One of the most legendary performers in all of bluegrass, banjoist Earl Scruggs, died yesterday. He was 88. NPR reports that he died of natural causes at a Nashville hospital.

Born in North Carolina in 1924, Scruggs was a master of the three-finger banjo style. He didn’t invent the three-finger style, but his mastery of it helped the banjo become a cornerstone in bluegrass music in the 1940s. Scruggs initially kicked off his career playing as a member of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe‘s band, the Blue Grass Boys. His three-finger banjo rolls wowed Opry crowds, and from then on, his playing helped define what we now think of as the classic bluegrass sound.

The sound was so popular, in fact, that Scruggs and his fellow Blue Grass Boy, guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, were able to leave Monroe’s band to head out on their own. As Flatt and Scruggs, they played the Opry regularly, toured the country, and recorded dozens of classic songs, including “Cabin on the Hill,” “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Flatt and Scruggs earned their widest audience, though, when their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was chosen as the theme to the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. It shot to Number One, the first bluegrass song ever to do so.

During the 1960s, Scruggs welcomed the opportunity to widen his audience, playing at contemporary folk festivals to enthusiastic crowds of young fans. He often appeared alongside such artists as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and began including contemporary material into his repertoire. He eventually parted ways with the more traditionally minded Flatt, forming a new band with his sons, the Earl Scruggs Revue.

A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Scruggs was a regular at festivals right through his later years, providing a living bridge between generations for both players and fans. He didn’t spoke much on stage, but even well into his 80s he could still make that banjo sing, roll, roar, and cry.

– Kurt Wolff, CBS Local

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