More than any other work, Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” established the banjo as the star instrument in bluegrass music. That song is still perhaps best known as the accompanying theme for a pair of roving gangsters in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde.” A bright and quick tune written by a quiet North Carolina country musician that introduced American bluegrass to new audiences around the world.
Earl Scruggs is probably the best-known banjo picker in the world. And even people who don’t know his name know was is called the Scruggs style of playing when they hear it, a crackling, syncopated style in which the player uses the thumb and two fingers fitted with plastic and metal picks to play chords, melody and cascading rolls of notes.
Scruggs recalls that a crisp finger picking style with thumb and forefinger or a thumb and two fingers—similar to classical guitar playing—was the most common way to play the five-string banjo in his western North Carolina hometown. Scruggs remembers when he was four years old going to his uncle’s home and hearing a blind banjo picker named Mack Woolbright.
“He’d sit in the rocking chair, and he’d pick some and it was just amazing,” Scruggs recalls. “I couldn’t imagine—he was the first, what I call a good banjo player.”
Scruggs was hooked. His father—who had recently died—had owned a banjo, and Earl started to play it even before he was big enough to hold it. He started with just the thumb and forefinger, but one day when he was about 10 years old, something new happened.
“Well, my brother and I had been into a fuss with each other,” he remembers, “and I’d gone into a room by myself, and I had the banjo in there. And I was, I guess, pouting. And all of a sudden, I realized I was picking with three fingers. And that excited me to no end. I was playing a tune called 'Reuben.’ I had the banjo run down in D tuning, playing that. I went running out of the room and there was my brother—so sudden—I came out saying, 'I got it. I got it. I got it.’” (Paul Brown / The NPR 100 Most Important American Music Works of the 20th Century)
Photo: Tom Pich/National Endowment for the Arts