Earl Scruggs obituary

Banjo player with a breathtaking style who shaped bluegrass and explored other genres

If Bill Monroe was the architect of bluegrass music, the banjo player Earl Scruggs, who has died aged 88, was his chief construction worker. Scruggs, who played with Monroe for three momentous years in the late 1940s, devised a picking method in which the thumb and two fingers of the right hand led a breathtaking dance, its leaps and rolls transforming the sound of the rural stringband into an intricately engineered high-performance music. Critics would call him the Segovia of the five-string banjo, the Paganini of bluegrass.

But despite Scruggs's innovations, the bluegrass club, under Monroe's beady-eyed presidency, continued to adhere to a strict rulebook, its repertoire in thrall to Victorian sentiment and its lineup restricted to half a dozen acoustic instruments. Restive within these boundaries, Scruggs parted company with his leader and finally with bluegrass itself, his music now marked by experiments with folk and rock, and collaborations with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar and Elton John.

The youngest of five, Scruggs was born in rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, and started playing banjo as a child, perhaps absorbing ideas from local banjoists such as Mack Woolbright, Smith Hammett and Snuffy Jenkins. In his mid-teens he played with the then popular Morris Brothers, but soon returned home to be with his long-widowed mother and took a job in a local textile mill.

In 1945, he joined Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, not long after the singer and guitarist Lester Flatt. This was the lineup that shaped the music, and its broadcasts and recordings inspired a generation. "It was hard work," Scruggs remembered. "We played in rain, we played in snow, we played where the power would go off and we would have to play by lantern light with no sound. We had two bad wrecks, but nobody got hurt. The way we had to drive to make dates, it's a wonder we weren't killed. But we made it, and it toughened you up."

In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs set out on their own, jointly leading the Foggy Mountain Boys (hence the Soggy Bottom Boys of the Coen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). "At the time," Scruggs noted, "our type of music was more or less limited to the south. And the people up in the New England states and some of the northern states started talking about the 'new' sound of Flatt and Scruggs – and we'd been playing it for years." The group made sparkling recordings such as Flint Hill Special, named after Scruggs's home town; Randy Lynn Rag, for his eldest son; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, used in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and winner of a Grammy; and The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme tune of the popular TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and a No 1 on the country chart in 1962.

The instruction book Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo was published in 1968; it went on to sell more than a million copies. But Scruggs became, as he said later, "bored and unhappy doing the same things for over 20 years", and in 1969 he broke with Flatt and formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons Gary and Randy, and later Steve. Their embrace of amplified instruments, drums and repertoire outside the bluegrass canon lost Scruggs some of his original audience, but he found another on the college campuses of the 1970s, and he participated in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 triple LP Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which opened the ears of many rock fans to connections with earlier forms.

Technically gifted (he was also a very fine guitarist) and musically open-minded, Scruggs stepped easily across the borders of genre, and when, in 1975, he celebrated 25 years at Columbia Records with an anniversary album, he was joined by Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel and dozens of other musicians from backgrounds unlike his own.

From the 1980s onwards he played less often, but the awards for his innovation rolled in: election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985, a National Heritage fellowship in 1989, the National medal of arts in 1992. On the album Earl Scruggs and Friends (2001) he remade Foggy Mountain Breakdown, sharing the banjo part with the comedian Steve Martin, and the tune won its second Grammy. In 2008 Scruggs received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

His wife, Louise, who was his manager for many years, died in 2006. He is survived by Gary and Randy; Steve took his own life in 1992.

• Earl Eugene Scruggs, musician, born 6 January 1924; died 28 March 2012

• This article was amended on 30 March 2012. It had said that Scruggs's picking method involved the thumb and three fingers of the right hand. This has been corrected.


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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