Earl Scruggs, the master banjoist whose three-finger power picking propelled the instrument from mere prop directly to center stage and the heart and sound of bluegrass, died yesterday of natural causes, reports the New York Times. He was 88. Scruggs came to prominence in the 1940s with guitarist and longtime partner Lester Flatt, with whom he formed the vaunted Foggy Mountain Boys. The group's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," released in 1949, became one of the signature songs for which Scruggs is best known.
Scruggs picked up the banjo at the age of four, and got his first big break with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, which later dissolved into one of Nashville's most famous feuds when Scruggs and Flatt struck out on their own. The duo performed "The Ballad of Jed Clampett, for The Beverly Hillbillies, even appearing on the show at times, before eventually parting ways over the influence of Bob Dylan and folk rock—Scruggs embraced the new genre, adding drums and electric bass to his Earl Scruggs Review, and eventually shared stages with the likes of James Taylor and even Steppenwolf. Scruggs played well into this century, and was toasted by Porter Wagoner on the occasion of his 80th birthday thusly: “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.” Read the full obituary here.