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Legendary musician Earl Scruggs remembered for revolutionary banjo playing style

Earl Scruggs partnered with some of the greatest musicians in bluegrass and country music throughout his career to create indelible memories.

By Chris TalbottAssociated Press / March 29, 2012

In this July 30, 2011 file photo, Earl Scruggs performs at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. Scruggs' son Gary said his father passed away Wednesday morning, March 28, at a Nashville, Tenn., hospital of natural causes.

Joe Giblin/AP/File

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Nashville

It is impossible to overstate the importance of 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.

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Scruggs passed away Wednesday morning at 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, Scruggs had no way of knowing this as he nervously prepared for his first show with Monroe. The 21-year-old 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," 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 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."

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 a 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 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."

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