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Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. I don’t know of any other form of popular American music that you can say someone invented, and which you can even date. Monroe provided the background music, but it was not until Scruggs joined the Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in December 1945 that what we know as bluegrass came into existence. It was the sound of Scruggs’ rapid three-finger banjo picking style that roused the crowds at the Grand Ole Opry.
Monroe launched his band in 1938. He made a living touring. His high wailing voice and his mandolin performances gained fans across the South. His band named the genre. But Scruggs completed the invention.
In 1948, Scruggs joined with Monroe’s guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. The band was better known as Flatt and Scruggs. They did not record an album for another decade.
I don’t remember the first girl I kissed, but I remember the first time I heard bluegrass. It was Elektra’s The Shanty Boys album (1958). The banjo picker was Roger Sprung, who had begun playing Scruggs style a decade earlier. He had introduced bluegrass to the Northeast. It took a decade for me to find out about it in Southern California. If I had not worked in a record store, it would have taken until 1962, when the nation found out because of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
I probably first heard Scruggs on the 1959 Newport Folk Festival album. In the fall of 1960 or the spring of 1961, the Foggy Mountain Boys came to Southern California in the Martha White Flour bus. I drove 70 miles from Riverside to West Los Angeles to hear them.
Bluegrass got another shot in the arm when Andy Griffith invited the Dillards to perform as “The Darlings” in several of his shows in the mid-1960s, beginning in 1963. These four young men had driven from Salem, Missouri to Southern California in 1962. They became fixtures in the Southern California folk music scene in the mid-1960s.
On Easter morning in 1967, I parked my Honda Dream motorcycle in front of church. I had forgotten that I had a copy of Flatt & Scruggs album, Sacred Songs in my saddle bag. When I went out an hour later, the album was gone. I have always wondered if the songs were uplifting to the thief.
In 1967, Flatt and Scruggs hit the big screen. They provided the music for Bonnie and Clyde. That made them famous internationally. Their music added a sense of authenticity for a movie about a gang of early 1930s bank robbers. It was, of course, pure Hollywood: fake. Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934. Monroe started the Blue Grass Boys in 1938. Scruggs joined in late 1945.
They broke up in 1969, when Flatt left the Foggy Mountain Boys due to Scruggs’ use of his sons as musicians on stage.
Scruggs was opposed to the Vietnam war, and said so in 1969. The video is still online. He wanted the troops to come home. This stand was rare for Southern entertainers of the old school, including bluegrass performers.
I saw him perform a second time, 42 years after the first time, at the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in 2003. In his band that night was the legendary side man, guitarist Albert Lee. I was glad that my wife got to see Scruggs perform. That was the only time she ever accompanied me to a bluegrass festival. He was 79 years old, but he still had that same style.
He inspired thousands of banjo pickers, most famously comedian Steve Martin, who is a very good bluegrass performer. The two played together on Letterman’s show in 2006, along with Albert Lee, dobro master Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and a bunch of others – talent-wise, the most spectacular bluegrass group ever assembled, I think. Scruggs was 82.
There were faster players than Scruggs. There were louder players than Scruggs. But he had a unique style that made him the universal master.