By Michael Hofer
© 2001

The Man Who Changed Banjo Music

If there was a question as to who the one man who had the greatest influence on the style of banjo being played in the 20th century, it would most likely be concluded it was Earl Scruggs. Although he did not invent the style, he did do the most to popularize it, and its called 'Scruggs Style'.

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
Roll In My Sweet Babys Arms

Born in Flint Hill, North Carolina, on January 6, 1924, Earl Eugene Scrugs, soon changed the face of banjo playing in the world forever. Recently, I got a copy of "The Three Pickers" album, and Earl recounts the story.
" I was playing this "Rueben" tune down in D tune and suddently realized I had this roll goin. It came to me like that. And I played that same tune the rest of the week, my oldest brother Juney would come over on Saturday and I couldn't wait for him to hear me pick. He came walkin up the road and I got out on the edge of the porch, pickin, every once in a while Id see him turn his head, oneside, he was getting a little drift with it, he came on up through the yard, and came up the steps and said "Is that all ya know?"

Don Renos account was a little differant as he recalled those times to Tony Trishka, as recorded in Tonys Book, "Banjo Song Book". Don stated that he and Earl both from the same area, had been listening to Snuffy Jenkins playing 3 finger style, particularly the songs like "Dear Old Dixie" and "Cumberland Gap" in the 30s.
Also, Earl's mother was a friend of Smith Hammett, Earl had occasion to sit an listen to Smith play. As already mentioned in this record on an earlier page Snuffy Jenkins was also influenced by both Smith Hammett and Rex Brooks in this new style.

Well, Earl learned the technique so he could soon play almost any song in this fashion. So as you can gather the inventor of the style is somewhat controversial- but no one can dispute Earl Scruggs popularized it more than anyone else.
This new style used thumb index and middle fingers, with picks on each of them. A melody note is followed by 3 fill in notes, completing a whats called a roll. Earl developed several roll patterns, facilitating the playing of many melodies, and using this style with picks, the banjo was louder, crisper and carried a driving sound.
Earl started working in bands and playing on the radio and had some local notoriety. Dave Stringbean Akeman who had been playing in Bill Monroes band was tired of the constant touring and quit from Bill's band, and so there was a opening for a banjo player. Bill hearing Don Renos playing at a jam, had Don in mind for this, but Don chose to go into the war. This left an opening for Earl.
Earl got a try out for Bill's band, supposedly Uncle Dave Macon was there as he was touring with Bill and the Grand Ole Opry show. After hearing Earl play the banjo, Uncle Dave grinning and visibly impressed at this new style of playing from this young man remarked something like, " I bet he can't sing a lick".
Bill knew he could alter banjo and fiddle leads during songs with Earl's abilities, this opened up a whole new avenue for his music and really defined Bill's Bluegrass sound as unique. No other band had this combination. The high lonesome sound Bill had created was now completed with this addition. Upon hiring Earl, Bill sought to rehire Lester Flatt who had also resigned when Stringbean quit. Lester had affection for Stringbean but felt his banjo playing held back the bands sound( Stringbean played clawhammer). When Lester heard Earl's playing he signed on again. Many feel this was the best band Monroe would ever assemble, and the best Bluegrass band ever, from 44 to 47.

In 1948, Earls mother had become ill and Earl left Bill's band to go take care of her. Lester also left but soon hooked up again with Earl and they formed their own band the Foggy Mountain Boys, the name taken from an old Carter Family song. For the next 25 years this band would be top notch in the field, and do more to promote bluegrass than any other band formed.

Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatts Foggy Mt Boys

This new band moved to Bristol Virginia and signed with Mercury Records. Lester decided to sing a low baritone in lead instead of tenor as Bill Monroe was doing, to get a differant sound from their band. Even though Flatt and Scruggs had departed amiciably with Bill Monroe for several years Bill Monroe had some animosity towards them. In 49 they released Earls famous "Foggy Moutain Breakdown" for the first time. Later they released "Pike County Breakdown". They played radio shows in Tennesee, Kentucky, North Carolina Virginia and Florida. In 1950 they released "Roll In My Sweet Babys Arms" and "Salty Dog Blues". In 51 they signed up with Columbia and in 52 released their first BillBoard top ten single, "Tis Sweet To Be Remembered".
Being frozen out of the Grand Old Opry largely because of Bill Monroe, finally in 1956 because of their sponsor Martha White they were put on the Opry in 56. They hit the charts again in 59 with "Cabin On the Hill" and in 60 with "Crying My Heart Out Over You". They actually were doing syndication shows before video taping had been invented, rushing from one studio to another, and then when video tape was invented, they thought it was a sweet deal. Much of their sucess is credited to Earls wife Louise, the bands manager. Through her efforts they recieved more media attention than any other bluegrass band, which infuriated Bill Monroe loyalists. Then in 1962 their notoritey rocketed with the sucess of a new tv show, playing a theme song played by their band. The tv show was the number one show on tv that year and in the top 10 for many years to follow The Beverly Hillbillies. The theme song "Ballad Of Jed Clampett" was the first bluegrass song to hit number one on the charts. Flatt and Scruggs appeared many times on the show, and much of the background music was bluegrass style. This and several other shows merit a page of script, following this one.
Another landmark for Flatt and Scruggs In 67 was doing the soundtrack to the movie "Bonnie and Clyde", featuring Earl's, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as the theme song. Along about this time, Flatt and Scruggs started having differant ideas about where they wanted to go musically. Many folk artists, like Dylan had crossed over into a more pop larger audience based music, and Earl wanted to try to push into that himself. Flatt wanted to continue doing what had worked for them so well for 25 years. This conflicting dilema was found both in bluegrass and folk music at this time. The purists of folk music called Dylan a sell out at the time, or anyone who 'sold out' idealism for popularity. As this author has pointed out, Bluegrass and Folk music had common roots, and as evidenced here, common problems in maintaining purity and purpose. So in 69 the duo split up.
Earl went on to form a new band that had moderate success. Lester died in 79 but had reconciled well with Earl before his death. Then in 1985 Flatt and Scruggs were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.