The great bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88. Shortly afterward, Steve Martin sent out a tweet calling Scruggs the most important banjo player who ever lived. “Few players have changed the way we hear an instrument the way Earl has,” wrote Martin earlier this year in The New Yorker, “putting him in a category with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix.”
Martin writes of Scruggs:
Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips. Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried. In 1945, when he first stood on the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations. He performed tunes he wrote as well as songs they knew, with clarity and speed like no one could imagine, except him. When the singer came to the end of a phrase, he filled the theatre with sparkling runs of notes that became a signature for all bluegrass music since. He wore a suit and a Stetson hat, and when he played he smiled at the audience like what he was doing was effortless. There aren’t many earthquakes in Tennessee, but that night there was.
In November of 2001 Martin had the opportunity to play the banjo alongside his hero on the David Letterman show. (See above.) They played Scruggs’s classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” with Scruggs’s sons Randy on acoustic guitar and Gary on Harmonica, and a stellar group that included Vince Gill and Albert lee on electric guitar, Marty Stewart on mandolin, Glen Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Glenn Wolf on bass, Harry Stinson on drums, Leon Russell on organ and Paul Shaffer on piano.