Who was Earl Scruggs? Google honors American banjo legend

Credit: Michael Buckner

Credit: Michael Buckner

If you know American bluegrass music, you know Earl Scruggs.

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Today, Google's doodle team created an animated illustration in honor of the famed banjo-picking pioneer, who would have celebrated his 95th birthday on Sunday, Jan. 6. Friday marks five years since the opening of The Earl Scruggs Center in his home state of North Carolina.

Scruggs was hardly 5 years old when he picked up the banjo and eventually taught himself how to play. By age 10, he began perfecting the art of three-finger plucking on a five-string banjo, a technique that would go on to become globally recognized as Scruggs-Style-picking and ultimately “changed the sound of American roots music.”

According to his official website, “this banjo picking style originated around a small area where Earl grew up and was not heard in any other part of the country except in that general region of North Carolina."

At age 21, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys band, which birthed the term "bluegrass music," according to Google's blog. But it wasn't until he began working closely with guitarist Lester Flatt in 1948, who left Monroe's band and took Scruggs with him, that the duo launched the Foggy Mountain Boys.

The Foggy Mountain Boys would perform together until an acrimonious split in early 1969, but the music they created earned them fans all over the country, not to mention membership to the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music stage concert in Nashville that attracts hundreds of thousands of country fans from around the world.

The band’s televised "Flatt & Scruggs Grand Ole Opry" show, which premiered in 1955, “gained a new wave of popularity during the folk music revival.”

"Each episode featured top-notch music, comedy bits and occasional guest appearances by artists like Maybelle Carter and Hylo Brown," the Tennessean reported in 2017. "After the television program went off the air, it was believed that no copies of the show had survived. But in 1989, two dozen 30-minute episodes were found on 16 mm film in advertising executive Bill Graham's garage."

When the duo split, Flatt went on, this time with sons Gary and Randy, whom he had with wife Louise, to perform as the Earl Scruggs Revue, a pioneering band in merging country and bluegrass sounds with elements from rock music, according to Google’s doodle blog. He later put together his Family & Friends band.

Scruggs played into his later years. His talent and unique Scruggs-Style picking eventually earned him four Grammy Awards, National Medal of the Arts, the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a coveted spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

You may have heard Scruggs’ music while watching “The Beverly Hillbillies” or on the soundtrack to the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Scruggs died of natural causes on March 28, 2012. He was 88.

"Even though my father, Earl Scruggs, passed away before the Earl Scruggs Center opened, he was involved in its planning stages," his son Gary wrote for the Google blog. "It was important for him that the Earl Scruggs Center would serve as more than a museum displaying interesting artifacts and memorabilia, but as an educational facility as well. I very much admired the fact that my Dad was not only a world-class musician, but was also willing and eager to teach his musical skills to anyone asking his advice. His banjo instruction book, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo, is a testimony to his willingness to share his musical 'secrets' with the world. And there's no doubt, he would be very proud that the Earl Scruggs Center offers educational programs and learning experiences to people of all ages."

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