Earl Scruggs: A Lifetime With The Banjo : The Record The iconic banjo player, who played with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, developed a picking technique which defined the sound of bluegrass music. His "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" won two Grammy awards and made the banjo bluegrass' star instrument.
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Bluegrass Legend Earl Scruggs Has Died

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Bluegrass Legend Earl Scruggs Has Died

Bluegrass Legend Earl Scruggs Has Died

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And at the age of 88, banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs also passed away yesterday in Nashville. Scruggs first became famous in the 1940s as a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, where he helped define the bluegrass style of music. He came up with a three finger picking technique that revolutionized banjo playing to the point it was given his name - Scruggs style. NPR's Sami Yenigun has this story of the passing of a man who was an influence on nearly every major banjo player who followed him.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Before Earl Scruggs, there were a few ways to play the banjo. There was strumming down across the strings, called frailing. There was picking the strings with your thumb and fingers. Kind of like a classical guitarist might play. But Earl Scruggs came up with a different twist.

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YENIGUN: Scruggs started playing the banjo when he was four. His father had just died and the instrument became his outlet on the North Carolina farm where he grew up. He started out using his thumb and index finger, but he always wanted to poke his middle finger into the mix. One day after an argument with his brother, he got it. In a 2000 NPR interview, the late bluegrass musician John Hartford said the added finger allowed Scruggs to play syncopated progressions, or rolls.

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YENIGUN: Earl Scruggs kept that style to himself for more than 10 years. While working at a textile mill in Flint Hill, North Carolina, one of his co-workers suggested that his talent could be a ticket out of the mill, as Scruggs told NPR in 2000.

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YENIGUN: Soon after, Scruggs met up with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in Nashville. The band was playing the Grand Ole Opry when Scruggs went to audition. Monroe offered him the job on the spot.

In 2008, Scruggs told WHYY's FRESH AIR it was the best gig he'd ever had.

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YENIGUN: But Scruggs only stayed with Monroe for three years. In 1948, he and lead singer Lester Flatt started their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1962, they got their big break, when they provided the instrumental backup to the theme song of "The Beverly Hillbillies" TV show.

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YENIGUN: The song shot to the top of the country charts and Flatt and Scruggs followed it with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which won them a Grammy and got picked up as the theme for the movie "Bonnie and Clyde."

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YENIGUN: Scruggs left the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1969, but by then he'd already secured a place in American music history, becoming the model for every banjo player that followed him, as Ricky Skaggs explained to NPR in 2003.

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YENIGUN: Family was important to Earl Scruggs. His wife was his manager. And at the end of his life, home, it seemed, was the place he enjoyed playing most, hosting jam sessions at his Nashville house.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

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