90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
The Life And Music Of Earl Scruggs

We’ll look at the life and music of bluegrass pioneer and banjo great Earl Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs, a pioneering banjo player and bluegrass icon, died Wednesday. (AP)

Earl Scruggs, a pioneering banjo player and bluegrass icon, died Wednesday. (AP)

Bluegrass pioneer and banjo great Earl Scruggs has died in Nashville at 88.  Earl Scruggs took the humble five-string banjo out of the rhythm section and gave it a thrilling voice.  Made it a solo star at the front of the bluegrass band.

He was there with Bill Monroe.  There with the Foggy Mountain Boys.  There when country music met rock and politics.  He was to the five-string banjo, it’s been said, what Paganini was to the violin.

This hour, On Point:  the life and music of the late, great Earl Scruggs.

-Tom Ashbrook


Peter Cooper, senior music writer for the Daily Tennessean and a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter. You can read his Earl Scruggs obituary here.

Tony Trischka, one of the world’s top banjo players, he played with Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck and actor/musician Steve Martin on the album Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.

Ron Stewart, a celebrated banjo player, he was named the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Awards Banjo Player of the Year.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced generations of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music with his guitar-playing partner, Lester Flatt, died on Wednesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 88.”

USA Today “A quietly affable presence, Scruggs popularized a complex, three-fingered style of playing banjo that transformed the instrument, inspired nearly every banjo player who followed him and became a central element in what is now known as bluegrass music.”

Entertainment Weekly “Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital.”

Video: Earl Scruggs and Steve Martin

Check out this preformance with Scruggs jamming actor and noted banjo player, Steve Martin.

Video: Earl Scruggs: Lonesome Road Blues

Check out this vintage video of Scruggs playing Lonesome Road Blues.

Video: Earl Scruggs and Béla Fleck

Here’s a video of Scruggs playing his song Salty Dog with banjo great Bela Fleck.

Video: Scruggs Picking

This musical documentary focuses on three “finger picking” musicians, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Drew You Too

    Sorry to hear about his passing, my condolences to his family, friends, and fans. Please bring back the Woody Guthrie story at some point in the future.

    • Gregg

      I think someone must have figured out his 100th birthday wasn’t until July.

      • Drew You Too

        Possibly, I think it’s probably more likely that his (Earl Scruggs) passing generated the change. On Point is impressive about being on the ball with their topics. This will be a great show too but I was really looking forward to the Woody Guthrie story, hopefully they’ll bring it back in the near future.

        • Gregg

          It went right over my head, I hadn’t heard the news. Indeed sad, my condolences to his family.

  • Gregg

    That was some all-star performance. I saw Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas and was that Albert Lee? I love bluegrass but as a piano player there isn’t much call for my instrument. Schaffer did a nice job.

    • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

      I think that is Lee although I’m not absolutely sure. Looks like the same person who was in the Concert for George… name escapes me.

      • Anonymous

        Someone posted the lineup on the You Tube page.


        Earl Scruggs & Steve Martin – Banjos Vince Gill & Albert Lee – Electric Guitars Marty Stewart – Mandolin Glen Duncan – Fiddle Randy Scruggs – Acoustic Guitar Gary Scruggs – Harmonica Paul Shaffer – Piano Jerry Douglas - Dobro Leon Russell – Organ Glenn Wolf – Bass Harry Stinson – Drums

        I didn’t see Leon Russell, though.

        Letterman consistently has good and legendary musicians on the program.

        • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

          Thanks, I’d seen the video before but never caught the caption.

        • Gregg


    • Brett

      I, personally, think piano (as well as other instruments, such as drums) fit well with Bluegrass…of course, then there are the strict traditionalists who reject any Bluegrass that isn’t played exactly like Bill Monroe would have played it. Those types will look down on an electric bass player. 

      • Gregg

        I don’t know what to think about it. I respect the traditions but…

        When Merlefest first started they were very much in that boat. Bela Fleck played there early on and many thought it was blasphemy. It took a few years before he came back. Last year the Doobie Brothers headlined, so they’ve come a long way.

        A drummer I used to play with (Bryon Larrance) got a gig with John Cowen (New Grass Revival). It was the first time Cowen took a drummer on the road. The Cowen blogosphere was not happy but Bryon’s a great guy and huge talent. He soon won everybody over. To bring it full circle, the Cowen gig ended for Bryon when the Doobie’s bass player had a stroke. They called Cowen who is now a Doobie. I suspect that was how they ended up at Merlefest.

        I should also add, given the topic, I saw Earl Scruggs at Merlefest 4 or 5 years ago and he hadn’t lost a step. He was great and I felt a certain honor just being there.

        • Brett

          I’d love to play drums in a new grass band. I enjoy using brushes a lot, and modern bluegrass has a lot of percussive elements that would make it interesting.   

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Applaud the innovators, then reject your possible innovation?  WHY??  TRY IT!!

      • Gregg

        Don’t get me wrong, I jam with bluegrass players any chance I get but those are few. When I do I’m playing parts that are usually not in the songs. That’s fine and fun. I’ll tell you a story.

        Every other Thursday there is a standing bluegrass jam in my area. It’s been going on for years and they are all seasoned geezers (like me). I met the man (fiddle player) that got it all started because he owns land near mine. We had a great conversation one day when we both realized we played. He told me about the jam and I eagerly tried to get in on it. He asked what instrument I played and I said piano. His expression changed and he asked if I could play any stringed instruments. I said no and was politely disinvited. I have a hard time being offended because I understand the tradition. Still sucks.

  • Gregg

    Great videos! I love Bela and he is probably the Earl Scruggs of this era. Doc Watson lives just a few miles from me and is a legend in these parts.

    • Brett

      I’ll bet money you’ve played Merlefest, haven’t you? 

      …I’ve learned a lot about finger and flat picking from watching Doc.

      • Gregg

        I wish I could say I have but no. My friend Melissa has. I am 14 miles away from Wilkesboro and have been to many a Merlefest. The last time I was there Alison Krauss headlined. Awesome. 

        I was working in a studio (construction not recording) in the mid 80′s and Merle was producing an album for the Smith sisters. I was playing the piano one day and Merle came in and jammed with me for a half hour or so. I think I underwhelmed him but he was gracious and a hell of a finger picker. That was cool.

        One of my very close friends has a flea market in Deep Gap, NC. Doc used to come in a few times every summer and sit around with friends and play. His voice is incredible, obviously his playing is too. I never got to jam with him though. Kevin (my friend) has the mandolin that was on the cover of Doc’s first record. It still has the same penny under the bridge and the same clothesline strap. He’s saving it to pass on to his kids.

        • Brett

          …so many good stories come out of the many degrees of separation among musicians. Thanks, Gregg, for sharing a couple.

          • Gregg

            You’re welcome. It beats arguing about politics.

          • Terry Tree Tree

            It shows each of us that we share some common ground.

    • Anonymous

      Gregg, on Bela, we agree. Saw him during his tour with  the Africa project and going to see and hear him with the original Flecktones on Sunday.  He definitely takes the banjo places no one else can even imagine. I know from your prior comments that you are a musician and, as a guitar player myself, find making music with my friends an unfailing refuge from the worries and conflicts of the rest of the world. 

      • Gregg

        It’s kinda cool all of us getting along like this. Yea, Bela is special. So are all of them. Victor Wooten… OMG! When you say “original Flecktones” am I to understand Howard Levey is back? I’ve seen that line up a couple of times and the 3 piece version once. I even saw Bela with Bassist Edgar Meyer and they did all classical music. It was very interesting.

        Have a great time Sunday and if you take a notion tell us about it. 

        • Anonymous

          I’ll send you my “review” after Sunday.   

        • Brett

          Edgar Meyer is an interesting musician. A friend of mine, Billy Cardine (The Biscuit Burners, The BillySea, etc.) played with him at Carnegie Hall a few years back. Meyer’s CD with Russ Barenberg and Jerry Douglas, ‘Skip, Hop and Wobble,’ is one of the better instrumental acoustic CD’s of the last decade. 

      • Gregg

        I just checked the website and answered my own question, Howard’s back. You must be in Nebraska as that is where he’s playing Sunday. It’s funny, Brett and I were talking about Merlefest and it turns out the Flecktones are there this year. I hadn’t really thought about going but now it’s on! Thanks for the heads up.

  • Anonymous

    Damn! That’s the saddest news i’ve heard in a while. Thanks for the program.

  • Brett

    The Grand Ole Opry shows, on both radio and television brought music to so many people…

  • Brett

    The thing about people like Scruggs (and of course Bill Monroe) is that they were innovators. Many older, traditional Bluegrass fans may not want to think of there being two Bill Monroe’s: the early one who was an innovator who fused mountain, old time music with blues, country, western swing, folk, and jazz, and then there was the later Monroe, who worked very hard to preserve the music he’d created. I think of Earl Scruggs as the same way.   

    • Brett

      By same way, I meant an innovator. 

  • Scott

    This is very sad news, but old Earl had a good run.

    When I was a kid I taught myself to play a couple of instruments, but I could never quite get the hang of the banjo. “Sandy River Belle” was always sandy river blah. Then I got a copy of “Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo,” and soon, with some practice, even though I still was terrible, it was a much higher-quality terrible.

    Mr. Scruggs, my parents have never forgiven you for that book, and all the encouragement it gave me, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

    • Scott B, Jamestown NY

       Being a guitar player  I hear ya! Maybe players will listen to things by the masters and just wonder “How the hell does he do that?” and just mangle it. The good ones take encouragement from it.

  • John in Vermont

    If you get a chance go see the documentary “Give Me The Banjo” (it will be on PBS sometime this year).  It has great profiles of the two people who most popularized the banjo – Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. Tony Trishka, Bela Fleck and Steve Martin (the narrator) are in it too.

  • Anonymous

    If you’re not already familiar with them, bluegrass fans should check out the Punch Brothers. Younger guys carrying on the tradition. Just came on my radar screen last year.


    • Brett

      Oh, yeah, Chris Thile on mandolin…and Chris Eldridge is playing guitar. He’s from my hometown; I’ve been watching him play since he was a kid. Chris Eldridge is a monster on guitar. He’s also the son of Ben Eldridge of The Seldom Scene

  • Jens Koch

    Listening from here in Sweden. Earl reached me as a 12 year old when I found an old F&S record. He changed not only my life but many others. Thanks for the show. Jens Koch

  • Jens Koch

    Earl will be greatly missed but he left such a legacy and he will live on with everybody that were touched by his music.

  • John in Vermont

    The way Earl played reminded me of the way Stephane Grappelli played the violin.  There was this cascade of notes and you would look at the player and he was smiling and making small motions.  They made great music with a modicum of motion – making it all look just too easy.  Watch the Letterman video above and compare Earl’s playing with Steve Martin and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Anonymous

    This was talent. It clearly illustrates how dumbed down our appreciation of music has become with crap like “American Idol,” “The X-Factor,” and “America’s got Talent.”

    • Scott B, Jamestown NY

      I agree 110%!  It’s always some singer or dance troupe that wins.   The one AGT I caught had a kid about 12yo that WAILED some blues rock and didn’t make it far, which I thought was a damn shame. 

      Any producers want to start a new show? I have some great ideas!

  • Drew You Too

    Reversed the charges, now THAT’S a true American. Thank you so much for that story caller.

    • Scott B, Jamestown NY

       That probably wasn’t the only person he did that for, too.  Which says volumes about the man. 

      I see so much music printed that’s not transcribed by the artists, left to transcribers or people to figure it out on their own.  Would that every artist would sit down and show them how it’s done for their songbooks. 

  • Marcos

    I’m really enjoying listening to your show at my shop, but I wish I could be seeing it, also.  Of course, then it would take away from my work…so I guess it’s “just as well”.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    How does Scruggs’s style differ from someone like Barney McKenna of the Dubliners?

    • Brett

      I don’t consider myself any authority on banjo, but from what I’ve heard of each (McKenna and Scruggs) I’d say there is a vast difference in approach or “attack,” if you will. 

      For one, Scruggs uses finger and thumb picks on his right hand and plays in a syncopated rhythm. Instead of using a cross-picking method (as would, say, a guitar player or mandolin player), Scruggs would roll his thumb, index and middle fingers in a pattern across the strings, making his movements more economical, enabling speed or tempo changes with ease. Scruggs also uses a five string banjo.

      McKenna, on the other hand, uses a four string banjo and picks the thing the way a guitar player would pick the guitar. He holds a pick between his thumb and index finger, and he “cross picks” instead doing finger rolls. 

      Also, while some of the origins of bluegrass come from across the sea, the rhythms between that style and Irish folk music are quite different. 

      …I don’t know, those are some differences which came to mind.    

    • Porter Claxton

      I play both traditional Irish tenor banjo and Scruggs style bluegrass banjo and have performed on stage, radio and TV in both types of bands. I have also recorded on both instruments.

      Irish tenor banjo is quite different from Scruggs style, literally a world apart. The comments before mine lay out most of the differences nicely; I would add a couple of things though. Irish music uses 9/8 time as well as 3/4, 2/4 and 4/4 times. The ornamentation is also vastly different in that they play “grace notes”, multiple triplets, slides, hammers plus pull-offs - and vary the tune using these techniques. While doing this they still follow the melody much more closely than Scruggs. The pick does not “cross pick” like Jesse McReynolds, but merely plucks back and forth; down on the down-beat and up on the off-beat like flatpick guitar (bluegrass “crosspicking” could actually be considered an arpeggio – not the same as the flatpick style used in Irish music).

      Scruggs style also uses pull-offs, hammer-ons and slides but few triplets or grace notes. He would change his break each time through with different “roll patterns”, “fill in licks”, or by playing on a different part of the neck (“up the neck”) and even varying the melody to a much greater degree. In addition, Earl would use a lot of syncopations in his playing.

      The 5th string (which a tenor banjo doesn’t have) is more of a “drone string” and is seldom fretted in Scruggs Style banjo; it is part of the open G tuning of a 5 string (GDGBD). A tenor banjo is tuned like a fiddle (GDAE) and is discordant when strummed. Open tunings allow for a lot more notes to be struck without being fretted. Thus only partial cords are fingered much of the time, making it easier to improvise and allowing a lot more freedom to improvise.

      Hope this helped.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         It does some.  My formal musical education was limited to the dreaded piano lessons as a child, so what I’ve learned since then has been in dribs and drabs.  Thanks for the help.

  • Rik

    My banjo is crying as
    another banjo hero is gone . The passing of Earl Scruggs marks the end
    of an era. I am thankful that at the age of 15, that Earl’s Music
    floated into my head and showed me the way to a new life with a banjo on
    my knee. R.I.P. Earl may you join all your friends in heaven . I am
    sure they have a chair for you at the next grand jamboree in the sky .

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    As a rock [bad] guitar player, with an ear for blues and country, I have a feeling that there’s going to be a whole lot of illegal downloading (shhhhhh…) today for Earl Skruggs tunes. 

    I will also admit that I have a whole new appreciation for Mr. Skruggs!   His openess to ideas, music, politics… His humbleness, his desire to perform and bring his music to others and others into his, and give the somewhat fairly stereotyped country music scene a polite middle finger now and then is to be at least smiled at, if not admired.

    I wonder what a banjo would sound like through my Marshall amp and a wah-pedal?…. Gotta go find out! 

    Rock on, Earl! Jimi’s waitin’ on ya!

    • Bob Catlin

      Mr Scruggs’ intentions were never to give the country scene the finger – or anyone else for that matter. He simply liked to experiment, but in his last years he went totally back the stereotyped country music you seem to abhor. People with open minds, like Mr. Scruggs, don’t think like you.

  • Zach Hutchins


    If you turn to page A16 of today’s New York Times, you’ll see a photo of protest materials outside the US Supreme Court. Most notably, there’s a rattlesnake banner (the Gadsden Flag)–the same symbol used at Tea Party rallies and Occupy Wall Street protests over the past year. The rattlesnake has become a ubiquitous symbol of protest, but very few are aware of its history as a cultural symbol–much less the fact that it was originally used by Native Americans to protest English colonization in the 1620s! My research on the subject just appeared in the journal Early American Studies, and there are some great stories about what rattlesnakes have meant and how that meaning has been fought over during the past centuries/decades. I think a show on the topic would be very well received (and perhaps might be done in conjunction with someone from the American International Rattlesnake Museum). Please let me know if you’re interested, and I can send you a pdf of the article. 


    • Anonymous

      Nice post, but wrong comment section.

    • http://whilewestillhavetime.blogspot.com/ John Hamilton

      One can only wonder how the death of Earl Scruggs inspired this comment. It must have been the way his fingers struck the strings, or maybe the way his left hand slithered up and down the banjo neck. Or, it could have been the banjo sound, which, as we all know, is just like the sound of a rattlesnake rattle.

  • http://whilewestillhavetime.blogspot.com/ John Hamilton

    The best concert I ever went to was the Earl Scruggs Revue. It was in January or so, 1975. It was a smokin’ hot concert from start to finish. The crowd was so fired up that he did three encores. I still remember what he said before the last encore: “I want to thank y’all for the way you’ve received us. We’ve never been treated so well.” 

    There are things in our lives we all wish we could do over or do again. That concert is one of those things that if I could see again it would cover almost all the others. Suffice it to say that many lives have been brightened by the life of Earl Scruggs. Mine has been one of them.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    EXCELLENT COMMENTS!!!   I missed the program, but had heard the news about losing a HUGE talent that I have enjoyed ALL my life.
        You musicians need to respect and remember that Earl Scruggs was a MAJOR innovator, and follow suit, as best you can.  If he had kept with the traditional, would we have heard of him?
       I LOVE traditional music, and original artists (at least the first that I hear do a song), but can appreciate other versions, and innovations. 
       Earl played for over 8 DECADES!  How many can equal that record?  How many have truly changed their genre, with a positive innovation?  Both?  I will soon BUY some more Earl Scruggs music!

  • Feralann

    I love Earl, but I looked forward all day to what you might do for Adrienne Rich!  Wrong choice for this listener.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1569503531 Diane Sanabria

    I make my living playing and teaching music.  My main instrument is the banjo.  My first banjo instruction book was written by Earl Scruggs. 
    He is not gone.  His music, like real love, is timeless, forever.
    Earl Scruggs shines on – like the moon and the sun and the stars…

  • Pingback: George Jones Hospitalized; Kenny Rogers is Hall of Fame’s Artist-in-Residence; New Albums From Alejandro Escovedo and Kenny Chesney in June - Engine 145

  • Slipstream

    Hey OP, I cant get this, or other shows, to play.  I have tried using both Chrome and Firefox.  Are there some technical problems going on?  I’ll try again later on.

Sep 18, 2014
Flickr/Steve Rhodes

After a summer of deadly clashes between Gaza and Israel, we talk to Jews on the left and right about the future of liberal Zionism. Some say it’s over.

Sep 18, 2014

Billionaires. We’ll look at the super super rich, and their global shaping of our world.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Talking Through The Issue Of Corporal Punishment For Kids
Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014

On Point dove into the debate over corporal punishment on Wednesday — as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson faces charges in Texas after he allegedly hit his four-year-old son with a switch.

More »
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

More »
Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

More »
1 Comment