Earl Scruggs, the banjo playing, singing and composing great whose twanging bluegrass themes for TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies and the Bonnie and Clyde movie achieved Top of the Chart status in the ’60s, died Wednesday of natural causes at a Nashville hospital, his son Gary Scruggs told CNN. He was 88.
“It’s not just bluegrass, it’s American music,” bluegrass fan-turned-country star Dierks Bentley told the Associated Press about Scruggs’s output.
“There’s 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today’s country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don’t realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere.”
Scruggs was born in North Carolina into a family in which everyone played an instrument, and, according to his biography, he could play the banjo by the time he was 4 and started to develop his distinctive (and lifelong) three-finger style at 10.
In 1945, he partnered with Lester Flatt, and their celebrated collaboration lasted nearly 25 years. (Flatt died in 1979, 10 years after the duo retired their act together.) In 1985, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The chase music in the 1967 gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde, called “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” featuring a long solo by Scruggs, was actually first written by Flatt and Scruggs in 1949.
The Beverly Hillbillies theme, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (“Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed/A poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed …”) opened the show for every single episode of its 1962-71 run. During one story arc in the series, both Flatt and Scruggs vied for the available hand of Granny Clampett (Irene Ryan) – at least, so she thought.
Scruggs and the former Anne Louise Certain married in 1948. She died in 2006. Besides Gary, Scruggs is also survived by another son, Randy.