(In 2008 GRAMMY winner Earl Scruggs was honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award. The following tribute penned by Béla Fleck ran in the GRAMMY Awards program book that year. Scruggs died today at the age of 88.)
Earl Scruggs is the man who brought the five-string banjo front and center in the American consciousness. Throughout his career his creativity has played a major role in crafting some of the most startlingly original forms of American music.
His innovative three-finger style first stood the world on its ear in 1945. When he joined the historic "first bluegrass band" (the Bluegrass Boys) with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Cedric Rainwater, and Chubby Wise, a musical explosion was heard 'round the world.
His banjo made the group stand out from everything that was going on in country music, and everything that had come before. That sound also drew in people that might never have had anything to do with country or folk music and made them into lifelong fans.
He and Lester left Monroe's group to launch Flatt & Scruggs, which took the music to incredible new heights. Even before they played in New York at Carnegie Hall in 1962, The New York Times had dubbed him the "Paganini of the five-string banjo."
You can easily understand the Paganini reference when you hear Earl's nonstop cascade of notes, as well as the unpredictable use of spaces in between each plucked tone. He uses accents to great effect, keeping the listener captive to his every move. When you hear that slurpy rising sound, it is quite possible that he is sliding up the strings on his fingernail. The melody to the song is nearly always reflected in his playing and yet he rarely plays things the same way twice. And, when you watch him, it looks like he's hardly expending any effort at all.
Continuing to make banjo history after Flatt & Scruggs, he embraced the "new music" of the '60s and searched for his own place within it. Going "electric" with his talented sons Randy, Steve and Gary (along with drummer Jody Maphis) in the Earl Scruggs Revue, and with the help of the business savvy of his wife, Louise, he brought the music to college crowds and collaborated with folks like the Byrds and Bob Dylan and, in later years, Elton John, Sting and so many others.
It was a long way from where he started, in Flint Hill, N.C., in 1924. Interestingly, the man who single-handedly created the bluegrass banjo tradition has never been bound by it himself. While every banjoist after him tries desperately to play exactly the way Earl did on a particular recording, he himself plays it differently every time, and to this day is finding new and eloquent ways to play the banjo. He continues to speak with his banjo, and we all listen gratefully.
Oh yeah, and he rocks.
(One of music's top banjo players, Béla Fleck has won 13 GRAMMY Awards. His most recent GRAMMY came in 2011 for Best Instrumental Composition for "Life In Eleven.")