Mr. Five-String

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs passed away yesterday at age 88. He didn’t invent the banjo and he didn’t invent the finger-picking style of playing it. But, he did refine the style to a degree that made it his own and took its name from him, Scruggs style.

Most people probably know Scruggs from his association with Lester Flatt and their performing the theme song TV’s Beverly Hillbillies. Earlier though, Earl Scruggs had been the driving force behind Bill Monroe’s sound. I’ve heard several musicologist claim that Monroe’s bluegrass music didn’t really take shape until Earl Scruggs’s 3-finger style of picking filled out the sound and gave it a true uniqueness. 

Lester Flatt was also a part of Monroe’s band and it was there he and Scruggs met and later decided to go it alone as Flatt and Scruggs. They received national notice when their tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, became the background sound for the movie Bonnie and Clyde.

I’m pretty sure I knew about Flatt and Scruggs before the movie and the TV show. while living in Southern California in the early 1960s I was a fan of radio station KFOX out of Long Beach. Their afternoon drive-time DJ was a guy known as Carl “Squeakin’ Deacon” Moore and the Deacon was a huge fan of bluegrass and traditional mountain music. Much of what I first learned about the Carter Family, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Rogers and countless other roots music people, I learned from listening to KFOX driving home from work and school during those days.

One of the most famous venues in the LA area of the 1960s was the Troubadour in Hollywood. It was a small room seating a couple hundred people and about every time Doc Watson or Flatt and Scruggs came to town they appeared at the Troubadour and I and some friends would make the drive into the city. It was a very intimate experience almost like having these people in your own living room. Matter of fact, one of my most memorable moments was chatting with Flatt and Scruggs’s legendary Dobro player, Josh Graves, while we both stood at urinals in the men’s room at the Troubadour (Wonder if Dave Shoemaker ever got to share a urinal with Mick Jagger?).

Earl Scruggs was not a man of words. I seldom recall him speaking or singing the lyrics to a song. Usually he just stood a few feet behind Flatt, blistering his instrument’s strings, with at best a hint of a smile on his lips. His voice was in the agility and force of his picking fingers and thumb and they held all the words he needed. I don’t know what broke the duo up but it was a black day in my music world. I’m sure I owned most albums they made and could recite the words to all their songs. Bluegrass has never been the same but whatever it is today is built on the shoulders of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

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