When Earl Scruggs died last week at 88, he was justly celebrated as a musician who revolutionized the way we hear and think of the banjo.
“He defined the way the bluegrass banjo should sound, and while he did not invent the style, his . . . three-finger picking, string bending, and use of tuners established the ‘Scruggs style,’ ” says Gerry Katz, executive producer of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival and a Boston Bluegrass Union board member.
“Bill Monroe is credited as being the creator of bluegrass music,” he adds, “but it was not until Earl Scruggs became a Blue Grass Boy in ’45 that bluegrass music truly defined itself.”
Recognizing that Scruggs cast a long shadow with a deep discography, we asked Katz to list his five favorite songs that feature Scruggs’s playing.
1. “Foggy Mountain Special” “It’s the opening theme for WHRB’s Hillbilly at Harvard radio show. Thanks to DJs Cousin Lynn and Ol’ Sinc for my bluegrass and country music education each Saturday morning.”
2. “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” An A.P. Carter tune featuring the wonderfully comfortable lead vocal of Lester Flatt and the Maybelle Carter-style guitar picking of Earl Scruggs.”
3. “Flint Hill Special” “This showcases Earl’s use of the Scruggs tuners. Prior to Scruggs, the banjo was a rhythm instrument or comedian’s prop. He elevated the five-string banjo to a lead instrument with his three-finger, syncopated picking style.”
4. “Shuckin’ the Corn” “A showcase for the members of the Flatt and Scruggs band . . . including Buck Graves on resophonic guitar. Cuts such as this set the gold standard for bluegrass ensemble performances.”
5. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”
“Recorded in 1949, featured in . . . ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ and performed by Earl in 1969 at Washington’s Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. He was one of the few country music artists . . . to support the antiwar movement. Earl was just plain cool.”
The Boston Bluegrass Union presents Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver on April 28 at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. Information and tickets at www.bbu.org.