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Earl Scruggs, RIP

by Nate Cavalieri

Earl Scruggs, RIP

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Few musicians had so thorough an influence on their chosen instrument as did Earl Scruggs, a banjo-picker whose "Scruggs Style" of plucking was one of the fundamental building blocks of bluegrass and forever changed American folk music. Scruggs died Wednesday morning in a Nashville hospital at the age of 88.

Scruggs' style, which he honed as a child in North Carolina, allowed him to pluck out the melody and accompaniment simultaneously. Listen to any of the banjo players who stand in his long shadow -- Bela Fleck, the Punch Brothers' Noam Pikelny, even comedian Steve Martin -- and it's apparent that this inimitable style has become inseparable from the sound of the instrument itself. But unlike so many of his traditionalist peers, it was Scruggs' ability to step outside the confines of his genre that remains an essential element of his legacy. Although his partnership with Lester Flatt dominated bluegrass in the 1950s and '60s, it was the star's big ears and openhearted approach to making music that brought him to popular audiences.

Long before the Red State vs. Blue State musical and political divide, Scruggs was beloved by both conservative audiences of the Grand Ole Opry and the crowds at politically charged folk festivals where he'd perform alongside protest singers. Over the years, Scruggs refused to be pigeonholed by the genre he'd created, and he brought a genteel grace and blazing picking to collaborations with Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar and Elton John. For him, salvation was a familiar topic -- riding that heavenly train as angels carry him home -- and though his voice is silenced, his influence will endure as long as there's a five-string banjo to pluck.