04 October 2021

Bill Keith and Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo (UPDATE)

The BIB editor writes:

Earl Eugene Scruggs (1924-2012) and William Bradford 'Bill' Keith (1939-2015) were the two most influential bluegrass banjo players of the second half of the twentieth century. In the mid 1960s they collaborated: Bill's meticulous analyses of Earl's playing, transcribed into tablatures, were combined with text by Earl and Burt Brent to form the highly successful book Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo. The collaboration did not have a happy ending.

A full biography of Bill Keith has not yet been published. The one publication to date that has given an account of what followed the success of Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo, centring on Bill's own words, is Barry R. Willis's America's music: bluegrass. A history of bluegrass music in the words of its pioneers (1997). The relevant section of the book can now also be read in the fourth and latest instalment of Barry's blog.

Update 26 Nov.: This section of the blog now includes substantial and important comments by Larry Perkins, banjo player and friend of Earl Scruggs, by Bill Palmer, friend of Bill Keith, and by Barry, which should be read by anyone interested in the issue.

BIB editor's note: Barry wrote that when Bill Keith joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, 'Because Monroe didn’t want two Bills in the band, he always called him "Brad” after his middle name, Bradford.' Keith himself has made it clear that this was not imposed in any 'I'm-the-only-Bill-around-here' spirit; Monroe suggested it to him because of possible confusion in the band from having two people with the same first name.

© Richard Hawkins

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