For better or worse, Earl Scruggs will be remembered by most Americans for his banjo picking alongside partner Lester Flatt in a dated 1960s cultural artifact: “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
For better, because the style that the bluegrass legend, who died Wednesday at 88, showcases will forever live in the memories of generations. For worse, because the song threatens to define Flatt and Scruggs, as well as the whole of the uniquely American form of bluegrass music, alongside the zany, know-nothing Clampetts of Beverly Hills. That placement has helped define bluegrass to the culture at large as music for hicks who dance at hoedowns and wouldn’t know a lick about “real” music. (Credit goes to “Deliverance” and “Dueling Banjos” for furthering the cause.)
That’s a shame, because a deep listen to Flatt & Scruggs reveals something so much bigger than a few unfortunate stereotypes. The sound that Scruggs forged, a three-fingered picking style in the 1940s as a central player in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, came to define bluegrass. When he and Flatt struck out on their own in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, the style had woven its way into the fabric of American music.
It’s a sound that still thrives today in the work of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, and Abigail Washburn, among many others. Virtually every time a banjo solo comes on the radio, it’s played in a Scruggs-inspired picking style, and every time a TV character steps onto a farm, you can hear the spirit of Earl Scruggs. You can even get a taste of it on Madonna’s new album, where her song “Love Spent” opens with a Scruggs-suggestive lick.
But that influence has spread because Scruggs never defined himself as simply a bluegrass player. As his success on the country circuit rose in the 1960s and a generation of hippies discovered the glory of the old-time country music of Bill Monroe, the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Dock Boggs, Scruggs expanded his reach.
In 1969, his and Flatt’s television show featured his banjo playing alongside the Byrds, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in the decades following, Scruggs played alongside younger musicians — and no doubt taught them a thing or two about the banjo. In 2001, he confirmed that influence by releasing “Earl Scruggs and Friends,” which featured collaborations with Sting, Elton John and Dwight Yoakam.
The musical ideas on that recording, along with all the others, bore witness to a visionary who picked up an instrument once used mostly by former slaves and harnessed it to create amazing energy. Scruggs and the banjo ultimately went on to tell an incredibly important American musical story.