Earl Scruggs died yesterday at age 88. Scruggs was a fabulous banjo player who was half of Flatt and Scruggs, the legendary musical duo with the even more legendary name.
Most Americans know of Earl Scruggs’ music through his performance on the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies. Many people beyond a certain age feel pangs of guilt about the fact that they love that rousing ballad about Jed and his discovery of black gold, which is one of the most memorable TV theme songs ever. Scruggs’ unique three-finger picking style helped to make that song iconic, and also introduced a generation of musically curious people to bluegrass music and the joys of songs like Foggy Mountain Breakdown. If you liked the sound track of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, you liked the music of Earl Scruggs.
Bluegrass music has a bad reputation among some people — mostly self-consciously highbrow people who are only dimly aware of it in the context of corn pone shows like Hee Haw and who have never really listened to the music itself. It’s as much American “roots” music as blues or jazz or ragtime; born in the hills and dales of the American countryside and first played using fiddles, banjos, and other instruments that the folks of the village made themselves or had already available in their households. It was Saturday night music, designed to get people dancing and moving after a week of work. The structure of good bluegrass music is pretty sophisticated, but mostly it’s fun to listen to and guaranteed to get your toes tapping. Check out Earl Scruggs’ performance of Foggy Mountain Breakdown (with Steve Martin) below if you don’t believe me.
Rest in peace, Earl Scruggs. You helped to open the door to an entire musical genre for many of us.