The birth of banjo great Earl Scruggs — born 96 years ago on January 6th, 1924, in the Cleveland County community of Flint Hill, North Carolina — predated the debut of the Grand Ole Opry by less than two years, but since then the musician has become synonymous with the Opry, as well as bluegrass and country music.
In late September 1961, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, played a show at Greenville, South Carolina’s Memorial Auditorium, alongside fellow Opry stars Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, Minnie Pearl, Mother Maybelle Carter, Stringbean, and future Bluegrass Hall of Fame members Don Reno and Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups. What made this all-star show unique was that while in mid-song, Flatt and Scruggs were beamed to a national TV audience as part of the debut episode of an NBC News program called Here & Now. Hosted by veteran broadcaster Frank McGee, the magazine-style series also featured another pair of heavy hitters in its premiere: baseball icons (and budding businessmen) Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, whose record-setting exploits as New York Yankees were a highlight of the 1961 season.
Meanwhile, country music was setting its own records, enjoying a 10-year peak in popularity and “not easily ignored or forgotten,” as McGee noted in his introduction. Picking up a five-string banjo, he referred to the instrument as “the freshest sound of all.” Perhaps an ironic declaration considering the banjo had been around for centuries, but in the skilled hands of Scruggs, who was widely credited with introducing the unique three-fingered picking technique to audiences in 1945 as a new member of Bill Monroe’s band, the result was indeed a fresh take on a traditional art form. Fifteen years after joining the Blue Grass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs were among the acts that benefited from the rising popularity of folk music, and they would soon reach millions of people each week when their “Ballad of Jed Clampett” theme song for the The Beverly Hillbillies debuted in 1962.
Referring to the duo of Flatt and Scruggs as the “acknowledged kings of bluegrass” (a distinction that would no doubt have irked their former boss, Bill Monroe), McGee narrates a filmed segment that captures the musicians onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, originating from the Ryman Auditorium, and also shows the group on the road in their custom-fitted Martha White Flour tour bus. This seven-minute network TV segment spotlighted not only the touring life of Flatt, Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys, but also offered a bit of background on the music and its rich history. And midway through the band’s taped performance of their 1960 hit “Polka on a Banjo,” the scene switches live to their rendition of that same song onstage at Greenville’s Memorial Auditorium. After the song ends, Flatt offers his thoughts on what defines bluegrass music, noting “if they’re not using the five-string banjo, they’re not bluegrass.”
Meanwhile, Scruggs explains and demonstrates the three-finger picking technique and the use of two extra pegs he has mounted on the peghead to allow him to vary the pitch of the strings while playing. He then leads the band in a rousing instrumental performance before the segment returns to McGee, who notes that the music’s popularity has led to “a 300-percent increase in banjo sales in the last few years.”
Flatt and Scruggs ended the decade by going their separate ways, both musically and personally, in February 1969. Scruggs was joined by his sons, Randy and Gary, in the more progressive Earl Scruggs Revue, while Flatt continued on a more traditional path until his death in May 1979. They went an entire decade without speaking, until Scruggs visited Flatt in a Nashville hospital earlier that year.