Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Legend, Dies
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And finally, this hour, we remember Earl Scruggs, the master of the five-string banjo, who has died at age 88. As a young man, he created his own style of fingerpicking on the banjo that would come to bear his name: Scruggs style. He got his start with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s and then teamed up with Lester Flatt as Flatt and Scruggs. And he influenced countless players over his many decades of music, among them, fellow banjo player Tony Trischka, who joins me now.
And, Tony, this has got to be a sad night for many, many players out there who have played and admired Earl Scruggs for years.
TONY TRISCHKA: It's an incredibly sad night, something that we knew was coming because he'd seemed to be in failing health over the last number of months, but still it's - you're never prepared for something like this.
BLOCK: Yeah. How would you describe what was so innovative about what Earl Scruggs did on the banjo?
TRISCHKA: Well, there's so many innovations, and we certainly don't have the time to cover them all. I interviewed him once, and he explained that what he felt he added to the banjo was syncopation, which means that you have the beat coming in different places than you expect it to come. It's almost like a jazz-like approach. He was very influenced by swing music and what he called boogie-woogie music. And so people were playing in the three-finger style before he did, but he codified it and added so much to it and created his own Scruggs style. And that's how he looked at it. He considered it Scruggs style.
BLOCK: Yeah. It's often described as a rolling style of picking on the banjo.
TRISCHKA: Right. It was just a very smooth, percussive, hugely exciting sound. And there are a lot of recordings of him on the Grand Ole Opry from the late 1940s - '46, '47, '48 - where there would be - they'd be making a bigger deal about Earl Scruggs than about Bill Monroe and his Bill Monroe's Band. They talked about Earl and that fancy banjo picking, and he would take all the solos in certain songs. So it was just a brand-new sound.
BLOCK: One of the other things that's so interesting about Earl Scruggs and also his, you know, teaming up with Lester Flatt is that they popularized bluegrass music well beyond the boundaries of the bluegrass audience, right?
TRISCHKA: Well, exactly. Probably, most people would be familiar with Earl Scruggs if they remember the Beverly Hillbillies. That was Earl Scruggs playing the banjo part on that. And there are a number of defining moments in banjo playing that has put the banjo over the top, one of which was "Bonnie and Clyde," where the car chase scenes were Earl Scruggs' 1951 recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." And apparently, Warren Beatty called Earl Scruggs to say, I want to use the 1951 version rather than the later one because the '51 version was the cool, hip one.
BLOCK: Ha. Wow.
TRISCHKA: So Warren Beatty was tuned into Earl Scruggs...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TRISCHKA: ...and then, of course, the Beverly Hillbillies.
BLOCK: That says a lot right there.
TRISCHKA: Major, major advances for the banjo.
BLOCK: Yeah. What's your favorite memory, Tony, of the time that you spent with Earl Scruggs?
TRISCHKA: I, probably - there are a number of favorite memories, but I think of - certainly, the most exciting and profound one for me was that he played on an album I recorded maybe six or seven years ago. With Earl, he was a very - somewhat retiring gentleman who had this genius, a profound genius, and here I was sitting knee to knee with him. And, well, here I am, you know, getting ready to record with Earl. And it was - I was sort of taking for granted, then I was thinking, wait, this is Earl Scruggs. This is, you know, he's had a profound effect on my life.
TRISCHKA: And so - and we played one of his tunes called "Farewell Blues." It was just, you know, I can't even put into words what that felt like.
BLOCK: Well, Tony Trischka, thank you so much for being with us tonight.
TRISCHKA: Thank you, Melissa. I really appreciate it.
BLOCK: That's Tony Trischka remembering Earl Scruggs, who died at age 88. And we're going out now with his recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FOGGY MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN")
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.