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.
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They were best known for their 1949 recording "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," played in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from "The Beverly Hillbillies," the popular TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing. For many viewers, the endlessly hummable theme song was their first introduction to country music.Skip to next paragraph
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Flatt and Scruggs' popularity grew, and they even became a focal point of the folk music revival on college campuses. Scruggs' wife, Louise, was their manager and was credited with cannily guiding their career as well as boosting interest in country music.
Later, as rock 'n' roll threatened country music's popularity, Flatt and Scruggs became symbols of traditional country music.
In the 1982 interview, Scruggs said "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" broadened the scope of bluegrass and country music "more than anything I can put my finger on. Both were hits in so many countries."
After the breakup with Flatt, Scruggs used three of his sons in The Earl Scruggs Revue. The group played on bills with rock acts such as Steppenwolf and James Taylor. Sometimes they played festivals before 40,000 people.
Scruggs will always be remembered for his willingness to innovate, but he wasn't always accepted for it. In "The Big Book of Bluegrass," Scruggs discussed the breakup with Flatt and how his need to experiment drove a rift between them. Later in 1985, he and Flatt were inducted together in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It wasn't a bad feeling toward each other as much as it was that I felt I was depriving myself of something," Scruggs said. "By that, I mean that I love bluegrass music, and I still like to play it, but I do like to mix in some other music for my own personal satisfaction, because if I don't, I can get a little bogged down and a little depressed."
In 2005, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was selected for the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit. The following year, the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," on which Scruggs was one of many famous guest performers, joined the list, too.
Scruggs had been fairly active in the 2000s, returning to a limited touring schedule after frail health in the 1990s. In 1996, Scruggs suffered a heart attack in the recovery room of a hospital shortly after hip-replacement surgery. He also was hospitalized late last year, but seemed in good health during a few appearances with his sons in 2010 and 2011, though he had given up the banjo for the guitar by then.
Scruggs' funeral arrangements are incomplete. He's survived by two sons, Gary and Randy. Louise, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. He often talked of her, recounting how their eyes had met while she watched him perform at the Ryman, and friends noted a sense of melancholy in Scruggs over his final years.
Bentley attended Scruggs' birthday party in January and had a chance to pick one more song in a circle with the legend. He even snapped a picture with his 3-year-old daughter, something he says he'll cherish forever.
"I think Earl was ready to go see Louise," Bentley said. "I think he was ready to go. But we're lucky. We've got a lifetime of his music that's recorded to listen to and he's in a better place."