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Earl Scruggs Turns 80

Wasn’t a man named “Earl Scruggs” just born to play the banjo? Yesterday was the bluegrass great’s 80th birthday, and his friends threw a party:

    Scruggs, whose three-fingered approach to playing the instrument is credited by many with giving bluegrass music its distinctive sound, accepted a banjo-shaped cake and watched an all-star cast perform “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

    Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, Brenda Lee, Porter Wagoner, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many others attended the celebration at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

    President Bush sent his congratulations, as did actor Billy Bob Thornton and musical stars Don Henley, Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakam.

    Gill called Scruggs an innovator who created a new way to play his instrument.

    “When he started that three-fingered banjo style,” Gill said, “everybody I know who heard it was stopped in their tracks and said, `What is that?’ I have to find that, I have to learn that.'”

    But Gill said Scruggs’ greatest gift was his open-minded approach that brought acoustic music to a wider, younger audience in the 1960s and ’70s. Through the years, Scruggs has recorded with country, rock and pop stars, including Sting, Elton John, Henley, Yoakam, Johnny Cash, the Byrds and many others.

    ….Scruggs grew up on a farm in North Carolina’s Cleveland County and worked as a textile worker in the early 1940s before he began performing professionally.

    He met Lester Flatt in 1945 when they were members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. They left three years later to form the Foggy Mountain Boys and eventually the hugely successful Flatt & Scruggs.

    The duo started an early morning radio show in Nashville and joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1955. During the late 1950s and early ’60s, they had a syndicated TV show and their songs began hitting the country charts.

    “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1962 – their only chart topper. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” reached only No. 58 but became a bluegrass standard. Their other hits include “Cabin in the Hills” and “Pearl, Pearl, Pearl,” another song from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” [AP]

To paraphrase Pure Prairie League in a slightly different context, “I’ll fix your flat tire, Earl.”

Here is some context on Scruggs’ groundbreaking work with Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe (1911-96), the “Father of Bluegrass,” was one of the most important American musicians of the century. The bluegrass he perfected was both emotionally potent – his “high lonesome” tenor keened mournfully of and over the rolling Kentucky hills – and technically dazzling. The breakneck speed and precision of his greatest band, the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo, stands up technically and imaginatively to the finest jazz of Armstrong, Parker and Coltrane.

The Monroe Brothers (Charlie and Bill) began playing radio stations around the Carolinas and Georgia in ’34 where they were heard by A&R man Eli Oberstein, who then signed them to Victor. After recording sixty songs, including “What Would You Give In Exchange,” and enduring about the same number of fist fights, the Brothers broke up in ’38. Bill convened the first Blue Grass Boys in ’39, which recorded with Frank Walker for Victor’s Bluebird imprint, including classics “Mule Skinner Blues” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 7.” After the war, Monroe and a new Blue Grass Boys were signed to Columbia by Art Satherley.

After recording “Blue Grass Special” in ’45, the first version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in ’46, the band hit their rip-roaring peak with “Blue Grass Breakdown” in ’47, the most important instrumental in bluegrass history. Flatt and Scruggs’ more-famous “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was clearly derived from this: Flatt with his signature bass-G runs at the end of each “verse,” Scruggs rolling his magical three-finger banjo style, while Monroe busted out tasty licks on the mandolin, all at a careening pace that cornered on two wheels threatening to tip at any moment. It never tipped and it’s never been topped.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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