When Earl passed away, one of my friends send me a new clip. But I knew he wasn't much of a bluegrass affecionato, so I wrote him back a bit about what Earl meant to me...
Earl Scruggs was the Zeus of the entire pantheon of famous banjo players. Kind of Picasso-like, in his way. He was raised in a family that played the rural music of the North Carolina hills; his father and mother were players. Earl's father died when Earl was very young, but he left a banjo in the family. Earl absorbed the music of his environment as he grew up in the 20s and 30s, but he began to find his own style while he was still a teenager. The style built on the music of the time, but was noticeably different, and it was contagious in its appeal.
In today's terms, his style of playing went viral; it just took longer back then. From the early post war period through the fifties, Bluegrass was a regional phenomenon. It started to get the attention of national musical power brokers in the late 50s and early sixties. I first heard the Kingston Trio's banjo in the late 50s, but I remember hearing Earl Scruggs playing the Beverly Hillbillies' theme for the first time in 1962. That was about the time I purchased my first banjo.
The style of playing Earl developed for himself was not his alone for very long. Again, like the Cubists who quickly followed Picasso, there were soon other players making sounds very similar to the music Earl played. Ask any of them if they were copying Earl, and none of them would apply that term to themselves. Musicians, like painters, freely rip each other off and don't even recognize it. But there were other reasons this style of playing grew so rapidly; there were a lot of talented musicians in that part of the country, all of whom had been raised within the same same body of music, and it seems to me that many were "primed" to find similar techniques to play the same body of music. One could wonder if there had been no Earl Scruggs, who would have been "Earl Scruggs"? Don Reno, perhaps?
But Earl was there in the early and mid 1940s, on the radio and in front of bigger and bigger audiences. Don Reno was in the Army, dodging bullets in the Far East. For better or worse, Earl led the pack of three finger pickers. In a short time, there were many of Earl's contemporaries playing in styles very much like the style Earl developed for himself. I've been listening to the music for almost 50 years, and I sometimes have a hard time telling the recordings of one player of that era from another. The differences are subtle and individual to the players themselves; but the elements of the playing style are common to all. Earl's playing is distinguishable for his own sense of timing, musicality, and the absolute confidence with which he adds his own contributions to the tunes.
Scruggs & Byrds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWXulD-gxuw
Earl did far more than just play well; he took the playing to a broader audience. After years of playing to regional audiences, he broke through to audiences in Newport and Carnegie Hall; none of his contemporary peers made it quite that far, or at least not until Earl had broken the trail. Earl wrote books that explained his three fingered magic; and he played with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Byrds, and more recently Steve Martin and the younger generation of bluegrass players. Earl's style of playing has gone far beyond Earl Scruggs: it's been given to the entire banjo-playing world.
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