Remembering Earl Scruggs: A word about the banjo
by Kim Ruehl, for folkalley.com
Q: How many banjo pickers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: 100. One to screw the lightbulb in, and 99 to complain it’s electric.
Everyone knows a good banjo joke. There’s a reason for that. The banjo can be a pain in the neck. It’s hard to keep the darn thing in tune. That fifth string – the high drone – can be grating to listen to if it’s not employed correctly. The whole setup requires delicate balance.
A good banjo player is a master of restraint. No matter how lightning-fast they can deliver those Scruggs-style three-finger picking rolls, you better believe, if it doesn’t sound awful, they’re holding back more than they’re unleashing.
The strings resonate so hard and naturally against the skin on the instrument’s body, you can easily turn a banjo into a tool of dissonant ire. To make the thing musical, well, that takes darn near genius.
Earl Scruggs made his instrument sing. He developed a picking style so aurally attractive, hardly a banjoist since hasn’t at least tried to emulate it. Some have done a darn good job. Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) picks a good banjo; Bela Fleck has his way; one mustn’t forget the great Tony Trischka, nor underestimate Steve Martin. In fact, Scruggs’ influence on the banjo has been so remarkable, those wishing to break the mold and innovate its sound in new directions are dialing it back to clawhammer style these days (Abigail Washburn comes most readily to mind).
But, I doubt even the clawhammer folks would hesitate to call Scruggs a major influence, even though they’ve chosen a path away from his definitive style.
Borne of the trailblazing troupe Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Earl Scruggs spun off that band with his buddy Lester Flatt before long. Together, Flatt & Scruggs became a benchmark of the bluegrass revolution. Their guitar-and-banjo breakdowns have influenced generations of instrumentalists.
Through it all, Scruggs seemed happy to join any band. He lent his skills to the peace effort, playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Washington, DC, at a concert aimed at ending the Viet Nam War. He collaborated with everyone from Johnny Cash to Elton John and released somewhere around 30 albums in his lifetime. He earned a Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted to just about every Hall of Fame and Honor in Nashville and was given the National Medal of Arts.
Not too shabby for a banjo picker. Indeed, Earl Scruggs proved the banjo can be taken seriously after all. Without a doubt, his physical presence will be missed in this world, but the music he made will never die.
Rest in peace, Earl.