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Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dead at 88

Banjo master paved the way for modern country music

Even if you didn’t know Earl Scruggs’ name, you’d heard his sound. The bluegrass legend, who died yesterday in Nashville at age 88 of natural causes, “pioneered the modern banjo sound,” as his Associated Press obituary aptly puts it. His son told Reuters that Scruggs’ health had been worsening for a while.

A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and four-time Grammy winner, Scruggs perfected a three-finger style of banjo playing that inspired the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and practically every other banjo player since. Among Scruggs’ most famous recordings are The Beverly Hillbillies TV theme “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and, as Flatt & Scruggs with guitarist Lester Flatt, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which appeared in classic 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde.

As the Nashville Tennessean eloquently observes, however, Scruggs leaves behind more than bluegrass, the style Flatt & Scruggs ruled in the ’50s and ’60s. He took an open-minded approach in a politically turbulent era, performing at the Grand Ole Opry and at folk festivals alike, where he shared stages with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Byrds. When devoted bluegrass fans fought to keep the genre he had helped invent from absorbing outside influences, he went on and played with the likes of King Curtis, Ravi Shankar, and Elton John anyway. To learn more, check out banjo-playing comedian Steve Martin’s exhaustive recent New Yorker essay on Scruggs, or watch the 1972 PBS documentary The Complete Earl Scruggs Story (via TwentyFourBit).

“He was the man who melted walls, and he did it without saying three words,” friend and country musician Marty Stuart is quoted as saying. In fact, Opry head George Hay reportedly used to beckon Scruggs onstage as “the boy who made the banjo talk.” Hear the late great speak, then, in a couple of his best-known performances:

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