Remembering Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, 1924-2012

[Updated: 3.29.2012, 8:10 a.m.]

Yesterday, the legendary banjo player, Earl Scruggs, died in Nashville at age 88.

It’s hard for someone who doesn’t play the banjo to understand fully the role of Earl Scruggs in the development of an entire musical genre we today call bluegrass. So when I heard that Scruggs had passed away, I emailed my friend and this blog’s resident banjo expert, Bob Carrigan*, to ask him to explain.

“I can’t think of another musical genre where one person had such a dramatic impact,” said Bob. “Probably 90% of all banjo players would tell you that Earl was their key influence, the reason for taking up the instrument. Earl’s timing and clarity of notes was near perfection. I studied his book, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, for years. He was a true inspiration and virtuoso.”

One of the great things about including personal things on this blog (in addition to discovering that Bob Carrigan is a banjo virtuoso) is the chance it gives me to reach back into the archives and re-run a post like the one I wrote on September 11, 2004, almost eight years ago.

My son, who is now 21, was 14 at the time, and had either a mandolin or fiddle in his hands a part of everyday for the preceding decade. (His sister would want me to note that she practiced more.)

A couple of hours before I wrote the post, he got to meet Earl Scruggs.

Here’s the post in its entirity:

Legend Sighting

Legend sighting: As an accidental bluegrass fan (having kids does the darndest things), I’ve come to discover there are many people I’ve never heard of who are genuine legends in a home-grown American art form. Ironically, even when one lives in Nashville as I do, it is a rather staggering statistical long-shot for non-musical, city-slicking parents with no ties or affinity for anything twang to look up one day and see their off-spring fiddling Orange Blossom Special in front of a couple thousand screaming folks. It’s a long-shot, but believe me, it can happen. But even when you’re an accidental bluegrass fan (which, and this may be hard for some to understand, is quite different from being a country music fan) living in Nashville, you have the chance to actually recognize it when a bluegrass legend is standing next to you in a check-out line or at the airport.

Of course, there are legends…and then there are icons. Earlier this evening, in as pedestrian a place as a big-chain Italian restaurant, I glanced over to notice that also waiting for a table was Earl Scruggs. Even non-bluegrass fans know his music (Beverly Hillbillies Theme, for instance). But some of those of us “into bluegrass” can make a convincing argument that Earl Scruggs actually created the genre of music we now call bluegrass. (No time now for arguing the point, however. Bill Monroe gets the credit…let’s just say Earl Scruggs was instrumental in its creation.)

My 14-year-old son never got the chance to meet Bill Monroe, so it was a pretty cool moment this evening when he got to shake hands and chat a few seconds with a warm and friendly Earl Scruggs. The circle stays unbroken.

Earl Scruggs, may he rest in peace. No, I take that back. May he forever be raising heaven’s roof with Lester Flatt.

*Some may know Bob for his role as CEO of the global media company, IDG or for being past chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau. What they may not know is that Bob has a talent and passion for playing the banjo that stretches back to his childhood in Philadelphia.