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Scruggs gets surprise party on 80th birthday

His three-fingered banjo style helped define bluegrass
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some of Nashville’s finest pickers threw a surprise party Tuesday for banjo great Earl Scruggs on his 80th birthday — and they brought their instruments with them.

Scruggs, whose three-fingered approach to playing the instrument is credited by many with giving bluegrass music its distinctive sound, accepted a banjo-shaped cake and watched an all-star cast perform “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, Brenda Lee, Porter Wagoner, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many others attended the celebration at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

President Bush sent his congratulations, as did actor Billy Bob Thornton and musical stars Don Henley, Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakam.

An innovator with an open-minded approachGill called Scruggs an innovator who created a new way to play his instrument.

“When he started that three-fingered banjo style,” Gill said, “everybody I know who heard it was stopped in their tracks and said, ‘What is that?’ I have to find that, I have to learn that.”’

But Gill said Scruggs’ greatest gift was his open-minded approach that brought acoustic music to a wider, younger audience in the 1960s and ’70s. Through the years, Scruggs has recorded with country, rock and pop stars, including Sting, Elton John, Henley, Yoakam, Johnny Cash, the Byrds and many others.

With his wife and manager, Louise, at his side, Scruggs told the crowd, “Thank you, every one of you. I enjoyed every bit of it.”

The Babe Ruth of the banjo
Scruggs grew up on a farm in North Carolina’s Cleveland County and worked as a textile worker in the early 1940s before he began performing professionally.

He met Lester Flatt in 1945 when they were members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. They left three years later to form the Foggy Mountain Boys and eventually the hugely successful Flatt & Scruggs.

The duo started an early morning radio show in Nashville and joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1955. During the late 1950s and early ’60s, they had a syndicated TV show and their songs began hitting the country charts.

“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1962 — their only chart topper. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde” reached only No. 58 but became a bluegrass standard. Their other hits include “Cabin in the Hills” and “Pearl, Pearl, Pearl,” another song from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Musical and business differences ended the duo in 1969, and Flatt died in 1979. Scruggs and his sons Randy and Gary formed the Earl Scruggs Revue that year and became a major draw on college campuses. Their repertoire mixed traditional songs and contemporary folk-rock covers with Scruggs’ intricate banjo solos.

“I always felt like Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball,” Wagoner said. “He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”