28 March 2022

Earl Scruggs: ten years after

Earl Eugene Scruggs, the Father of Bluegrass Banjo, died ten years ago today, almost three months past his 88th birthday. The BIB's first report was on 29 Mar. 2012, in which Colin Henry wrote from Belfast:

I think if I had to cite who was the most influential musician in all my years of playing (i.e. who had the most effect on me) it would not be a dobro player, it would be Earl Scruggs. I was completely taken when I heard him for the first time and to this day I still love his playing. They always describe his playing as like a machine gun; what I hear is a melodic flow of notes like a river whitewater, powerful and mesmerising, every note crystal clear. No one plays Scruggs style like the man who created it.

In following days, and into April and May 2012, the BIB carried online links to numerous tributes and obituaries from bluegrass sources and other publications. Since Earl's death the Earl Scruggs Center has been completed in his home town, Shelby, NC, and has an active programme of musical and educational events; and after a delay of two years caused by the pandemic, the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival will be held in September this year.

Since 2012 three notable books on Earl Scruggs and his music have appeared: Gordon Castelnero and David L. Russell, Earl Scruggs: banjo icon (2017); Thomas Goldsmith, Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: the making of an American classic (2019), and The Earl Scruggs banjo songbook (2021). An earlier and excellent twenty-one-page analytical commentary on his playing is in Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick, Masters of the 5-string banjo in their own words and music (1988).

The photos on this post (credit: johnnykeenan.com) were taken at the 3rd Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival in Longford in 2004, where Earl performed in his first European trip for decades. He is shown below with his wife, Louise, to whom he attributed his success, and with festival organisers Kathy Casey and Chris Keenan.

Update 29 Mar.: Richard Thompson's major commemorative feature on Bluegrass Today includes contributions from many banjo players in the US and other continents, and nine videos.

Update 21 June: The list of books on Earl Scruggs should now also include Bob Carlin's What Earl Scruggs heard: String music along the North Carolina–South Carolina border, on the musical environment in which Earl grew up.

© Richard Hawkins

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