NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's Statement on the Death of NEA National Heritage Fellow and National Medal of Arts Recipient Earl Scruggs
"On behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, it is with great sadness that I acknowledge the passing of bluegrass banjo player and NEA National Heritage Fellow Earl Scruggs. Scruggs' development of the three-finger style of banjo picking brought the instrument into prominence as an important innovation in bluegrass music. As a member of the Blue Grass Boys, as a leader with Lester Flatt of the Foggy Mountain Boys, and, in later years, with the Earl Scruggs Revue, he became a monumental figure in the development of bluegrass music in this country. We join many others in the bluegrass community and beyond in mourning his death while celebrating his life and lasting legacy."
Earl Scruggs was born January 6, 1924, near Shelby, North Carolina, in an area known as the Flint Hill community. His father, George Elam Scruggs, died when Earl was four years old, and although his mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs, was not a musician, she encouraged him to learn to play. In a short time, Earl was teaching himself and learning from others around him. His brothers, Junie and Horace, and his older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby, all played banjo and guitar, but his biggest influence came from a relative, Smith Hammett, whose three-finger-picking style of banjo playing Scruggs emulated. By the age 10, Scruggs had developed the basic three-finger syncopation, based on older techniques, that was to become known as "Scruggs-style" banjo.
In 1945, after the end of World War II, his mother encouraged him to pursue a career as a professional musician. He met Bill Monroe, who asked him to join his band, The Blue Grass Boys. Over the next three years, that band, which consisted of Monroe on mandolin, Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass, was immensely successful and established the sound that became known as "bluegrass."
In early 1948, Scruggs quit The Blue Grass Boys, and returned to North Carolina. A few weeks later, Flatt also resigned, and soon thereafter he and Scruggs decided to organize their own group, beginning on a radio station in Bristol, Tennessee. Their theme song was a Carter Family tune, "Foggy Mountain Top," and from it the new band derived its name, the Foggy Mountain Boys.
By the late 1950s, a combination of recordings, radio shows, extensive touring, and a syndicated television show had made the name Flatt & Scruggs synonymous with bluegrass. They recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television show, on which they made frequent guest appearances. Later, the Scruggs classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was used as the theme of the film Bonnie and Clyde, and he received a BMI and Grammy Award for that tune.
In 1969 he separated from Lester Flatt and formed a new band, called the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring his sons, Gary, Randy, and Steve. Scruggs continued to perform into the 1980s, but he had to curtail the rigors of touring.
In 1989 Scruggs received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship and in 1992 he received the National Medal of Arts.
For more information on Earl Scruggs, visit the NEA's website.
Please contact the NEA Public Affairs office for a high-resolution portrait of Earl Scruggs by Tom Pich.