published Friday, April 13th, 2012

Legacy of banjo titan not measured in awards

As I sit here listening to him ripping through his legendary bluegrass instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," it's hard to imagine how different bluegrass music would have been without Earl Scruggs.

After his death at age 88 on March 28, it seems appropriate to take a moment to consider the man and his legacy.

Born in 1924 into a musical family in western North Carolina, Scruggs was one of bluegrass's most influential artists practically from the word go.

At age 10, he developed a new three-finger, syncopated playing style that was revelatory to musicians accustomed to the frailing or clawhammer style common to old-time music.

In the mid-'40s, he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, helping to shear off the bleeding edge of the newly formed bluegrass genre. His tenure with Monroe was short-lived, however, and he and guitarist Lester Flatt left in 1948 to form their own band, initially called The Foggy Mountain Boys, later known simply as Flatt & Scruggs.

This new group was widely publicized on TV and contributed notable works to the bluegrass canon, including the aforementioned "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which won Scruggs the first of four Grammy Awards in 1969. They also composed "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme to "The Beverly Hillbillies," one of the most popular bluegrass songs ever created and the genre's first No. 1 single.

Some artists leave behind a legacy measured in gold records and Grammy Awards, but Scruggs will be remembered for different reasons.

Don't misunderstand: Scruggs was one of bluegrass's most highly decorated artists.

In 1985, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Three years later, he received the distinguished achievement award from the International Bluegrass Music Awards and was one of the first inductees -- along with Flatt and Monroe -- into the IBMA hall of fame. In 1992, he received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2008 he was given Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Scruggs even has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, less than seven miles from where the Clampett clan took up residence in the oil-drenched lap of luxury.

Those awards were certainly well-deserved, but there are some musicians whose influence and distinction transcends a few shiny bits of metal and certificates. Scruggs is one of them.

He literally helped lay the foundation for bluegrass music and was an active participant long after it became repopularized. The playing style he developed became so intrinsically linked to him that practically every banjo player plays "Scruggs style" or some variation thereof.

So awards are nice and all, but if I had my druthers, I would prefer a legacy like Scruggs', which resonates every time someone puts fingers to banjo strings. As Porter Wagoner said at Scruggs' 80th birthday party: "Earl was 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."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @Phillips CTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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