As ancient as it sounds, bluegrass music is a modern form of music.
Though its foundation was the mountain music of the hardscrabble Scotch-Irish pioneers of the Appalachians, it was forged by brilliant technicians, mostly those whom Bill Monroe handpicked for his original Blue Grass Boys — the group that lent its name to the genre.
Scholars will tell you the band, already one of the finest collections of musicians ever assembled, and thus the music, really came into its own when Monroe added a North Carolinian named Earl Scruggs to his combo.
Scruggs played banjo in a way no one in Nashville had ever seen: three fingers, dancing across the strings like a water strider flitting across a pond.
And it sounded different when Scruggs played. Grand Ole Opry impresario George Hay used to say Scruggs “made the banjo talk.” Without Scruggs, the banjo was fading into obscurity, mostly used as a visual and auditory clue the practitioner was a hillbilly — or at least, was acting as one — and wasn’t to be taken seriously.
Before Scruggs, the banjo was telling jokes. Scruggs made it the lead in King Lear.
Scruggs died Wednesday in Nashville at 88, leaving a musical legacy impossible to overstate.
He was a virtuoso on an instrument associated with hayseeds and pig-picking parties.
He saved the banjo.
The banjo changed bluegrass.
And bluegrass changed everything that came after.
Scruggs played with Monroe and decades worth of polished Nashville country singers. And he played with Dylan and the folk singers. And he played with Elton John, and he played with Sting, and he played at Bonnaroo.
After leaving Monroe’s band, he teamed up with Lester Flatt for two decades of musical magicianship, churning out classics like the rollicking “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a standard so challenging and technical, few banjo players can even dream of matching the speed of Scruggs’ original.
He leaves a monumental legacy and legions of admirers — and millions of pickers, three-finger-style all, desperately trying, after all this time, still trying to catch up.