Banjo Man: Remembering Earl Scruggs
Banjo Man: Remembering Earl Scruggs

Chet Atkins played the guitar. Bob Wills played the fiddle. Earl Scruggs played the banjo, and did he ever. Scruggs, who passed away yesterday at the age of 88, revolutionized the way that the banjo was played, influencing countless musicians in the process.

Born January 6, 1924 in Shelby, NC, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys at the age of 21. His unique, three-finger style quickly became popular with fans of the Grand Ole Opry star. After a few years with Monroe, Scruggs left the band - along with fellow Blue Grass Boy member Lester Flatt - and started the duo Flatt & Scruggs. The two signed with Mercury Records in the fall of 1948, and quickly made the hit parade with the classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Highlights From a Storied Career

"Foggy Mountain Breakdown"

"The Ballad Of Jed Clampett"

With Steve Martin on "Late Night"

Very Young Ricky Skaggs

The pair stayed with Mercury through 1951, when they made the switch to Columbia Records. It was there, with a line-up that included mandolin player Curly Seckler, bass player Jake Tullock, and fiddler Paul Warren, that Flatt & Scruggs created one of the most historic catalogs in the history of Bluegrass music. They hit the top ten with "Tis' So Sweet To Be Remembered," and were approached by executives at WSM Radio to host their own morning show on the station, and became members of the Opry in their own right in 1955.

Their star continued to rise throughout the 50s and early 60s, due to the folk music boom. Songs like "Don't Get Above Your Raisin" continued to propel them to new heights, as did their syndicated television series. The medium also gave them their biggest hit - "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song from CBS-TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies," one of only two bluegrass songs to ever top the country singles chart. The two even appeared on the show (as themselves) from time to time.

As the sixties progressed, thanks to the guidance of Earl's wife Louise -- who helped to promote their career, awareness of their music reached across the United States and throughout the world. In 1968, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" became a hit all over again due to being featured in the film Bonnie & Clyde.

But, as Bob Dylan -- whose hit "Like A Rolling Stone" they covered, once said, the times were a'changing. The two became at odds with their sound. Flatt wanted to stay in more of a traditional mode, while Scruggs wanted to modernize their style. That led to their break-up in 1969. Flatt recorded with his band, the Nashville Grass, while Earl performed with his sons, Gary and Randy, in the Earl Scruggs Revue. He also collaborated with some of country's biggest stars, such as Tom T. Hall, on 1982's "Song Of The South," which pre-dated Alabama's version by seven years.

In 1985, Flatt & Scruggs were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the five-string genius was nowhere near done. In 1991, he was an inaugural member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor, and the next year he was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts. 2001 saw the release of Earl Scruggs & Friends, an album that included a Grammy-winning update of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" that included Steve Martin, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Leon Russell, and Paul Shaffer.

His final chart appearance came in 2003 as a result of his participation in the album Three Pickers, with Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson.