Earl Scruggs, Grammy-Winning Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies

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Earl Scruggs

The three-finger "Scruggs style," popularized during his stint in Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s and heard in the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme, remains the dominant method for playing the instrument.

Earl Scruggs, the four-time Grammy-winning bluegrass legend whose three-finger picking style revolutionized banjo playing, died Wednesday of natural causes at a Nashville hospital. He was 88.

First recorded in 1946, his syncopated use of the thumb, index and middle fingers became known as “the Scrubbs style” and remains the most common style of banjo playing to this day. Fans of classic TV know the Scruggs style from its namesake’s playing on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of the 1962-71 sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Fans of classic films know it from Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the theme from the 1967 Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway starrer Bonnie and Clyde. Fans of classic comedy know it from Steve Martin’s rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on his platinum 1977 debut album, Let’s Get Small.

VIDEO: The Opening Credits of "The Beverly HIllbillies"

"Earl Scruggs was a bluegrass legend and banjo pioneer," Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow said Wednesday. "An innovator who helped popularize the banjo and helped change country music, he leaves an indelible legacy that will be remembered for generations to come."

Scruggs was born Jan. 6, 1924, in Shelby, N.C., and began playing banjo at age 4. Just after World War II, the 21-year-old joined Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, and the group led by “the Father of Bluegrass” had a string of country hits starting with “Kentucky Waltz” in 1946. Scruggs and guitarist-mandolinist Lester Flatt left the band in 1948 to form The Foggy Mountain Boys, an influential group that joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. They won a Grammy in 1969 for the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985.

VIDEO: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" by Earl Scruggs and Friends

The Soggy Bottom Boys -- the group formed George Clooney and other main characters in the Coen brothers’ 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? – was named in tribute to the Scruggs-Flatt band. The movie’s soundtrack won a Grammy and spend two weeks atop the Billboard 200, eventually selling more than 7 million copies.

Scruggs and Flatt continued to perform together under various monikers through the 1960s, scoring more than 20 country hits, including the themes from Beverly Hillbillies -- a No. 1 smash in early 1963 -- and Petticoat Junction.

Scruggs, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, won a second Grammy for a 2001 recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with an all-star band that featured Martin, Albert Lee, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Jerry Douglas, Marty Stuart and Paul Shaffer. The banjo legend was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th annual Grammy Awards in 2008.

Survivors include his musician sons Randy, Gary and Steve Scruggs. A funeral ceremony will be held 2 p.m. Sunday at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.