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Music Legends: Remembering Earl Scruggs

He didn’t invent modern Bluegrass, but he was one of a handful of artists who shaped it into a thriving musical genre, and he remained one of its most popular musicians, performing well into his senior years. And at one time, banjo player Earl Scruggs (who died recently at age 88) shared top billing in one of the most popular musical acts going: Flatt and Scruggs.

With his signature three-finger banjo-picking style, Earl Scruggs helped pave the way for today’s Bluegrass explosion.

The Boys From Foggy Mountain
Easygoing by nature, guitarist/singer Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs found a natural and easy sound together. They typically wore matching dark suits topped with white Stetson cowboy hats. Scruggs’ banjo technique utilized a three-finger picking style that became the standard in modern banjo playing. Beyond that, Flatt and Scruggs became without a doubt the most popular Bluegrass band of its time.

Flatt and Scruggs first came together as part of the influential Bluegrass band called The Foggy Mountain Boys, after serving an apprenticeship with the great Bill Monroe (the Big Daddy of all Bluegrass music) in the late 1940s. The Foggy Mountain Boys would prove to be an enduring musical tradition, lasting more than 20 years and recording numerous Bluegrass classics. By 1955, the pair were selected to join the Grand Ole Opry. In 1985, Flatt and Scruggs were tapped for membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A song so good it won the Grammy - twice. Flatt and Scruggs picked up a 1969 Grammy for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” one of the best known Bluegrass songs of all time. In 2002, Earl Scruggs (shown standing) won another Grammy for a new recording of the classic instrumental.

The Hits
In addition to countless other classics, Flatt and Scruggs were best known for two indisputable Bluegrass standards. The first was a rip-snorting 1949 instrumental called “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,“ which won two Grammy awards and was later showcased in the hit movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” The second classic was called “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,“ although it’s usually known as the theme song from the sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which was a television fixture throughout the 1960s. In January 1963, the song topped the Country charts. The pair, which was already performing music on its own syndicated music TV show by this point, made several cameo appearances on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Flatt and Scruggs not only wrote and played the famous theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but also appeared on the sitcom as themselves, wearing their traditional suits ‘n’ Stetsons.

The pair’s first Grammy award came in 1969 for Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” More than three decades later, in 2002, Scruggs released an album called “Earl Scruggs and Friends” that featured guest appearances by some of the biggest names in music…including Elton John, Sting, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill and comedian Steve Martin (who plays a killer banjo—no joke). Scruggs won his second Grammy for the 2001 version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on that album.

Inspiring Today’s Musicians
Bluegrass has undergone an explosion in recent decades, broadening from its purely traditional original sound to incorporate new instruments and fresh types of songs. It remains, however, a technically challenging art form that demands serious musicianship in its playing and expert production behind the mixing board.

On the road again: Flatt and Scruggs and the rest of the Foggy Mountain Boys on tour during the 1950s.

If you want to learn how to become a music producer, you can, but it’s a little more complicated than just downloading Garage Band. For example, the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus sponsors a music camp at Stanford University.  Instead of spending your summer by the pool why not get a head start at developing a career in the music industry…and preparing to become tomorrow’s musical star?

The Music Legends Series pays tributes to influential artists and styles of music. If you have an artist or type of music you’d like us to showcase, let us know via the comments. 


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