NASHVILLE, TENN.: Bluegrass icon and banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, who helped profoundly change country music with Bill Monroe in the 1940s and later with guitarist Lester Flatt, died of natural causes Wednesday at age 88.
Scruggs was an innovator who pioneered the modern banjo sound. His use of three fingers rather than the clawhammer style elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument.
His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style” and the versatility it allowed has helped popularize the banjo in almost every genre of music.
The debut of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys during a post-World War II performance on the Grand Ole Opry is thought of as the “big bang” moment for bluegrass and later 20th-century country music. Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.
They were best known for their 1949 recording Foggy Mountain Breakdown, played in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, and The Ballad of Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies, the TV series that debuted in 1962. Jerry Scoggins did the singing.
In 2005, Foggy Mountain Breakdown was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.