Earl Scruggs, who popularized the three-finger banjo style and was a pioneer of bluegrass music, was celebrated with a Google Doodle on January 11, 2019.
He is a member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, which describes him as an “important figure in the birth of the bluegrass genre” who “also brought his artistry to the fields of country, folk, and rock, to college campuses, and to television and the movies.”
Scruggs was born January 6, 1924 and died on March 28, 2012.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Born in North Carolina, Earl Scruggs Started Playing Banjo at Age Four
Earl Scruggs was born and raised in an area of the country where many people played the banjo. According to his website, Earl Scruggs “was born and grew up near Shelby, North Carolina in Cleveland County. Located in the Piedmont section of the state, it is an area known for its strongholds of banjo enthusiasm.”
According to the website, Earl’s father, George Elam Scruggs, “was a farmer and a bookkeeper. He also played fiddle and banjo. Earl’s older brothers, Junie and Horace, and his two older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby, played the banjo and guitar. His mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs played the organ.”
It wasn’t surprising, then, that Earl Scruggs soon picked up the instrument. “Earl began playing the banjo at the age of four using a two finger style picking,” the website says, quoting him as saying, “The only way I could pick Junie’s banjo, or the old one my father played, was to sit on the floor with the body part of the banjo to my right and slide it around quite a bit, depending on what position on the neck I was attempting to play.”
2. Scruggs’ Three-Finger Banjo Style Became Known as the ‘Scruggs Style’
The Bluegrass Hall of Fame describes Earl Scruggs as “a mild-mannered North Carolinian from a mill town” who played the three-finger banjo “to standards of taste and technique unmatched by thousands of disciples over seven decades.” According to Brittanica, this method involves using “the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand” and was sometimes called the “Scruggs style.”
According to his website, “The area where Earl grew up spawned a number of banjo players; some played in the two finger style and some utilized the three finger style. 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.”
He was already playing professionally on the radio by age 15, the Hall of Fame site reports with his Hall of Fame induction biography. From there, he joined various groups: “Lost” John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians, and then with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.
The classic members of the latter band included Earl, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, Bill Monroe, and Howard Watts. The site reports that Earl Scruggs quickly became known at Grand Ole Opry and other performances because he played the banjo “the loudest, fastest, and smoothest anyone had ever heard.” He then segued into the Foggy Mountain Boys band, which was based in Nashville.
3. Earl Scruggs’ Son, Gary, Helped With the Google Doodle But the Family Has Seen Tragedy
According to Google, the doodle was done in partnership with Gary Scruggs, Earl’s son.
“Even though my father, Earl Scruggs, passed away before the Earl Scruggs Center opened, he was involved in its planning stages. 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,” Gary explained on the Google Doodle page.
“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.”
IMDB reports that Earl Scruggs was married to Louise, “who guided her husband’s career for more than a half century” and “was the first female to become an artist booking agent in Nashville.” The couple had three sons overall. However, according to IMDB, their son Steve, “killed his wife, Elizabeth, with a pistol, then himself on September 23, 1992.”
4. Earl Scruggs’ Music Lives on in Television Sound Tracks & Was Part of the ‘Folk Music Boom’
According to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Earl Scruggs’ music appeared on television shows like “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Bonnie and Clyde” and partnered with songwriters as prominent as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
He was with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys for the longest time, from 1948 to 1969 and then formed the Earl Scruggs Revue from 1969 to 1980 and finally entered into a solo act until his death, the Hall of Fame reports.
Scruggs’ website describes in detail how he discovered the three-finger style.
“He and his brother had been into an argument and Earl went into his room and closed the door. He was playing a tune on the banjo titled ‘Ruben,'” the website says. “He was subconsciously picking when he suddenly realized he was using three fingers rather than the usual two- the thumb, index and middle finger. He had been trying to play with three fingers and had not been able to do so. His brother said Earl came running out of the room yelling, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I can play with three fingers!'”
5. Scruggs Received Many Honors During His Lifetime
In addition to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Scruggs was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Brittanica reports.
Indeed, Flatt, Scruggs and Monroe were the Blue Grass Hall of Fame’s first inductees, Brittanica reports, and Scruggs also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.
He was known for original instrumentals such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Flint Hill Special,” and “Earl’s Breakdown.”