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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Goodbye Earl - We'll See You On the Other Shore

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012)

Earl Scruggs passed away yesterday. We all knew he would, but it wasn't something you like to think about as a banjo player. Earl was the standard by which we all measured ourselves as banjo-players. Even though he was in his late 80s, the man could still strike fire on a banjo.

Earl made bluegrass music what it is today. Without him the genre might look very different. He helped bluegrass become an inclusive music. His example inspired the likes of Bela Flek, Steve Martin and Alison Krausse. He played with everybody from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan to Elton John and thousands of others who played in all sorts of apparently incompatible musical styles.

We were all blessed, not only by his talent, but by his generosity as a musician.  I once watched a youtube video from the 60s of Earl jamming with a group of bluegrass musicians. A couple of the young bucks, you could tell wanted to try and dominate the session, but Earl just smiled that easy, unconcerned smile of his and played on unconcerned. Many got the privilege of playing with him (it's an extraordinary list of musicians. I don't think Earl ever missed an opportunity to play with someone whose music he liked, no matter how odd the duet might be. Most who did were just happy to be there with him.

He was never a snob, though with his skill, he could have been quite easily.  Instead, he seemed to truly relish moments in a jam session, when the younger musicians, would take off on their own riff with some bit of technical virtuosity - the way a father would take pride in his child who was trying to show off. It seemed to make him happy to watch them go! A true talent does not need to hog the spotlight and Earl never did that I saw. But somehow, the spotlight always came back to this simple, unassuming man in the end. A gracious man and good friend to every man, woman or child who plays the banjo.

We miss him already!


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