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Country and Bluegrass Pioneer Earl Scruggs Dies at 88

Earl Scruggs
Michael Buckner, Getty Images

Country Music Hall of Famer Earl Scruggs died Wednesday morning at a Nashville hospital. The bluegrass legend and one-half of the forever influential duo Flatt and Scruggs died of natural causes, according to his son Gary. He was 88.

The Associated Press reported the news of his death late Wednesday evening. It’s difficult to encompass all that Scruggs did for country and bluegrass music in a single story. He was as influential as Henry Ford was to the automobile, popularizing a three-finger style of banjo playing instead of the usual clawhammer style. While Bill Monroe will forever be the ‘Godfather’ of bluegrass music, Scruggs was his banjo player, and it was Lester Flatt and Scruggs that brought the genre into the ’50s and 60s. They broke up in 1969, and Flatt died ten years later.

“I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball,” Porter Wagoner said in 2004. “He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”

‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ is Scruggs’ most memorable hit, but he also gained fame for ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’ — the theme from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ The legend first learned to play banjo at the age of four and was playing in bands across his home state of North Carolina by age 15. During his 70-plus year career, he was honored with a National Medal of Art, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and put a song (‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’) into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought of rewards and presentations,” he said in 1992. USA Today called Scruggs a “quietly affable presence,” while making note of the oft-politically charged performances he was a part of but never provoked. He’d play with anyone who loved the music, and that meant the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the ’60s and ’70s, and later Ravi Shankar and Elton John.

“He was the man who melted walls, and he did it without saying three words,” longtime friend Marty Stuart in 2000.

Louise Scruggs, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. Scruggs is survived by his sons, Gary and Randy.

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