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Bluegrass Legend and Banjo Player Earl Scruggs, 88, Dies

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs playing the Stagecoach Music Festival in 2009. Earl Scruggs playing the Stagecoach Music Festival in 2009. (Paul Butterfield/Getty Images Entertainment)

Earl Scruggs is a huge figure in the American music pantheon. That he helped create modern country music, that he influenced generations of musicians with his three-finger pick and roll style of playing the banjo, that he brought the songs of Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn into the country-bluegrass fold — all of that is true, but it is only part of what he was able to create.

I was a teenager in the mid-'70s — somewhere between the Monkees and The Doors in my musical tastes and ripe for something new. My high school English teacher, Mr. Fili, was a musician. He played guitar and banjo. One day, instead of insisting I read yet another book of poetry or philosophy, he played a record for me. It was a greatest hits collection of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Once I listened a couple of times, I began to hear the connection between the Celtic flirtations of Led Zeppelin's "Ballad of Evermore" and Fairport Convention's take on British folk -- and their American cousin, bluegrass, as played by Earl Scruggs. His playing was ferociously fast -- the notes clear and pure, unlike anything I had ever heard before. I had to know more about this music and the man who played it.

As it turns out, Earl Scruggs was a star who didn't shy away from controversy. He was among the first and only country artists who openly protested the Vietnam War, playing before thousands of people at a Washington DC demonstration in 1971.

Scruggs was a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show," which went a long way to bringing the banjo from the back of the band to the front of the stage.

He didn't limit his repertoire to country and bluegrass. He embraced jazz and rock and toured with his sons in a band that was plugged in -- to both electricity and to new artists. The Earl Scruggs Revue played songs by Bob Dylan, Mike Nesmith and even Shel Silverstein. His work with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the classic collection Will The Circle Be Unbroken tied together several generations of American musicians and paved the way for recordings like the soundtrack to the film "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," which sold five million copies.

Some may only know Earl Scruggs for his work with guitarist Lester Flatt on the theme to television show "The Beverly Hillbillies" or on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde," but his legacy stretches back beyond recordings, to a time and place in America where the oral tradition was king and playing music was how your story was told.

Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at a hospital in Nashville. He was 88 years old.

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