The great Earl Scruggs, now ten years gone

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Earl Scruggs

10 years ago, on March 28, 2012, Earl Eugene Scruggs, noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo-picking style that bears his famous name, passed away.  

The Scruggs style became a defining characteristic not just of the banjo but of bluegrass music. He propelled the banjo from its previous role as a background rhythm instrument to featured solo status and eventually he popularized the instrument across several genres. 

In the book Masters of the 5-String Banjo (Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick) his contributions are described as “monumental.” 

From Shelby, North Carolina, as a teenager Scruggs taught himself how to play using the thumb, index, and middle fingers, as opposed to the then usual two-finger style. 

In 1939 he began playing with the Morris Brothers (Zeke on mandolin; and Wiley and George on guitars), but that only lasted a few months as family economics necessitated that he worked for the Lily Mills textile mill to provide better support for his widowed mother. 

In 1945, Scruggs joined the touring band of Lost John Miller & the Allied Kentuckians, who had shows on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, and on WSM in Nashville.

In due course he joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, becoming part of what became known as the ‘classic or ‘original’ bluegrass band. They toured extensively for about two years and Scruggs featured on four of Monroe’s recording sessions. 

Subsequently, he formed a long-lasting partnership with guitarist Lester Flatt. Flatt & Scruggs was one of the most successful bluegrass bands in history, appearing in great variety of locations, including concerts, festivals, TV shows – notably including their own Martha White sponsored specials (1956-1962); and The Beverly Hillbillies – and recording for Mercury Records, but particularly for Columbia.

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Scruggs’ banjo instrumental, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, released in 1949, became an enduring hit, and it became even more popular when a younger generation saw it was featured in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The tune won the first of its two Grammy Awards in 1969; and, in 2005, was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of works of unusual merit.

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In 1969, Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a band featuring three of his sons who had already influenced a transition to a more modern sound. The band had about a dozen albums for Columbia and toured widely, played concerts with a variety of other musicians on the periphery of country/bluegrass music. 

Some 15 years after the last album by the Earl Scruggs Revue, Scruggs released Earl Scruggs And Friends, and the version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown from that album earned the another Grammy Award for the tune (2002). 

As well as having ‘solo’ recordings, Earl Scruggs shared album credits with Tom T. Hall (The Storyteller And The Banjo Man, 1982); and Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs (The Three Pickers, 2003). 

During his illustrious career Scruggs received many honors including an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Gardner-Webb College, Boiling Springs, North Carolina (in 1986); an Honorary Doctor Of Music, Berklee College Of Music, Boston, Massachusetts (2005); inductions into Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame (1984); Country Music Hall of Fame (1985); SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats (1985); and the IBMA Hall of Fame (1991).

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Other tributes include a star on the Walk of Fame, Hollywood Blvd; and the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award presented by the Academy of Country Music (2006). 

Earl Scruggs received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; to go with a grand total of four Grammy awards.

He was presented with a National Heritage Award (1989), the highest honor given by the National Endowment for the Arts to folk and traditional artists; and in 1992 he was awarded a National Medal of Arts.

This epic video filmed at the Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival, North Carolina, in 1971, sums up his innovative style and wide-ranging influence …. 

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We spoke with several banjo players around the world for their thoughts on the great man of banjo. 

Sim Daley started playing at 17 in 1985 when he purchased a copy of the Pete Seeger banjo instruction book. He learned from a couple of other important instruction books. In the early 1990s he got together with some local session musicians from Looe and formed the Wild Turkey Band. A couple years later Daley won the prestigious Edale Bluegrass Banjo championship in England.  

In January 1995 Daley moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was befriended by Curtis McPeake, and through a series of chance meetings, he became involved in instrument repair and went on to build his own mandolins. Around 2004 he and his wife, Renee Missy Radeke-Daley, formed Cages Bend (Now I’m Lonely, 2008). While in Music City he was a member of Melonie Cannon’s Tennessee Road band; filled in with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike; Kenny and Amanda Smith; and played a set on the Opry with Mike Snider. For a while he was part of the Tina Adair Band helping her to record her Born Bad album (2013) also. 

Daley returned to Cornwall, where he now has his own distillery, launched in May 2017….. 

“I first met Earl when I was mandolin division supervisor at Gibson. Earl would come in regularly as we made a line of banjos modeled after his old pre-war Granada.

He was always quiet but very approachable and it was always a nice diversion from the day-to-day manufacturing duties.

When I moved to Nashville back in 1995, you would occasionally see Earl at the petrol station in Madison gassing up his black Cadillac. If memory serves me well, I seem to recall the last time I saw him he was sitting in his car at the Madison Kroger store patiently waiting on Louise to finish their grocery shopping. Only in Nashville!

Of course, Earl was a huge influence on my early days of banjo playing. As I lived in Cornwall, there wasn’t much chance of finding bluegrass records, but my dad lived up in Rugby and occasionally would find Flatt and Scruggs records. I listened to those albums so much it got to the stage I couldn’t listen to them anymore. Fortunately, my dad also found Jimmy Martin, Stanley Brothers, and Bill Monroe records too.”

Richard Hawkins bought his first 5-string banjo in a second-hand shop in North Street, Brighton, in the summer of 1958 for £5.00. He played with the group Woodbine for nine years, retiring from that role five years ago. Since November 2005, he has been Editor of Bluegrass Ireland Blog …… 

“First and foremost, of course, there’s the exciting sound of Earl Scruggs’ banjo. This is not just a matter of number of notes per second. From the start of the first track on the Foggy Mountain Banjo album, what one’s hearing is not the repetitive noise of a machine running at high speed – it’s an exuberant musical voice, and it combines clarity, coherence, and authority with a buoyant inventiveness that sprang from delight.

Of course (again), Earl was neither the first nor the last banjo virtuoso to be capable of dazzling musical displays. What seems to me to be his unique, most widely influential, and most lasting legacy is that he created a language/ vocabulary/ phrasebook for the banjo, which could be learned by innumerable people, and applied in many different situations. And in doing this, he created in his backup playing a second voice and a secondary idiom for the instrument. I don’t know of any style of banjo playing, outside bluegrass, that has anything that corresponds to the way that Earl devised for fiddle-and-banjo duets, and I consider this an admirable achievement quite apart from everything else he did.”

World-renowned banjo picker and songwriter Tony Trischka started his career in the 1960s, playing and recording with Country Cooking and Breakfast Special during the 1970s. Since then, he has toured with the Broadway show The Robber Bridegroom, for which he was musical leader. Also, during 1978, he played with the Monroe Doctrine, and toured Japan and recorded with Peter Rowan and Richard Greene. 

In 1980s, he began his own groups, Skyline, releasing four albums, and The Big Dogs. Other groups with which he is associated are Psychograss; and The Wayfaring Strangers; as well as fronting his own Tony Trischka Band. He has a well-established spectacular solo act, over 15 individual recordings, and made innumerable TV appearances.   

Trischka has written over 15 instructional books and a series of DVDs and in July 2009 he launched the ground-breaking Online Banjo School with Tony Trischka, an interactive, online learning school that teaches students around the world how to play banjo with ArtistWorks … 

“Earl Scruggs changed musical history and allowed literally hundreds of thousands of people to experience years and years of joy playing the banjo. And would bluegrass be bluegrass without Earl? Bill Monroe had a couple of four string banjo players with him in the earlier ’40s as he was experimenting with his music, and there was Dave Akeman (Stringbean) who played with Bill from 1943-1945. Don Reno came along in 1948. But listening to those Columbia recordings and live WSM acetates from 1946-1947, nothing could compare to Earl’s supernatural timing, drive, and overall ability to set an audience on fire.  

To all of us, he gave so much, but he once told me that he felt his greatest contribution was syncopation (when a note one doesn’t expect to be accented is accented). Though a three finger forward or backward roll played back-to-back naturally creates syncopation, Earl took if far beyond that, and especially in his later years was creating all sorts of exciting rhythmic twists and turns in his playing.  

I was fortunate to have gotten friendly with Earl, and he would sometimes tell wonderful stories. For instance, while Flatt and Scruggs were filming some Beverly Hillbillies shows, Paul Henning, the creator of the show, reached out to Earl and asked if he’d be interested in playing the part of the engineer on Petticoat Junction. Earl felt that it would break up Flatt and Scruggs, so he passed. While filming the musical tribute to Earl in the early ’70s, Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends, it was discovered that Ravi Shankar would be in Nashville. Earl wanted to get together and jam with Ravi and his tabla player Alla Rakha, for the film, but a crew couldn’t be found to shoot it. Undeterred, they got together anyway and played music for a while. Oh, to be a fly on the wall! Then Earl asked Ravi what he would like for lunch and Ravi suggested Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they proceeded to sit on the floor and consume buckets freely.

Earl has left us a profound legacy that will live for countless years to come. To this day, I often transcribe solos of his, from live shows or jam sessions and almost without fail he would come up with something I never heard him play before…. a subtle lick, a roll turned inside out, or a tune he’d never officially recorded, such as Red River Valley, or Chinese Breakdown. He was an endless font.

The story goes that Grandpa Jones was backstage at the Opry and someone asked him what style he played. Grandpa said, ‘Frailing.’ At that moment, Earl walked in and he was asked the same question.  He replied, ‘Scruggs Style.’ And it was, and where would we and bluegrass be without it.”

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Robin Roller Thixton was a member of Petticoat Junction for eight years, featuring on two Pinecastle albums. She played with the Katie Penn Band; and Bull Harmon and Bull’s Eye; and is now with Ida Clare. Her tutorial Starting Bluegrass Banjo book/CD was published in 2007 …… 

“Earl Scruggs. Where to start? My father was enamored with Flatt & Scruggs. My dad started playing banjo at age 50 and he spent hours (like we all have) in front of the stereo with Flatt & Scruggs learning every Earl lick.  

When I started learning to play, he told me the only banjo player that I needed to learn from was Earl Scruggs. He came home one day and caught me with an Osborne Brothers record on trying to learn some Sonny banjo break, and he told me to take it off, I didn’t need to be learning that, I needed to learn to play like Earl. So, I did. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and have tried to draw from all of the other banjo players who have been influential, Munde, Crowe, Sonny, Béla, Stanley, Shelton, Reno, etc., but when I put on that Foggy Mountain Banjo album (with cartoon Earl holding the bowtie), that tone, the timing, the stuff he’s doing behind the other musician’s solos, his artistry….. it’s nothing but brilliant perfection.”

Toshio Watanabe is best known as a member of the Japanese band Bluegrass 45 that released three LPS on the Rebel label. In 1971 he helped to form B.O.M. Service Ltd., that publishes MoonShiner journal and manages Red Clay Records …. 

“The first time I came into contact with Earl Scruggs’ music was the 45rpm record I got in the early 1960s. It was Blueridge Cabin Home/Jimmy Brown The News Boy. Then I became to his fan. I remember that I went to a concert of Flatt & Scruggs in 1968 in Japan and talking to Earl a word or two at a party after that. At that time, I couldn’t speak English.

I didn’t have the chance to meet Earl during the 1971 Bluegrass 45 US tour.

In 1988 I was able to meet at Earl’s home through Hazel Smith when I appeared in Opry as his banjo player for The Shaggy Mountain Boys. I was able to meet many times after that.

He always welcomed me and told me a lot of stories. Especially impressive is the pursuit of new phrases, even in later years. He happily played the banjo and showed it to me. That’s Earl Scruggs!”

North Carolina bluegrass veteran Marc Pruett has worked with Jimmy Martin, the Whites, The Kingsmen, Billy Edd Wheeler, and Ricky Skaggs, as well as fronting his own band for over a decade. Since 2007 he has performed as a member of Balsam Range.

“My whole life has been positively impacted by Earl Scruggs. His banjo playing and his gentlemanly nature was a beacon of inspiration to me. I was 10 years old in 1961 when I first found his music, and I’ve spent a lifetime learning from his professional and creative examples. Earl was a hero, and he was a friend to me. I was fortunate enough to spend quality time with him on numerous occasions, and he was cordial, kind, and courteous. Earl shared ‘banjo hot licks’ with me, and I still gain inspiration from those times. When I recorded on Ricky Skaggs’ album, Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, I spent a good afternoon with Ricky and Earl in the studio. When the time came for me to play my song (Keep a Memory), I told Earl, ‘What little bit I know on the banjo, I learned from you. I hope you don’t mind if I use some of your style in what I do today.’ Earl said, ‘Why just help yourself.’ That took the edge off for me, and I had a good time hanging out with him that day.  

When I was younger, I caught Earl at some of the Flatt and Scruggs shows, and he showed me how he played Sally Goodin’, and Pike County Breakdown. Every time I step on stage, I remember that magic feeling I had listening to him, and I think to myself, if I can make even one person feel that same thing, I will have done my job.

Earl Scruggs played straight to my heart, and I felt it. When he kicked off a song, it was clear, powerful, and understandable. There are a lot of great musicians who have helped lead me through the ‘sunshine of music,’ but Earl Scruggs’ music is the pinnacle for me. His contributions to the music world will stand forever.”

Butch Robins has been playing and composing for over 50 years working in various bands, including Charlie Moore & the Dixie Partner; Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys; and Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper & the Clinch Mountain Clan, as well as becoming ‘the one and only New Grass/Blue Grass Boy.’ His tenure with Bill Monroe lasted for about four years. 

As a teenager he won major banjo contests and participated in banjo workshops at Newport Folk Festival and Carlton Haney’s Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival in Reidsville, North Carolina (both in 1969).

In addition to contributing to Bill Monroe’s Master of Bluegrass record, Robins has five solo albums and a similar number with The Bluegrass Band.  

His autobiography/memoirs What I Know ‘Bout What I Know earned strong reviews and a nomination for the IBMA’s Printed Media Personality of the Year in 2004.

An instructor at several camps, in 2013 he recorded a series of videos entitled Butch Robins Presents- Blue Grass Music, its Origin and Development as a Unique and Creative Art Form for Radford University, Radford, Virginia. 

Robins talks about the first time he saw Earl Scruggs playing live and of their first backstage encounter in the early 1960s, when Robins was just about 12 or 13 years old ….  

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Charlie Cushman’s obsession with the banjo started as early as the age of four; it was cultivated by his grandfather who surreptitiously bought him his first instrument. He was still a little boy when he had some rudimentary lessons with a local picker before resorting to the time-honored method of listening to records. As he was growing, he attended festivals and was only ten when he began performing on the Tennessee Valley Jamboree radio broadcast out of Waverly, Tennessee. Just four years later he joined the Carl Tipton Show before going on to gather experience with James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, Mel Tillis and the Statesiders; and Mike Snider. 

From 1986 to mid-1990 he was part of the Opryland USA house band. 

An in-demand session player, he has recordings with Pete Corum; Mel Tillis; Johnny Warren; Kenny Baker/Josh Graves; Tim O’Brien; Rhonda Vincent; Claire Lynch; Chris Henry; Michael Cleveland; and Merle Haggard, among others. 

Since 1974 Cushman has worked in the Nashville area where runs he own banjo-related business and since 2014 he has been a member of The Earls of Leicester, with whom he plays Scruggs style guitar as well as banjo on several Gospel songs ….. 

“Earl’s guitar style was his own, just as his banjo style was. 

Earl told me that he developed the lead guitar role for the Foggy Mountain Boys, to distinguish their sound to be different than Bill Monroe’s band. It was successful in doing that and became a trademark of the Flatt and Scruggs sound.”

Here is an example all with The Earls of Leicester … 

You Can Feel It In Your Soul 

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Born in the small town of Marton, New Zealand, BB Bowness got her first introduction to the banjo, sparking a lifelong love and fascination. Self-taught initially she became New Zealand School of Music’s first university banjo student. After heading to America in 2012 she co-founded the Boston-based group Mile Twelve…… 

“I can’t think of a single bigger influence for most banjo players that play three-finger style banjo. Earl’s playing has changed a lot of lives, mine included. I wouldn’t be living in the states and playing banjo for a living if he hadn’t paved the way with his influential banjo style. Countless banjo players have been studying for years trying to emulate his playing, yearning for just a pinch of his magic touch. I love teaching his banjo vocabulary to my students, and learn something new each time I play or teach one of his banjo tunes. Earl is the most joyful and effortless player to hear that I’m so thankful he took to the banjo and transformed it for us all!”

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Jean-Marie Redon is a French banjoist, born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, suburb of Paris. Bands with whom he has played include The Bluegrass Connection, Long Distance, Stylix, Eurograss, and Blue Railroad Train. The European bluegrass music pioneer started the FBMA in 1996

“I discovered Earl Scruggs’ music in 1967. I was in Paris on the Champs Elysées, I was walking on the big boulevard, and I heard awesome music coming from a record store: it was Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the Bonnie & Clyde theme from Arthur Penn’s movie. I was mesmerized by this sound. I entered the store and immediately bought this 45-rpm. I was hooked on the banjo for the rest of my life. 

I met Earl Scruggs on June 9th or 10th, 1973, at the Warrenton Bluegrass Folk festival. 

I was playing with the French band, Bluegrass Connection, and he was with the [Earl] Scruggs Revue, so I came up to him to ask him for a photo with him.

One little funny anecdote. A few years later, Earl Scruggs was at the Gibson booth where he was signing some posters during the IBMA event. I was on the line to get my poster signed. He asked me my name. I was struggling to spell my name in English, and hardly had I finished to do it than he had already written down my name perfectly. The most surprising was that he wrote my first name with the hyphen between Jean and Marie. Even among French people, many don’t know how to write it that way. That remains a mystery to me, up to this day.”

John McEuen, a professional performer since 1962, is a founding member and driving force within the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1966-1986 and 2001-2017). 

In an extensive career he made over 40 albums (seven solo releases) that have earned four platinum and five gold recognition awards, Grammy nominations, CMA and ACM awards, an Emmy nomination, IBMA Record Of The Year award; and performed on another 25 albums as a guest artist. 

Also, he has produced another seven albums, one of which The Crow, his collaboration with long-time friend Steve Martin, won the 2010 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy award; and 14 film scores (two Emmy nominated shows). 

In September 2017 McEuen was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame …. 

“When I asked Earl in 1970 why he came to see me, grinning, Earl replied, “I wanted to meet, the boy who played Randy Lynn Rag the way I intended to! (He was referring to his tune on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy album, the one with Mr. Bojangles on it, too.) From that ‘first’ meeting, at Vanderbilt College, our first concert in Nashville, I realized more how nice of a man Earl was. Though we had met several years earlier in 1967 San Francisco, at a Flatt & Scruggs show, I was just a ‘face in the crowd,’ trying to learn Sally Goodin. He did not remember that, but I did. He was nice then, too, showing another banjo picker the right path to the good notes in the dressing room.

Over the next six months after Nashville, I communicated by phone several times with him and Louise (his wife/manager), as the Earl Scruggs Revue was going play in Boulder, Colorado, the area I was living then… I had a plan: Ask Earl if he would record with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Asking, the last night of the gig, taking him back to the hotel again, his answer of ‘I’d be proud to!’ was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. We were going to record with Earl Scruggs!

The next week Doc Watson was at the same club (Tulagi, in Boulder), and I told Doc, who I met the first time that night, we were making an album with Earl, asking him if he would be interested in joining. His answer of, ‘Well, if Earl’s going to be there, I wanna pick, too,’ led to calling my brother, Bill (the band’s record producer/manager), from the dressing room, and putting them together on the phone, sealing the deal.

Eight weeks later, after a week of rehearsals at Earl’s house with new friends Vassar Clements (fiddle), Junior Huskey (bass), and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, we were ready. We recorded in August for six days.

I recorded my ‘dream piece’ with Earl and Junior, Soldier’s Joy; being the first banjo player to record with Earl I did not take lightly. Frailing away while he picked, we laid down – in one take – a timeless piece of music, one which I have been told over the years affected many. Then, there were a few others to do, and we dove into them.

The sessions’ stories in detail are in the new book, out this August, Will the Circle be Unbroken – 50th year anniversary. 105 session photos and 45 of early Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, most of which have not been seen before, taken by my brother, Bill. Contributions by several writers include Gary Scruggs, Earl’s oldest son, who played Uncle Charlie for Earl and Louise. He wrote a great piece of his remembrances, as well as Nitty Gritty Dirt Band members, Rodney Dillard, Marty Stuart, and several others.

Earl was a kind man, soft-spoken, and open to anyone who wanted to meet him. When I asked him, recording Carolina Traveller on my String Wizards record (1990, Vanguard), if we could do another take, his answer of, ‘I don’t reckon why .. did I make a mistake?’ Well…he had not. I just wanted to play it again. We moved on and did the next tune. 

Earl’s belief in Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was incredible, and his introductions to several essential people – and the fact that he was ‘lending’ us his credibility – amazes me to this day. Thank you, Earl Scruggs, for helping us make Will the Circle be Unbroken and always being the kind man, you were known to be. I, we, the music world, owe you a lot. You gave me a life in music.”

According to one source, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle be Unbroken triple LP set was released on April 1, 1972. 

Soldiers Joy Earl Scruggs with John McEuen …. 

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For 15 years (1995-2010), Petr Brandejs led his own group, The Petr Brandejs Band, which won the award for the best group at the prestigious pan-European EWOB festival in the Netherlands in 2001. 

Now he performs with the traditional Czech band Bluegrass Cwrkot. The three-time winner of the Czech Republic’s Banjo Player of the Year award has produced three banjo instruction books in Czech and a DVD, Czech Bluegrass Hits For The Five String Banjo. Since 1995 Petr has organized workshops and taught in Norway, Slovenia, and Slovakia….. 

“In my 40-year banjo playing experience there have been several moments when I thought, ‘Well, enough of Earl, it’s actually quite simple. Let’s learn some complicated stuff.’ Now, when I actually think that my Cripple Creek is quite good already, all I need to do is listen to Earl’s version and it’s BACK TO WORK AGAIN!”

Peter Somerville, from Melbourne, started finger-picking guitar at college when he was 19. He then heard the Ben Eldridge playing banjo on Mike Auldridge’s Dobro album (1972), leading him to learn to play the 5-string. He was a member of the award-winning band, The Rank Strangers (1987-1992) that, in 1989, played a five-week tour of the USA, culminating in a performance at the IBMA Wold of Bluegrass convention. Later he was part of the group, Uncle Bill (1996-2001), that recorded (Smoke) and toured with renowned Australian music legend Paul Kelly. He then formed his own bands, currently fronting an old-style country music band, The Burning Bridges (Close to Home), with partner Fran Martin…… 

“I started playing in the late 1970s here in Australia. I used to slow down Earl on the turntable to half speed, record to cassette, and play over and over to figure out what he was doing. I got some of it. I’ve studied lots of other players, but they all learned from directly (or indirectly through earlier players) by listening to Earl. That smooth perfection and great taste that we all strive for. Thanks Earl.”

To paraphrase Margaret Harding, writing an article for Bluegrass Unlimited (December 1988), I wonder if Earl Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry stage with the Blue Grass Boys in December 1945 ever imagined that his music would be acclaimed globally over 75 years later. 

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