03.29.12

Earl Scruggs, Dead at 88, Pioneered a Banjo Style Imitated but Never Equaled

Before Earl Scruggs came along, banjo players traditionally doubled as the comedians in the band. After he was done, they got a lot more respect. Malcolm Jones remembers the legendary banjo player.

Before Earl Scruggs, banjo players were not front men, but they were funny. In a tradition that goes back to the days of the minstrel show, the banjo player doubled as a comedian. Uncle Dave Macon, one of the presiding eminences during the early days of the Grand Ole Opry, was just such a performer. He knew hundreds, perhaps thousands, of songs off the top of his head, but he was not a virtuoso musician. Like so many of the banjo players in the first half of the last century, Uncle Dave was a genial, funny man whose banjo was as much stage prop as musical instrument. But he wasn’t a fool and he knew the future when he saw it. The first time Earl Scruggs played in Uncle Dave’s presence, the older man is reported to have been impressed but went away shaking his head, saying, “He ain’t a bit funny.”

In truth, Scruggs, who died Wednesday at the age of 88, did have a keen sense of humor, but he played banjo so well that no one ever thought to ask him to tell jokes, too. (Jokes about banjo players , on the other hand, will never die.) Debates erupt periodically as to whether or not Scruggs invented the lickety-split three-finger style of banjo picking that bears his name and that revolutionized bluegrass music. The naysayers like to say that three-fingered rolls were being performed by other musicians, such as Snuffy Jenkins, and especially by other musicians in the part of North Carolina where Earl grew up. Others point out that Bill Monroe invented bluegrass, and Scruggs-style banjo was just one of the tools he used. For the record, Earl himself, a man of few words and those always well chosen, never claimed to be the inventor of anything.  But as John Hartford liked to point out, if it weren’t for Earl Scruggs, there would be no debate about who invented modern banjo picking or who was most responsible for the sound of bluegrass. Scruggs was the man who made it cool to sound like that.

Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, the band Earl formed with Lester Flatt after they left Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the late 40s, was the most famous bluegrass band in the country for the better part of two decades. Managed by the savvy Louise Scruggs, Earl’s wife and sort of the band’s Col. Tom Parker, they were the first bluegrass band to have their own syndicated television show, and the first to play Carnegie Hall. When the great folk scare of the ‘60s heated up, they hitched a ride on that fad as well, playing the Newport Folk Festival and a lot of other night spots that were a far remove from the schoolhouse-and-firemen’s-fair circuit that most bluegrass bands traveled. Then came The Beverly Hillbillies, on which they performed the theme song.  Although they neither wrote nor sang the song, providing only instrumental accompaniment, it was probably the piece of music most closely associated with the band. It wasn’t bluegrass, but when a show is the No. 1 hit in the country for nine years running, no one was complaining. Then came Bonnie and Clyde.

No one went to see Bonnie and Clyde wondering if the bank robbers were going to die. That much was foreordained. So the problem became, how to keep people interested for two hours in white-trash thieves and outlaws and murderers. Making them look like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway didn’t hurt. But the movie doesn’t really deliver its first jolt of adrenaline until a few minutes in, when Clyde steals a car and he and Bonnie drive off in a rush to the accompaniment of Earl’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The sound of Earl’s banjo at that moment is like getting poked with a cattle prod. It’s all you can do not to levitate. But the remarkable thing is, you get that rush every time the song comes on the soundtrack. Taking nothing away from the writers, the director, or the stars, it’s Earl Scruggs who keeps you plugged into that movie right to the very end. If a machine gun has a musical equivalent, it’s the banjo.

Purists like to carp that Scruggs was almost too perfect as a banjo player, being neither a risk taker like Don Reno nor as emotionally charged as old timers like Dock Boggs or Charlie Poole (when Scruggs left Flatt to dabble in folk-rock with his progressive-minded sons, he still sounded like the Earl of old, no matter then venue or context).  Someone once said they wouldn’t be surprised if Scruggs turned around and you saw a key in his back. The truth is, there was no unnecessary drama when he played—drama in the sense that he might slip up or do something wrong. He never did. This was, after all, a musician who, as a child practicing with his brother, would begin to play and then walk around one side of the house while his brother walked around the other until they met. They were working on their timing, and they would keep at this exercise until they could make the circuit and meet up and still be exactly in sync with each other.

His technique was flawless, but flawless technique can be deadly boring, and if there’s one thing Earl Scruggs wasn’t, it was boring. He was exciting in the same way Django Reinhardt or Ali Akbar Khan is exciting—their music grabs you by the lapels and insists that you listen. When Earl Scruggs stepped on a stage, you couldn’t help but pay attention.

He was exciting in the same way Django Reinhardt or Ali Akbar Khan is exciting—their music grabs you by the lapels and insists that you listen.

They should probably just carve the word exhilarating on his tombstone and leave it at that. Maybe you could take his music apart like a watch and study all the constituent parts, but in the end there was no explaining how he did what he did or how he made you feel the way you did when he played. Most certainly, there was something called Scruggs-style banjo picking, now imitated by practically everyone who picks up the instrument. But none of those pickers has ever been confused with Scruggs himself.

There was just something utterly unique in his music that electrified you, that made you excited and—no kidding—happy. It was as baffling as watching someone bottle lightning or saw a lady in half. But most of us in the audience really didn’t care how he did it. We just wanted him to do it again.