Art Form: Folk/Traditional Music
Web Site: http://www.earlscruggs.com
Great individual creativity and deep community traditions are ingredients for nurturing extraordinary artistry. These conditions certainly held true in the case of Earl Scruggs. He drew upon his own virtuosity and the musical traditions of western North Carolina to create music that spoke to audiences throughout the world.
Born in the small community of Flint Hill in Cleveland County, Earl grew up surrounded by music makers. His mother played the organ, his father the fiddle and banjo, and four of his sisters and brothers played both banjo and guitar. "Probably no other family enjoyed music and singing more than we did," he wrote. "The banjo stayed in my mind most of the time, if I was playing with friends or working on the farm."
Banjo players in his community favored finger-picking rather than the frailing or brushing styles prevalent further west in the Blue Ridge; Earl was no exception. He remembered developing his unique three-fingered style at the age of ten when he took his banjo into a room by himself after an argument with his brother. " I was picking away, and suddenly discovered I was using the thumb, index, and middle finger rather than [my] usual two." By the time he was a teenager, Earl played regularly on nearby radio stations and had won numerous blue ribbons at local fiddlers conventions.
When he decided to try music as a career at the end of World War II, he quit his textile mill job and, shortly afterwards, landed in Nashville. There he joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, which included Monroe, Lester Flatt, and later Chubby Wise and Howard Watts. These musicians played a highly innovative and exciting style of country music, now known as bluegrass. Earl's banjo picking, in particular, created a huge sensation, and he defined a new repertory and technique for the instrument. In his hands, the banjo could play lead and take breaks on up-tempo songs, fiddle tunes, and blues or provide tasteful accompaniment to waltzes and slow country love songs.
In 1948, Earl and Lester Flatt formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. Over the next five years the popularity of the group soared as they played over radio stations throughout the South, including a stint at WPTF in Raleigh in 1951. Two years later, Martha White Mills began sponsoring the band in radio and television appearances that kept them in the public limelight for the next fifteen years.
Through theme music for the television show The Beverly Hillbillies and the film Bonnie and Clyde, Flatt and Scruggs introduced bluegrass to millions who were unfamiliar with traditional country music. Inspired by Earl's playing, aspiring urban musicians bought banjos and began exploring the possibilities of the instrument. In 1969, Earl left the Foggy Mountain Boys to perform with his sons as the Earl Scruggs Revue. The band blended bluegrass, folk, country, and rock music and played to enthusiastic audiences on college campuses, many of them in North Carolina.
Earl won numerous honors including membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Heritage Fellowship award, and the President's National Medal of Arts. Even in the midst of international acclaim, he remembered the traditions at the roots of his artistry. "My music came up from the soil of North Carolina," he said proudly, "and I have been blessed that people in all parts of the world enjoy it. Earl passed away at the age of 88 in March 2012.