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.
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."
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.
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
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.
up in 1969, when Flatt left the Foggy Mountain Boys due to Scruggs'
use of his sons as musicians on stage.
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
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.
faster players than Scruggs. There were louder players than Scruggs.
But he had a unique style that made him the universal master.