Bluegrass Banjo

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Earl Scruggs (b. 1924 in Cleveland County, North Carolina) was the youngest of five children in a family where, as he remembers, there was always music. Earl’s mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs, played the organ, and his brothers and sisters all played banjo and guitar. His father, George Elam Scruggs, played fiddle and banjo, but George died after an eight month illness when Earl was only four, so he has no memory of his father’s music. The Scruggs family did not have a radio until Earl was in his teens, but they had a banjo, a guitar, a fiddle and an Autoharp, so Earl had ample opportunity to learn to play. When he was four, he began playing the banjo using a two finger style, but he was so small that he would have to sit on the floor and slide the instrument in order to reach various positions on the neck. When he was ten he developed the three finger picking style that would become known throughout the world as “Scruggs-Style Picking,” and by his early teens he was playing the banjo at local dances and musical gatherings. Earl stayed on his family’s farm until 1939, when he replaced Don Reno as banjo player with the Morris Brothers, whose band featured what was then known as ‘country’ or ‘hillbilly’ music. He had played with the Morris band for less than a year when he quit to return home and care for his mother. For the next several years he worked at the Lily Mills textile plant and played banjo when he had the time, but when World War Two ended, it was his mother who encouraged him to leave the mill and make music his career. When Earl returned to music in 1945, the first band he joined was Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians. The band toured regularly, but it also had a weekly radio show on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, and another, lesser known program on WSM in Nashville. Jim Shumate was the fiddler with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys at that time, and he first heard Earl play on one of the Allied Kentuckians’ weekly shows. As it happened, Stringbean had just left Monroe’s band, and Monroe asked Shumate if he knew of anyone who could replace Stringbean on the banjo. Shumate found Earl and arranged an audition for him with Monroe at the same time as the Allied Kentuckians were disbanding and Earl was preparing to return home to work at the mill. Monroe listened to Earl’s playing and asked him if he could go to work the following week. In December, 1945, Earl Scruggs joined Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts) on bass, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Bill Monroe on mandolin, and Lester Flatt on guitar, and became a Bluegrass Boy. Earl Scruggs spent the next three years touring and recording with Bill Monroe’s band, but in early 1948 he quit to return home where he could once again work at the mill and care for his mother. Two weeks after Earl’s departure, Lester Flatt and Cedric Rainwater both quit, and Monroe was suddenly without a band. The three men always denied that they left Monroe with the intention to form a new group, but they were soon performing together as “Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.” Sadly for all involved, their departures from the Bluegrass Boys followed by the almost immediate formation of their new band caused a rift with Monroe that was never healed. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys first played as a trio on WDVA in Danville, Virginia in January, 1948. By March of that year they had left WDVA, added Jim Shumate as their fiddler, and begun playing at WHKY in Hickory, North Carolina. After Mac Wiseman joined them, they were able to move to powerful WCYB in Bristol, where the station allowed them to play and for four weeks only, to advertise their song books. During those four weeks they sold 10,000 books through the mail. In that same year they began a three year recording contract with Mercury Records. While they were at WCYB, Bill Monroe’s band played nearby and Don Reno approached Earl Scruggs with an idea for a banjo trade. In exchange for the Gibson RB-3 that Scruggs had been playing, Reno traded him the 1933/34 Gibson Granada that Snuffy Jenkins had once purchased in a pawn shop for $37.50. For many years to come, Scruggs would play the banjo once played by a man whose music he had admired when he was young. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys remained at WCYB until March of 1949, when a coal miners’ strike severely depressed the area and forced them to seek more lucrative employment elsewhere. They spent the next several years traveling to shows and radio stations throughout the South and continuing to record with Mercury and then Columbia Records. The best known tune they recorded during this time was “Earl’s Breakdown,” in which Earl manually down-tuned his second banjo string to produce an effect that he and his brother, Harold, had experimented with as boys. The technique proved to be so popular that it led Scruggs to develop the D tuners that eventually became marketed as Scruggs-Keith tuners. It was also during this time that Scruggs began using hooks, at first made from hairpins, to capo the fifth string. By early 1953, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys had recorded nine albums, played at major radio stations, and had become the first country music band to have a syndicated television program. With Martha White Flour and Pet Milk as co-sponsors, they were seen weekly on more than forty stations. In September of 1954, they joined the cast of the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia, so that they could make their first major appearance outside the South as part of the New York Broadway show, “Hayride.” In New York they found that banjo playing had become popular among folk musicians, many of whom were trying to copy Scruggs’ style. When Pete Seeger included an entire section on the Scruggs Banjo Method in his book on folk music, the group found new audiences in Northeastern folk music circles. Despite their growing musical and financial success, WSM in Nashville had never invited Flatt and Scruggs to join the Grand Ole Opry. Whether, as some people claim, this was because of their rift with long time Opry member Bill Monroe, will never be known for certain. What is known is that by 1955 there was so much fan mail, public demand, and pressure from Opry sponsor Martha White Flour, that General Manager Jack DeWitt had them appear on the Opry for the first time in January of that year. In 1955 and 1956, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys won Country and Western magazine’s readers’ poll as Best Country Music Instrumental Group (with fewer than six members). At that same time, the band was the only Opry performing unit with continuous sponsorship on radio, television, and personal appearances by one company: Martha White Flour. They also recorded for the U.S. Armed Forces syndicated show, “Country Style U.S.A.,” that aired on 2500 stations. The following years saw their successes and their audiences grow. After they performed at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, the New York Times called Earl Scruggs, “The Paganini of the five string banjo.” The band returned to Newport to perform the following year and also appeared for CBS on their first live network television show, “The Revlon Review: Folk Sound, USA.” They recorded for the first time with drums in 1960 and did their first college and university folk music concerts in 1961. On December 8, 1962, Flatt and Scruggs performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” their recording of the theme song for televisions’, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” was the only bluegrass recording ever to reach number one on the country music charts and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Flatt and Scruggs made personal appearances on that show, which aired in 70 countries, until 1968, and they also recorded the theme songs for television’s “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” Warren Beatty used Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in his movie, “Bonnie and Clyde,” and the tune won both a Grammy and a B.M.I. “Million-Air” award for having been broadcast more than a million times in the United States. In 1968, the band became the first bluegrass group to tour Asia and Peer International Corporation published Scruggs’ instruction book: Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo. In 1973, Scruggs received a gold book award from Peer Southern for the book, which by then had sold over a million copies. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs played on stage together for the last time in February of 1969 and recorded their final session six months later. Lester Flatt soon formed the group called Nashville Grass and continued to focus on traditional bluegrass sounds. Earl Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons, Gary and Randy, and began to experiment by combining traditional bluegrass songs and instruments with those used in more modern musical genres. He wrote the bluegrass score for the film, “Where the Lillies Bloom” in 1973 and continued to tour with the Earl Scruggs Revue. He and Lester Flatt were entered into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985, and in 1991 they and Bill Monroe became members of the IBMA’s Hall of Honor. During the 1990’s, Earl Scruggs gradually reduced his performance schedule and settled in Madison, Tennessee, with his wife, Louise, whom he had married in 1948 and who had been his Business and Booking Manager since 1956. In 2001, he joined performers from several musical genres on a CD produced by his son, Randy. Titled, “Earl Scruggs and Friends,” the CD features Earl Scruggs picking the five string banjo with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and Elton John and showing his listeners why, after a career that has spanned more than six decades, he has become a living bluegrass legend.

Last Updated by Glenn Author Glenn Miller.

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