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Earl Scruggs

Musician seen as 'father of bluegrass banjo' after developing 'picking' style of playing that transformed country genre

Earl Scruggs, who has died aged 88, was regarded as the "father of bluegrass banjo", developing a spectacular "picking" style of playing that transformed the face of American country music.

Bill Monroe is generally regarded as the inventor of bluegrass, a style he described as "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound." But Scruggs's banjo transformed the genre and raised it to a new level of popularity.

Rather than flailing at the banjo with stiff "clawhammer" fingers, he picked the strings with three fingers, coaxing the instrument to produce recognisable syncopated melodies.

Scruggs was best known for The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme song for the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies, and for Foggy Mountain Breakdown (1950), a fast-paced instrumental piece which was heard during the car chases in the film Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Both were recorded with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on January 6, 1924, at Flint Hill, a small farming community in North Carolina. His father, a small farmer and bookkeeper, died when he was four, leaving his mother to run the farm and bring up her five children on her own.

Everyone in the family played music and Scruggs claimed to be self-taught and to have developed his three-finger technique on his own.

In 1939 Scruggs joined a local string band which performed on the radio, but left to work in a textile mill during the Second World War.

He made his recording debut with the Blue Grass Boys in 1946 on Heavy Traffic Ahead and embarked on a gruelling touring programme with the band. But in 1948, frustrated by the low pay and hard work, he left, planning to return to the textile mill. Before he could, however, he was persuaded by his former Blue Grass Boys colleague, the guitarist and vocalist Lester Flatt, to join him in a new group. Flatt & Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys secured a radio show and signed with Mercury Records. By the mid-Fifties it had a nationally syndicated television show and a regular slot at the Grand Ole Opry.

But Scruggs was never content to rest on his laurels and was always looking to develop new techniques and styles of playing. As bluegrass lost ground to rock and folk rock, he began playing with his three sons, recording material by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Flatt, however, resisted innovation and, in 1969, amid growing acrimony, the two broke up.

Scruggs, with his sons, then formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mostly acoustic group. The band released several albums and toured until 1980.

Scruggs's wife, Louise, died in 2006 and a son died in 1992. His other two sons survive him. Earl Scruggs, born January 6, 1924, died March 28.

Sunday Independent