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Did Earl Scruggs Create Bluegrass Music?

Posted by corcoran on Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Occasionally the question arises about the role Earl Scruggs played in the creation of bluegrass music.  Some people claim, mistakenly I think, that Scruggs alone created bluegrass, because it did not exist in recognizable form until he joined the Blue Grass Boys.  Let’s look at what we know of the facts, from the historical record.

Earl Scruggs grew up in North Carolina, where there was a population of banjo players, including Don Reno, who played in three-finger style.  He was influenced by many of them, particularly Smith Hammett and Snuffy Jenkins.   Scruggs never claimed to have created the three-finger style, although he clearly refined it to a form approachable by subsequent generations of pickers, and he did indeed create a host of wonderful licks and runs that have become part of the fundamental vocabulary of bluegrass banjo.   But here’s the key point:  Scruggs played with the Morris Brothers, fellow North Carolinians, before he joined Bill Monroe.   It seems to me that if Scruggs had single-handedly created bluegrass, it follows that the Morris Brothers should have been recognized as the first bluegrass band, or at least the first to play a particular subtype of country music, whatever it would have been called (perhaps Tar Heel music?).  But they were not.  The recognizable sound of bluegrass did not emerge until Bill Monroe formed a new configuration of the Blue Grass Boys that included Lester Flatt, Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts, Chubby Wise, and of course Earl Scruggs.  It is noteworthy that bluegrass as played by Monroe and the BGB continued to evolve after those men left the band (e.g., with the addition of Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Rudy Lyle, Edd Mayfield, Kenny Baker, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, and the list goes on).

Monroe clearly recognized the value of adding a three-finger banjo stylist to his mid-1940s band.  We are told that, before Scruggs joined the band, Monroe recruited Don Reno, a contemporary of Scruggs’s who played a similar primitive three-finger version of North Carolina style.  I say a “primitive three-finger version” because neither Scruggs nor Reno played the kind of sophisticated banjo in the early days, in the mid-1940s, that they displayed later on, in subsequent decades.  Snuffy Jenkins’s influence was strongly felt in their early playing, in my opinion, and of course they both moved well beyond the Jenkins style in later years.  In any case, Reno was unable to join the BGB because he was called up or volunteered for military service.  This opened the door for Scruggs, who first played the Grand Ole Opry with Monroe in December 1945.  By all accounts, he tore the place up.

Where was Monroe’s music before Scruggs came on the scene?  Well, when he joined the Opry in 1939, Monroe introduced a new and novel version of old-time string-band music that took the genre beyond what had been heard before, and audiences were reportedly stunned.  No previous band had played with the velocity and beat of the BGB, and no male vocalist had sung as high as Monroe did -- and this was all of course before Scruggs joined the BGB.  Monroe continued to tweak and experiment with his band’s sound throughout the early 1940s, but what he was playing was still not quite bluegrass music.  However, it set the stage for the radical transformation that occurred in 1945

I think the conclusion is inescapable that modern bluegrass was formed by the combination of Scruggs’s sophisticated approach to the banjo with Monroe’s driving beat (unprecedented in country music at the time), his revolutionary mandolin style, his high tenor lead vocals, and his tenor harmonizing with the lead singer.   Scruggs’s joining the band kicked the BGB’s sound up a notch or six, but the emergence of this new style was built on the framework that Monroe had constructed in earlier years.  It seems obvious that it would not have been bluegrass without Monroe, nor would it have been bluegrass without Scruggs, Reno, or someone else who played the North Carolina style of banjo.  To say that only Scruggs was responsible for the creation of bluegrass is like saying that only heredity, or only environment, is responsible for our phenotype and behavior.  No, clearly it is both.  Or, to use a more prosaic analogy, it’s like saying that the area of a field is determined only by the length, or only by the width.  Again, it is both.

Here is a relatively minor point, but I might as well address it:  What about Scruggs’s claim, as Earl and Louse Scruggs stated in an NPR interview that was broadcast some years ago, that he and not Monroe wrote Bluegrass Breakdown, one of the prototypical bluegrass instrumentals?  Scruggs’s account clashes with Monroe’s, because Monroe also took sole credit for the tune.  On the one hand, as has been pointed out by Dick Bowden among others, it was not uncommon for band leaders at the time to claim authorship on a tune or song one of their band members in fact wrote.  So Scruggs indeed may have authored the tune, a fact that Monroe conveniently ignored or forgot.  On the other hand, keep in mind that during his career Scruggs wrote very few original instrumentals – Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Randy Lynn Rag (a particular favorite of mine), Earl’s Breakdown, Groundspeed, Foggy Mountain Chimes, Foggy Mountain Special, Flint Hill Special come to mind – whereas for years and years Monroe cranked out tens if not hundreds of original tunes, many of which have become staples of the bluegrass repertoire.  So it is not inconceivable that Monroe did indeed write Bluegrass Breakdown as one of his earliest originals, and that Scruggs simply misremembered the details of authorship.  We will never know for sure. 

Well, life is complicated, and you have to have a tolerance for ambiguity if you want to avoid going crazy.  Live with it.  HAHA

Let the flames begin.

1 comment on “Did Earl Scruggs Create Bluegrass Music?”

RB4picker Says:
Tuesday, January 19, 2016 @8:40:46 PM


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