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Apr 12

Flatt & Scruggs: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Flatt & Scruggs

Earl Scruggs (with banjo), 1924-2012

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Legendary bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs died last week at the age of 88, after more than 60 years as a performing musician. Scruggs pretty much set the standard for all banjo players to come, defining a style that became synonymous with his name. He was best known for his work with Lester Flatt, as one half of Flatt & Scruggs, but had helped to define the sound of bluegrass even earlier, when he joined Bill Monroe as one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He and Flatt, who was also in that group, struck out on their own after a couple of years with Monroe to form their own Foggy Mountain Boys (and in doing so resulted in Monroe’s shunning of them for the next 20 years). Together, they popularized bluegrass more than any other act, and Scruggs’ three-finger playing style influenced popular music (including rock) for years to come. (Listen to his playing and then compare it to heavy metal shredders — it’s not all that far removed.)

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is Scruggs’ signature tune, first recorded in 1949, showcasing his unbelievably fast banjo picking style. It’s a bluegrass standard, beloved by every banjo player since. You’ve undoubtedly heard it somewhere, and probably figured it was a tune that had no author, existing just as it was ever since the banjo was invented. But it’s a Scruggs original — and all you need to do to understand Earl Scruggs’s greatness is to listen to it closely and just imagine how fast those fingers would have to be flying to play it.

4 Comments

  1. my dad used to listen to crap country but every once in a while this strange other worldly fast music would come on at which point i would pay attention.
    For newer use of the banjo or banjo type playing,pretty sure townshend played around with it. like of end of baba o-riley. maybe not, just listened but I’m sure on one of the later crappy albums. Actually let’s forget the whole thing.

    1. Townshend apparently used it on the Rough Mix album, but I can’t think of a specific song. He more notably used the ukulele (“Blue, Red, and Grey”). One of the more prominent banjo-utilizers these days is Sufjan Stevens — but don’t know if he’s your cup of proverbial tea.

      1. About Townshend, i wasn’t very eloquent. I didn’t mean he actually used a banjo but played banjo like on the guitar on certainly the later less who-ish records and for some emenince front comes to mind. I haven’t listened enough to sufjan to form an opinion, but i’ll listen more.
        the ukulele i remember and how odd it was at the time. now this ukulele fad remind of the flock of seagulls hair. Why and why doesn’t it just go away. not sure where you live but around here the uke is omnipresent and played a if the only songs they can play are Gloria, oh the patti smith version, or smoke on the water. patti smith has a new disc coming out.
        i remember once talking to my boss, forgetting i was listening to patti and the rant before Gloria (i’m pretty sure) which starts with her belting I don’t fuck much with the past, but i fuck plenty with the future filled the air. my boss just looked at me, his eyebrows nearly in his hair. I thought no career. later a memo from the boss to all staff about appropriate or no music in the office. sorry but i really like that story.

        1. Ah, I see (about Townshend). Eddie Vedder put the uke to good use on his recent Ukulele Songs album — he’s a Townshend disciple and said he was inspired by Townshend’s “Blue, Red, and Grey.”

          Funny work story…

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