Earl Scruggs, the American banjo legend who brought bluegrass to a mass audience and strummed along to a hit TV show and movie in the 1960s, has died at 88, according to his son.
As part of the famed Flatt & Scruggs duo, he helped define bluegrass music — a country genre combining “high, lonesome” vocal harmonies and the playful, jazz-like cascade of guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles.
His son Gary said he died in Nashville from natural causes on Wednesday.
He is widely credited with inventing the three-finger “Scruggs Style” of playing the banjo, an instrument that until then had mainly been used as a prop by comedians but in Scruggs’s nimble hands became a symphony in itself.
Scruggs joined pioneer Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — which formally established the genre — in 1945 and immediately dazzled audiences on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show broadcast out of Nashville.
Scruggs and Lester Flatt, who had played guitar in the Blue Grass Boys, later shot to fame with the memorable theme song of the 1960s television hit “The Beverly Hillbillies,” known as “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
Their now instantly recognizable “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” — written by Scruggs — accompanied the chase scenes in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.”
The film’s star and producer Warren Beatty had personally requested that Flatt & Scruggs do the theme music. The song became an instant hit, and the duo went on to win their first Grammy award.
More than 30 years later, filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen named the bluegrass band in their 2000 film, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” the Soggy Bottom Boys, a clear allusion to Flatt & Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Boys band.
Starting in the 1960s, Scruggs played alongside numerous music legends, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Byrds, Elton John, The Eagles’ Don Henley and John Fogerty.
He also inspired actor, writer and banjo aficionado Steve Martin, who played alongside Scruggs in 2005 on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Flatt and Scruggs — later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985 — split up in 1969. Scruggs went on to form the Earl Scruggs Revue with his two sons, who are also musicians.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born January 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, North Carolina, and began playing the banjo at the age of four following the death of his father, who also played the instrument.
He is survived by sons Gary and Randy. His wife Louise died in 2006, and his son Steve died in 1992.