Like many weaned on bluegrass music, I grew up with the music and magic of Earl Scruggs.
From the days with Lester Flatt to his later tours with his sons, Scruggs turned plucking the banjo into an art form. As a teenager, I saw Flatt & Scruggs in Roanoke but got to meet and interview the master many years later when the Earl Scruggs Revue played the Mississippi River Festival at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville across the river from St. Louis.
When I mentioned growing up in Floyd County, Virginia, Scruggs talked about the time he and Lester played on stage at the movie theater in Floyd and remembered “sampling some of the local shine out back” after the show.
“Those were the days,” he said.
The nation would discover Earl’s talents when Flatt & Scruggs played the theme music for “The Beverly Hillbillys” TV show and again a few years later with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the soundtrack for the movie “Bonnie & Clyde.”
But on that night backstage in Illinois, Scruggs talked more about riding the backroads of the South with he and Lester and the boys for a string of one-night stands at movie theaters, VFW halls and high school auditoriums.
“We didn’t make much money but we sure had a lot of fun,” he said.
Scruggs influenced more than one generation of banjo pickers. Even comedian Steve Martin, a banjo picker in his own right, idolized Scruggs and played on one of the master’s final albums.
“Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like him,” Martin wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”
Earl Scruggs died Wednesday. He was 88.