Earl Scruggs(1924-2012)

Bluegrass legend and Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs dies

By Joe DePriest
[email protected]

Earl Scruggs, who grew up in Cleveland County and left on U.S. 74 nearly 70 years ago to become a bluegrass legend, died Wednesday at age 88.

Scruggs' son Gary said his father passed away Wednesday morning at a Nashville hospital. Gary Scruggs said his father died of natural causes.

Earl Scruggs was pioneer on the five-string banjo who profoundly changed country music with Bill Monroe and later with guitarist Lester Flatt.

Scruggs used three fingers to pick the banjo, instead of the traditional clawhammer style, and elevated it from part of the rhythm section – or a comedian's prop – to a lead instrument.

His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as "the Scruggs picking style." It was perhaps most prominently displayed on the iconic theme song from "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Born on a farm near Boiling Springs, 50 miles west of Charlotte, Scruggs lived on South Washington Street in Shelby while working at the Lily Mill.

Within a few months of quitting the mill, Scruggs was a sensation on the Grand Ole Opry, rising to the top of the music world with his unique three-finger picking style that he perfected without formal training.

In the 1950s, he and partner Lester Flatt popularized bluegrass music with folk music audiences outside the South and reached an even greater audience during the 1960s.

Scruggs' masterpiece, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," was the theme song for the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" and became an American classic.

In 2002, Scruggs returned to Cleveland County for the dedication of new U.S. 74 signs declaring: "Welcome to Shelby: Home of Earl Scruggs.

Chamber Chairman John Schweppe said at the time that the honor was long overdue – the first step in trying to tap into Cleveland County's rich musical heritage.

Work is now underway in Shelby to turn the 105-year-old Cleveland County Courthouse into a regional music and performance facility: the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories of the American South.

Restoration work that began in the spring of 2010 is almost finished; the next phase is creating interpretive exhibits that focus on education and stories that explain the area's cultural history.

Scruggs gave his blessing to the project. He and his sons, Gary and Randy, made several local personal appearances in support of the center.

On Jan. 6, when Scruggs turned 88, he was the subject of a profile in the Jan. 17 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Entitled "The Master from Flint Hill, " the piece was written by Scruggs' friend, entertainer Steve Martin.

"Some nights, he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips," the article begins. "Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everybody played banjo like he did, or at least tried."

Gary Scruggs says funeral plans are incomplete. The Associated Press Meghan Cooke contributed.

Published in Charlotte Observer on Mar. 28, 2012