Musician Earl Scruggs has died. Scruggs was fortunate to see the musical style he helped create return to its rightful place in our culture not once but twice in his lifetime. Bluegrass had been overtaken by rock ‘n’ roll by the late 1950s when young, white kids began listening to the music of the 1920s and 1930s in suburban ranch houses and college dormitories across the United States. Thus the Folk-Blues Revival was born. Those country, folk, and blues musicians fortunate enough to be alive to see the renaissance suddenly found an audience they never previously enjoyed, or at least had not enjoyed for decades. When George Wein produced the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 he made certain Scruggs and his band were on the bill.
The beatniks listening in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, and their younger siblings still at home playing Leadbelly records on their hi fi’s, were going by a false premise. Mistakenly, the coming-of-age baby boomers believed they were returning to more pure and authentic musical styles. In reality, the songs of the Depression and the Roaring Twenties had been written, recorded, and marketed to the public with a great deal of thought and sophistication. The middle-aged bluesmen and folk singers were probably a little bemused by the whole thing, but there is something to be said for letting people believe what the want to believe.
The Second Coming came in 2000 after the release of the Coen Brothers’s O Brother, Where Art Though? The critically and commercially successful film brought bluegrass to yet another generation. Suddenly, Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and others were again in the public eye. In part, it is what we have to thank for the popularity of such acts as Gillian Welch. That duo is itself a testament to the institutionalization of the music. David Rawlings is a New Englander from Rhode Island, and Welch herself grew up in California where her parents were staff writers on the Carol Burnett Show. The two met when studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Though its antecedents go back further, bluegrass itself dates to the mid-twentieth century. The term itself comes from the name for Bill Monroe’s ensemble, the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs was one of the hundreds of musicians who passed through the temperamental, occasionally violent, and often angry Monroe’s band over the decades, and he was easily one of the most influential. He and Monroe alumnus Lester Flatt left the band in 1948 and founded the Foggy Mountain Boys. Scruggs did not create the famous three-finger style of banjo playing, but he did perfect it. Bluegrass is an astonishingly versatile music that is doing well today in the twenty-first century in large part thanks to Earl Scruggs and his colleagues. Thankfully, he lived to see it.