The South has long held strongholds of traditions. Depending on your location, you’re bound to run into an enclave or family of folks who hold steadfast to a tradition or habit long since lost to our Northern neighbors. Perhaps it’s the art of molding biscuits, or an annual pig pickin’, or something as simple as skipping rocks—every town seems to have their signature specialty. In Cleveland County, North Carolina, that specialty has long been banjo pickin’.
When the old-fashioned banjo began to lose admirers to more modern instruments and sounds, its soul came to reside in the heart of North Carolina. Generations of banjoists had long risen from her fertile grounds, and it seemed generations would continue to do so. One such generation of players was born in the early twentieth century to a banjo-playing father and an organist mother in the community of Flint Hill, just outside Shelby. Though their father died young, these young musicians—the Scruggses—played on, each mastering the banjo and the guitar. And the youngest, Earl Scruggs, was no exception; in fact, he was the most adept of them all.
Born January 6, 1924, Earl Scruggs emerged into an inherently musical family in an inherently musical town, where the instrument of choice was the banjo and the popular picking style was of the three-finger variety. Given his roots, Scruggs was essentially destined to pick up a banjo, but other circumstances affected his devotion to the instrument—namely, the Great Depression. Losing his father at the age of four and entering America’s darkest hours when he was only five, Scruggs sought solace and entertainment in the humble banjo. His house and neighborhood provided easy access to the stringed thing and—given the economic climate of the time—little else. Young Scruggs devoted his time and energy to the banjo, in part from passion, and in part from the inaccessibility of any other hobbies.
When Scruggs was just twenty-one, in 1945, he met Bill Monroe of country-western fame. At the time, Monroe was hunting for a banjo player to fill the coveted role in his group The Bluegrass Boys. Young Scruggs, who was practically born with a banjo in his hands, slid into the role with ease. It was as the banjoist for The Bluegrass Boys that Scruggs first received critical acclaim for his mastery of the banjo.
But just three years later, in 1948, Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt left Monroe’s band in pursuance of a personal project. The Foggy Mountain Boys (later known simply as Flatt & Scruggs) took to touring the country, almost immediately receiving acclaim and fandom beyond anything The Bluegrass Boys had ever known. By the 1950’s, Scruggs was playing alongside Flatt as a member of the Grand Ole Opry on America’s most beloved bluegrass and country-western stage.
True fame, however, came in 1962, when Scruggs, Flatt, and Jerry Scoggins recorded “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song for the runaway hit television series The Beverly Hillbillies. The tune became a country-western sensation, capturing the hearts of listeners across the country. Scruggs and Flatt even appeared on the show several times throughout its seasons, playing themselves as distant relatives of the Clampetts. Their appearance was usually accompanied by a healthy dose of pickin’ and playing, much to the delight of the extrinsic Clampetts and their avid fans.
Though Scruggs maintained a place in the country-western world, his fame and commendation unwavering, he did veer from the path of similar artists in a consequential performance. On November 11, 1969, Scruggs performed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Washington, D.C., at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Though the song is of significance—it’s the very tune that would later earn him his first Grammy—the event carried even stronger implications. In performing at the Moratorium, Scruggs became one of the few bluegrass or country-western musicians to openly lend support to the controversial anti-war movement.
That same year, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt broke up their twenty-year enterprise, and Scruggs recruited two of his three sons to join him as members of the new Earl Scruggs Revue. Though his fame slowly dwindled over the coming decades (alongside the popularity of the genre), Scruggs continued to play and to be much respected by banjo buffs and bluegrass devotees. His mastery of three-finger style picking—the same style he had picked up and perfected in his hometown—became a signature, not just of his own playing, but of all of bluegrass, and is now widely recognized as Scruggs Style. His accolades received over the second half of the twentieth century are innumerable. In 1973, a bevy of bluegrass icons, including Doc and Merle Watson, came together to hold a tribute concert for Scruggs, footage from which became the 1975 documentary Banjoman. The eighties and nineties found Scruggs inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, awarded the National Heritage Fellowship and the National Medal of Art, and even being named as the inaugural inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
And through it all, Scruggs continued to do what he did best: play the banjo. As country artist Porter Wagoner once said, “Earl is to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.” Though he passed in 2012, Scruggs’s legacy plays on in The Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South. The Scruggs Center, located near Scruggs’s birthplace in Shelby, exhibits the history and culture of the South alongside the incredible contributions of Scruggs to the region, to Southern music, and—most of all—to the art of the banjo.
When Scruggs picked up his family’s banjo and first strummed those strings nearly a century ago, he didn’t just choose his own path—he chose the paths of hundreds of musicians to come. Call it passion, destiny, or circumstance, Scruggs’s performance and perfection of his instrument defined bluegrass and banjo music for generations.
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