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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

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Earl Scruggs Dies At 88

The legendary bluegrass player died of natural causes.

American bluegrass legend and pioneering banjo player Earl Scruggs died Wednesday of natural causes in a Nashville area hospital.  He was 88.

Earl Scruggs (Photo courtesy Creative Commons)
Earl Scruggs (Photo courtesy Creative Commons)

Scruggs is best known for transforming the faces of both country and bluegrass music with his innovative style on the banjo.  Strumming the instrument with three fingers -- instead of using a clawhammer -- Scruggs single handedly brought the banjo from the background to the foreground of country music.

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

Scruggs' string-bending and lead runs are now known worldwide as "the Scruggs picking style." He is credited for inspiring banjo players to experiment with the instrument, eventually causing the banjo to evolve into an essential component of mainstream music. Today, it can be found in almost every musical genre.

"It's not just bluegrass, it's American music," country star Dierks Bentley said. "There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere."

The news of Scruggs' passing spread quickly all around the world of entertainment.  Bentley and other bluegrass players like Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated Scruggs' life at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville, and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

News also spread quickly around the internet, where entertainers paid their respects to the bluegrass legend.  Steve Martin, who is an accomplished banjo player and collaborated with Scruggs in 2001 on the song "Earl Scruggs and Friends," tweeted that Scruggs was "the most important banjo player who ever lived."

Hank Williams Jr. sent prayers to the Scruggs family via Twitter and Charlie Daniels tweeted, "He meant a lot to me. Nobody will ever play a five string banjo like Earl."

He is survived by his two sons, Gary and Randy.  Louise, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006.

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