Earl Scruggs Remembered For Banjo Excellence

Earl Scruggs was remembered Sunday as an influential, helpful and humble banjo player who put his own mark on bluegrass music.

Some 2,300 mourners attended Scruggs’ public funeral at the Ryman Auditorium, where he played his songs for years on the Grand Ole Opry country music show and recorded his final album. Sunday evening, the Academy of Country Music paid tribute to Scruggs at its annual awards show in Las Vegas.

Photo: AP Photo
Performing at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I.

“No one will ever play the banjo like Earl,” Charlie Daniels, better known for his fiddle and guitar playing, told mourners in Nashville. Daniels recalled that when he was a young studio musician, Scruggs invited him to join the Earl Scruggs Revue.

Scruggs, a four-time Grammy winner, died Wednesday at age 88.

The pioneering banjo player and his pickin’ partner Lester Flatt, a guitarist, had teamed for 20 years to become the most famous duo in bluegrass history.

Flatt and Scruggs were best known for their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV series. For many viewers, the hummable theme song was their first introduction to country music.

Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and enhanced its status as a bluegrass standard. It had been recorded in 1949.

As rock ‘n’ roll threatened country music’s popularity 50 years ago, Flatt and Scruggs became symbols of traditional country music before going their separate ways in 1969. Flatt died in 1979.

Country star Ricky Skaggs said Scruggs “was the most humble musician I ever met.

“He was always listening not at himself but at the next generation.”

Bluegrass great Del McCoury told the gathering that he was enthralled as a youngster by the Scruggs’ sound.

“If not for Earl Scruggs, I might not have played music at all,” said McCoury, a guitarist.

Among the mourners was Von Moye, who drove from Flat Top, W.Va., for the funeral.

“He had a gift,” Moye, a banjo player himself, said before the service. “He took three fingers and gave it a whole new style.”

The North Carolina native’s use of three fingers – instead of the limited clawhammer style that was once prevalent – elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section to a lead instrument that was as versatile as the guitar and far more flashy. He is credited with helping create modern country music with a string-bending style of playing.

Scruggs’ closed casket sat just below the famous stage, with a banjo just behind it. A dozen floral arrangements decorated the stage.

Performers during the service included McCoury, Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Jon Randall Stewart, John McEuen, Jim Mills, Marty Stuart and Patty Loveless.

The funeral was near a cluster of downtown honky-tonks where Scruggs’ music is still played. His plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame is three blocks away.