Earl Scruggs was a three-fingered, banjo playing singer, songwriter, and musician that were among the pioneers that defined bluegrass and country music. This is the man behind the “Scruggs Style” play of the banjo with the three fingers he used to play the instrument that was considerably different than the five-string banjo instruments that had been previously played. His style became so popular that it catapulted the banjo from its background music role to solo performance status. Thanks to his unique style, the banjo’s popularity also stretched across several genres of music.
For Earl Scruggs, his career in the music industry began in 1945, at twenty-one years old, as he was hired to play with the Blue Grass Boys. This groundbreaking group, led by Bill Monroe, were part of the eponym classified as bluegrass that became more than just a sub-genre of the country music scene. The popularity of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, along with Earl Scruggs, earned them a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. However, due to an exhausting tour schedule the group followed, Earl Scruggs resigned in 1946. Fellow bandmate, Lester Flatt, did the same. These two would forge their own path as artists such as Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Together, Flatt, Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys began to record and release music of their own in 1949, starting with the banjo instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The two worked together for twenty years, together releasing over fifty albums and seventy-five singles before going their separate ways as artists in 1969. It was at this time Earl Scruggs wanted to modernize his musical style while Lester Flatt wanted to stick to traditional bluegrass. Since going their own directions, neither artist achieved the same level of success as they did as a team.
Before the Fame
Earl Scruggs was the youngest of five children, raised mostly by his widowed mother on the farm as his father died from illness when he was just four years old. The entire family was musical as the mother played the pump organ while his four siblings all played banjo and guitar. Adding to the already prominent music influence to the young Earl Scruggs was a blind banjo player named Mack Woolbright that impressed him so much with his playing style that it served as a catalyst to the Scruggs Style fans know of today.
When Earl Scruggs was eleven years old, he made his first radio performance during a talent scout show. In addition to crediting Wollbright’s finger-plucking style, there was also DeWitt Jenkins. Before Earl Scruggs earned his name as a world-class entertainer, those closest to him noted the style similarities between Scruggs and Jenkins. Over time, as Scruggs perfected his craft, he also made a name for himself that ultimately led him to become one of the most beloved music entertainers of all time.
Earl Scruggs Legacy
By the end of the 1960s, Earl Scruggs grew bored with classic bluegrass and wanted to modernize his musical style. When he parted ways with Lester Flatt, it wouldn’t be for another ten years before these two men spoke to each other again. When Flatt was hospitalized, Scruggs paid him a visit, putting an end to the estrangement. Shortly afterward, Flatt died on May 11, 1979. Up to this point, Earl Scruggs had teamed up with his three sons, Randy, Gary, and Steve. along with Vassar Clements and Josh Graves to form the Earl Scruggs Revue. In 1980, Earl Scruggs retired from touring due to back problems. Two years later, the Earl Scruggs Revue disbanded. Although he retired from touring at this time, he did not retire from performing and recording music. The genius behind Earl Scruggs Revue merged traditional bluegrass performances with country
The Grammy Award achievements Earl Scruggs did earn for himself includes its Lifetime Achievement Award, along with a National Medal of Arts. He also became a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and was given a Hollywood Walk of Fame star. In 1985, he and Flatts were inducted at the same time into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addition to this recognition, Scruggs was also awarded National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States. Four of the musical works by Earl Scruggs have been placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. After hs death in 2012, the Earl Scruggs Center was erected near his birthplace of Shelby, North Carolina, serving as an educational facility.
Top 10 Earl Scruggs Songs
#10 – There Ain’t No Country Music on This Jukebox (featuring Tom T. Hall)
From Tom T. Hall’s 1982 album, Storyteller and the Banjo Man, “There Ain’t No Country Music on This Jukebox” saw he, as well as Earl Scruggs, bring forth a number seventy-seven hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Although at this point Earl Scruggs was no longer taking part in any regular concert tours anymore, he was still performing and recording music. Tom T. Hall, a fan of Scruggs, collaborated with the artist’s Scruggs Style for his twenty-first studio album, turning it into a well-favored recording by fans of both artists and their style of music. Classic country, mixed with classic bluegrass, made this song a barn-dancing favorite for many years and is still well-favored today.
#9 – Song of the South (featuring Tom T. Hall)
First recorded by Bobby Bare in 1980, “Song of the South” was a song featured on his album, Drunk & Crazy. In 1982, the team of Earl Scruggs and Tom T. Hall had their banjo-loving version peak as high as number seventy-two on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Their “Song of the South” is featured on Hall’s album, Storyteller and the Banjo Man. As a musical tale of a poor Southern family farm dealing with the hard times of the Great Depression, it revolved around picking cotton in hopes their political hero would save them from despair. As it turned out, the family lost the farm and moved into the city.
#8 – Play Me No Sad Songs
From the album, Today & Forever, “Play Me No Sad Songs” was a number eighty-two hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and a number sixty-six hit on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart in 1979. The timing of this song as it appeared on the music charts served as a tearful, bittersweet hit as Earl Scruggs ended his ten-year estrangement from long-term music partner, Lester Flatt, when he paid him a visit in the hospital the same year. Shortly afterward, Flatt died, leaving Earl Scruggs to carry on until he died in 2012.
The lyrical tale, which made reference to the 1975 B.J. Thomas classic, Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song, referenced the desire to play something cheerier instead of something sad as a means to overcome the personal blues the narrator was feeling at the time.
#7 – I Still Miss Someone (featuring Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash)
“I Still Miss Someone” was originally recorded in 1958 by Johnny Cash. In 1965, Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs covered this single with their unique musical style for their 1965 album, The Versatile Flatt & Scruggs. On the US Billboard Hot Country Charts, it peaked at number forty-five. For Johnny Cash, he was inspired to write “I Still Miss Someone” due to the banjo-playing talent of Earl Scruggs. His original version was written with his nephew, which was first performed live on his album, At Folsom Prison, then recorded in the studio. The lyrical tale focused on missing a special person in the narrator’s life that made such an impact in his life.
#6 – I Sure Could Use the Feeling
On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “I Sure Could Use the Feeling” was a number thirty hit for Earl Scruggs when it charted in 1979. The album, Today & Forever, was a 1978 recording he performed with his sons and the rest of the Earl Scruggs Revue band. In Canada, this single became a number forty-one hit on its country music chart.
It was the first of three singles to come from the album and it was the highest charted single for the artist since separating from his long-time music partner, Lester Flatt. As if fate had arranged it, Scruggs visited his old friend after the two hadn’t spoken to each other in ten years. Like the album, plus it songs, developed an even stronger meaning as brief reunion between Scruggs and Flatt ended when Flatt died the same year this single, as well as “Play Me No Sad Songs” and the re-recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky” were released.
#5 – Same Old Train (featuring various artists)
As a fan of country music, should you see “Same Old Train’ featured as a top ten favorite among the artists who originally performed this single, it is because it’s earned its place. Written by Marty Stuart, the multitude of country music talent that each contributed to the overwhelming success of this 1999 Grammy Award-winning favorite. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart it peaked as high as number fifty-nine.
Among all the contributing artists, Earl Scruggs’ banjo performance was an instrumental standout that helped make “Same Old Train” become a fan favorite, along with its 1998 album, Tribute to Tradition. Also performing with him and Marty Stuart were Alison Krauss, Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Joe Diffie, Merle Haggard, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, and Travis Tritt.
#4 – Give Me My Flowers While I’m Still Living (featuring Lester Flatt)
“Give Me My Flowers While I’m Still Living” is more than just some song recording. Perhaps that’s all it was at the time, but when Earl Scruggs handed flowers to Lester Flatt in 1979, this 1957 song became symbolic as Flatt died not long after Scruggs paid him a visit in the hospital as soon as he learned his former partner in bluegrass music was ill. The song served as a reminder how fragile life really is and how easily its taken for granted, at least until something happens that gives good reason to embrace the living while one still can.
#3 – Blue Moon of Kentucky (with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys)
In 1998, the Grammy Hall of Fame inducted “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as a single, an honor it rightfully earned. The original recording of this bluegrass waltz was in 1945 and has since become the official bluegrass song for the state of Kentucky. It joined the ranks by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry as of 2002. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart the modernized performance by Earl Scruggs became a number forty-six hit in 1980. Over the years, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” has been covered by many artists from different genres that each offered their own style to this cult classic. Monroe even changed its original style as Elvis Presley’s rock version in 1954 into a barn-burning dance favorite.
#2 – Foggy Mountain Breakdown (instrumental) (featuring Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys)
Sometimes, the best songs has nothing to do with an artist’s lyrical performance. When the performance of music with just the instruments involved are done so with brilliance, it can be just as worthy to become a cult favorite as any other. Thanks to Earl’s “Scrugg Style” when it comes to playing the banjo, he not only popularized the instrument but demonstrated how beautiful it sounds when the right talent knows how to make the most out of a non-verbal narrative that does better without words than with.
Prior to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as a released single, it was featured in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde motion picture and earned itself a 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance. In 2002, this version of the song again earned Earl Scruggs the Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy Award, along with Steve Martin playing on the second banjo.
Additional performers of the 2001 recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” were Vince Gill, Albert Lee, and Randy Scruggs on guitar, Marty Stuart on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Leon Russell on the organ, Gary Scruggs on harmonica, and Paul Shaffer on piano. This song has since become a standard in the bluegrass repertoire and was among the fifty recordings chosen in 2004 by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. When “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was released as a single, it was done so by two different labels at the time. Columbia Records and Mercury Records, each having their own version of this song, released the 1949 recording of this song in 1968. On the US Billboard Hot 100 it charted at number fifty-five while on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart it peaked at number fifty-eight. In the UK, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” peaked at number thirty-nine.
#1 – The Ballad of Jed Clampett (featuring Jerry Scoggins and Lester Flatt)
“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was the single that brought Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, along with the style of bluegrass music, into the mainstream music charts for the first time in 1962. The infamous theme song for the CBS hit sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies played at the start of the show, then at the end, from the beginning of the first season of the series until its final episode in 1971. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” is more than just a song.
The lyrics were performed by Jerry Scoggins as he told the tale of a certain farmer and his family suddenly striking it rich when oil was discovered on their land. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” peaked at number one and was a number forty-four hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was the first time in history a bluegrass recording topped any music chart. During the original run of The Beverly Hillbillies, there were special lyrics that were inserted into the beginning of the theme that featured the advertisement of the show’s sponsors, Kellogg’s cereals and Winston cigarettes.
The popularity of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” spawned many artists to come up with spoofed versions. For the 1993 movie adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies, Scruggs and Flatt teamed up with banjo virtuoso, Bela Fleck, to re-record the song.
Photo: Eric Frommer from Everett, WA, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Earl Scruggs Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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