Earl Scruggs was my first musical hero’s first musical hero.
Best known as the foremost pioneer of modern bluegrass banjo, Scruggs died yesterday at age 88. I found out on the Radio Video Jazz website, testament to the fact that, while a primarily a bluegrass musician, Scruggs’s playing reached many audiences. His influence on the history of bluegrass banjo is comparable only to that of Charlie Parker on the alto saxophone; Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry on the guitar, Miles Davis on the trumpet, and a few select others. Even non-bluegrass fans heard his music on the theme from the TV show “Beverly Hillbillies” and recognize “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” From his Appalachian roots, Scruggs brought traditional bluegrass music to the world, while exploring new sounds himself: with his sons, he performed folk-rock music, even a little bit of jazz. By the time he died, he had recorded with Elton John, John Fogerty, Johnny Cash, Sting, Paul Shaffer (of David Letterman’s band) – and one of his biggest fans, legendary comedic actor Steve Martin.
Back to my opening comment: I am lucky in that my first musical hero happens to be my uncle, Pete Wernick. “Dr. Banjo” is noted as a member of the seminal bluegrass band Hot Rize, the progressive instrumental bluegrass group Country Cooking and currently the jazz-influenced Flexigrass. Like many pickers of his generation, Pete was deeply inspired and impacted by Scruggs. In the 1980s, he and fellow banjo player Tony Trischka wrote a book in which they profiled some of the greatest banjo players ever. Out of the 68 players they interviewed, 59 listed Scruggs as an influence. When Pete himself discovered Scruggs as a teenager, it inspired him to practice for hours on end (usually in the cold basement of his home in the Bronx, N.Y., as ordered by his sister–aka my mom).
It’s always sad to see an icon go, especially because fewer and fewer of them are still around. There was bluegrass music before Scruggs and bluegrass music after Scruggs – a statement that cannot be said about many other musicians and styles, but one with which, in this case, everyone would agree.