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From The Scrapbook

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Jazz has been called America’s classical music, but country music—especially the bluegrass variety—is equally indigenous, having emerged from the mists of the Scotch-Irish enclaves in the Appalachian Mountains. This is not a debate about jazz versus country (The Scrapbook likes them both) but another way to say that, when Earl Scruggs died last week at 88, America lost one of its greatest native artists.

To say that Earl Scruggs was the best banjo player who ever lived is a little like saying that Charles Dickens was a talented storyteller. His three-fingered “Scruggs style” of picking revolutionized technique, and every player since Earl Scruggs arrived on the music scene 60-plus years ago is under his influence. The Scruggs-style banjo is played with picks on the thumb, middle, and index fingers, and the strings are picked in sequence at lightning speed while the melody is interspersed among the rolls. It’s a complicated, rhythmic, highly syncopated style, and you don’t even have to be a fan of country music to be hypno-tized by the sight and sound of Earl Scruggs playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Salty Dog Blues” on YouTube.

Earl Scruggs was from North Carolina, and like many of the great bluegrass musicians of the last century, got his start playing with Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. But it was not until the late 1940s, when he joined guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, that he started gaining renown outside the concert hall and AM radio circuits of the South. Connoisseurs of pop culture will know the Foggy Mountain Boys’ theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies (1962)—“Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed”—but students of folk history remember as well their catchy tune about Martha White Flour (“Goodness gracious, good and light, Martha White”), the sponsor of their Nashville radio and television shows.

By all accounts, Earl Scruggs was a good-natured, eminently approachable man whose absolute mastery of his instrument had no effect on his natural modesty. He performed with a wide variety of musicians, almost until his death, and his banjo playing was never anything other than superlative, exuberant, transcendent—and quintessentially American.

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