scruggs credits Louise with the width of their success. Scruggs wanted to move towards a contemporary style with his sons that other young people could enjoy, but Flatt wasn’t interested in that direction. They split in 1969. In 1970, Scruggs started a band with his sons called the Earl Scruggs Revue.
One of the first songs released by Flatt and Scruggs was Foggy Mountain Breakdown. It’s a bluegrass classic that didn’t get much notice until after it was used in the 1967 film called Bonnie and Clyde. They had a rush of hits from 1961 through 1969 before the two split. If you’ve ever watched the hillbillies, you’ll have heard their most popular song, which was The Ballad of Jed Clampett. It was the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was at the top of the country charts for weeks and 44 on the pop charts for a time.
Banjo Playing and Inventing His Own Style
Earl Scruggs brought a three-finger picking style to the world. While he says he wasn’t the first to use three fingers to pick the banjo strings, he was the one who refined the style and brought it out of the area where he lived. While other banjo players were “frailing” or using a clawhammer technique, he was the first to use three fingers to pick at the strings. It’s a style that’s come to be known as the Scruggs style even though he says he was never the first to use it.
Scruggs has received acclaim and awards over the years. He was inducted with Flatt into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. He’s won Grammy awards as well as being given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Scruggs has been given the National Medal of Arts, which is authorized by Congress and awarded by the President of the United States.
Scruggs passed away in 2012 at the age of 88, and was survived by two of his sons. He’s been called the father of the five-string banjo by many musicians who are famous in their own right, and have brought about variations on his original style of playing.