Earl Scruggs died

April 30, 2012 • 12:07 pm

I just found out that Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjoist extraordinaire, died on March 28 at the age of 88. If you know country music, you’ll know him. Even if you’re not a country fan, you might still know of Scruggs for his famous rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (for which he won a Grammy; hear the original version here) or his composition of the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” for the execrable television show The Beverly Hilbillies.  

Scruggs had a distinguished career, beginning with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, leaving it to join guitarist Lester Flatt (for which Monroe never forgave him), and later becoming quite innovative for a bluegrass musician, collaborating with folk and rock musicians like Joan Baez and the Byrds. (I previously put up a wonderful clip of him playing in a pickup session with Joan Baez).

Scruggs’ style of three-finger picking influenced banjo players everywhere.  Here are two clips from the old days. I love how he bends the notes in the first clip by adjusting the tuning pegs:

With Lester Flatt, “Roll in my sweet baby’s arms”:

24 thoughts on “Earl Scruggs died

  1. execrable?

    That was stuff is still funny today.
    Sorry you didn’t get the joke.

    Miss Hathaway:
    After Jethro commences from Eaton….

    Uncle Jed:
    Jethro commenced to Eatin’ as soon as he was born…

    1. Jethro is playing Robin Hood and recruits a group of hippies in the park-
      Tony: Want to come with us Granny? Granny: I can’t. I’m going down to the lake to smoke some crawdads. Fred: Smoke some what? Granny: Crawdads. But first I need a little pot. (The police officers seize her)

      Right up there with The Andy Griffith Show!

  2. I object to your use of “execrable”. You obviously missed the nuance of “The Beverley Hillbillies”. When Jethro decides to become an astronaut, he attaches fireworks, lots of fireworks, to his back. Ellie Mae lights them, Jethro takes off like a rocket and when the fireworks start to go off, Jed, Granny and Ellie Mae in unison say, “Oooooh, Aaaah, Oooooh, Aaaaah” while looking skywards. Jethro splashes down in the cement pond of course.
    I suppose the show may have been too philosophical for a scientist to enjoy…

  3. Jed Clampett is one of my life’s role models. Wisest person ever on TV, in that homespun way of his’n.

  4. I can’t recall the exact details, but there was a wonderful episode where Scruggs was the guest. There was some fancy classical violinist on the show dismissing ‘fiddle players’. Earl let him know how much he earned playing country music venues and the fancy pants ‘violinist’ started cranking out Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

    Some years later, my sister was being married in Cental Park and friends of hers in a string quartet provided the music as their gift to her. During a break, I asked the lead if he knew Foggy Mountain Breakdown and he, similiarly, sniffed his disdain at such low brow music. As I walked away, he quietly scratched out the opening few bars!

    Earl and his crew were a force in the world of stringed music.

  5. I love me some old time bluegrass. And Earl Scruggs was no exception. He’s up there with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson as one of the bluegrass greats.

  6. One of the greats that influenced succeeding banjo players From J.Hartford to B.Fleck (and many more). The Bonny and Clyde theme has been considered one of the most violent popular songs only to be surpassed by Live And Let Die.

    If WWII didn’t intervene, it may have been called the Reno roll instead of the Scruggs 3 finger style.

  7. Execrable is in the mind of the critic. Earl also invented(?–or popularized) the D-Tuning peg. Where I grew up there were two kinds of music, country (including what people now call folk and bluegrass)and the other kind… 😉

  8. Thanks for providing a venue for all the bluegrass fans, and nice to see that Ralph Stanley has already been mentioned, too.

    Also good to remember that along with Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson et al, Earl was part of the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” session from 1972 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. That album brought resonance with bluegrass to a whole generation.

  9. I’m not convinced this is his goal, Jerry: “I love how he bends the notes in the first clip by adjusting the tuning pegs.”

    I think the banjo is a bit out of tune, and he’s so good that he can tune on the fly. An amazing skill. Banjos often go out of tune b/c the strings are very tight.

    1. All true; but they do bend with those low-ratio planetary tuners as well!

      UK guitarist Adrian Legg fitted his guitar with banjjo tuners for this very reason — he constantly is changing string pitch and doing bends using the banjo tuners. It’s really amazing.

      What do you call dying and being reborn as a hillbilly? A: Reintarnation!

      (Banjos also rely on the drum head to support the bridge and small changes in humidity and temperature have strong effects on the tension in the head and hence the string pitch.)

    2. I think he is bending the notes. First, he does the “tuning” on the same note, and it looks appropriate. Second, he doesn’t appear to change the tuning, at least to my eye: he turns the peg and then appears to bring it back to the original position. Third, the banjo would have been tuned before the t.v. performance, no?

      Maybe a banjo person can weigh in here?

      1. He was demonstrating the Scruggs tuning pegs (tuners) for the 2nd and 3rd strings during the song as a showcase. Scruggs invented the first use of the tuner, Bill Keith refined it.

        Also called Scruggs/Keith tuners that allow the string to be dropped in pitch, then back to original pitch by bending and unbending the string.

      2. Jeff is right – Scruggs invented tuning pegs with stops, so that he can turn it back and forth to go between two notes.

        That song in the first clip is called “Earl’s Breakdown,” and I can play that one on my banjo. I can play it just about that fast, but I can’t have that relaxed look on my face like Earl has.

        Also my banjo doesn’t have Scruggs tuners, so when I tune the B string down to A like he does, then back up to B, it’s hard to get that B in good tune. However, the version I know is the one he published in his book, and later in the song it uses the B string less and less, which I have always figured was done that way so that a somewhat out-of-tune B string wouldn’t be as noticeable.

        1. If I remember right Pete Seeger had a diagram of how to make the original Scruggs tuners in the appendix of How To Play The Five String Banjo.

  10. “execrable” – a much under-used word. It deserves to see the light of day (or dark of night) more often.
    In the last couple of months, as things went all “African” on the drilling rig, the wireline QC superintendent and I got into a terrible habit. She’s give me an obscure word each morning, and I had to work it (or one of it’s cognates) into my daily report. We must have been getting bored.

  11. Jethro opening the topless restaurant “The Happy Gizzard” is a classic. Few US sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s were really funny (All in the Family was, and also had a more serious side), but The Beverly Hillbillies was.

    Also, when Pearl tries to convince Jed to move to California and Jed thinks he is trying to do the opposite is wonderful. Paraphrased after not having seen it for more than 30 years:

    Pearl: Come on, Jed! Your outhouse is 50 yards from the house, you’ve got vermin everywhere, you get your water from the creek.
    Jed: You’re right, Pearl; a man would be a dang fool to leave all this!

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