If Bill Monroe was the architect of bluegrass music, the banjo player Earl Scruggs, who has died aged 88, was his chief construction worker. Scruggs, who played with Monroe for three momentous years in the late 1940s, devised a picking method in which the thumb and three fingers of the right hand led a breathtaking dance, its leaps and rolls transforming the sound of the rural stringband into an intricately engineered high-performance music. Critics would call him the Segovia of the five-string banjo, the Paganini of bluegrass.
In 1945, he joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, not long after the singer and guitarist Lester Flatt. This was the lineup that shaped the music, and its broadcasts and recordings inspired a generation. “It was hard work,” Scruggs remembered. “We played in rain, we played in snow, we played where the power would go off and we would have to play by lantern light with no sound. We had two bad wrecks, but nobody got hurt. The way we had to drive to make dates, it’s a wonder we weren’t killed. But we made it, and it toughened you up.”
In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs set out on their own, jointly leading the Foggy Mountain Boys (hence the Soggy Bottom Boys of the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). “At the time,” Scruggs noted, “our type of music was more or less limited to the south. And the people up in the New England states and some of the northern states started talking about the ‘new’ sound of Flatt and Scruggs – and we’d been playing it for years.” The group made sparkling recordings such as Flint Hill Special, named after Scruggs’s home town; Randy Lynn Rag, for his eldest son; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, used in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and winner of a Grammy; and The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme tune of the popular TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and a No 1 on the country chart in 1962.