“Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has, putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins and Jimi Hendrix.”
Those words, penned by actor, comedian, author and banjo player Steve Martin, appeared in a New Yorker tribute following the 2012 death of legendary picker and Country Music Hall of Fame member Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized the three-finger style of banjo playing that now most commonly is referred to by his surname. Scruggs, who would have turned 95 years old on January 6th, is being celebrated today as Google’s homepage pays homage with a colorful “Google Doodle” featuring an animated depiction of the North Carolina native’s lightning-fast digits plucking banjo strings. As seen in Thursday’s Rolling Stone Country Flashback featuring Scruggs and his sons performing with the Byrds on a 1971 PBS special, the former partner of fellow music icon Lester Flatt inspired generations of younger artists both in and outside the bluegrass community. Here are five of his most memorable performances.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on Late Show With David Letterman (2001)
In the fall of 2001, Scruggs once again gathered an impressive array of his musical comrades for the Grammy-winning Earl Scruggs and Friends. Among those joining him in a dazzling, frenetic performance of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the Late Show With David Letterman are Steve Martin, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Marty Stuart and Earl’s sons Gary and Randy Scruggs.
“East Virginia Blues” (1971)
Opening the 1971 PBS film, which also featured appearances from Joan Baez, Bill Monroe and Charlie Daniels, was this performance of the traditional folk tune “East Virginia Blues,” with Bob Dylan on vocals and guitar, accompanied by Scruggs’ banjo. They followed this with the instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag,” from Dylan’s 1969 Nashville Skyline album.
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“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (1966)
Flatt & Scruggs were among the acts to benefit from the popularity of folk and bluegrass music on university campuses in the late Fifties and early Sixties, but nothing could beat the power of a highly-rated TV series. In the early Sixties, few programs were more popular than The Beverly Hillbillies. Flatt & Scruggs performed the banjo-heavy instrumental portion of the popular theme tune (a Number One country record) and appeared on the show several times throughout its nine seasons.
“Soldier’s Joy” (1983)
Throughout its long history, Hee Haw spotlighted country music’s finest musicians, but this 1983 performance is beyond stellar with Scruggs on banjo, joined by Marty Stuart on mandolin, Roy Acuff, John Hartford and Byron Berline on fiddles, Norman Blake on guitar, Opry musician Billy Lineman on bass, and Hee Haw host Roy Clark on Dobro.
From a 1971 festival, this live performance of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin composition from John’s Tumbleweed Connection features Gary Scruggs on lead vocal, Randy Scruggs on guitar and their dad on banjo. The family harmony and relaxed atmosphere add more than a little bit of easy country charm to the comfortable combination. Elton would appear on Scruggs’ update from the 2001 LP.