Earl Scruggs, who died Wednesday at age 88, was the banjo player of his time, right? Right. He defined the sound of a bluegrass band with his banjo style, right? Right. A bluegrass band without a Scruggs-style banjo isn't a bluegrass band, right? It may be a country band, a folk band or some kind of jazz band, but it's not a bluegrass band, is it? Right about that, too.
You'd think transforming the way people worldwide play, perceive and enjoy one instrument would be enough of a contribution for one musician. But with musicians as inspired as Scruggs, peeling back the sparkling outer layer often reveals more glowing layers within.
In Scruggs' case, when you gently peel back the banjo layer of his musical persona, you find a guitar player as impressive as the banjo picker, as well as a gospel singer the equal of any in the finest Southern traditional quartet.
Scruggs' finger-picked guitar, which often came front and center in the Foggy Mountain Boys' religious numbers, was memorably powerful and fluid. Check it out here on this late-'40s Flatt & Scruggs recording of "God Loves His Children." Bluegrass and acoustic musicians love to listen to and study his guitar work, which is easily the equal of his banjo playing in its sheer power, its creative noting and syncopation, rich tone and fluidity.
If you think at times you're hearing a trademark three-finger Scruggs banjo roll on the guitar, you are — it's incredible — while his baritone singing is solid, straightforward, unassuming. "God Loves His Children" serves as audible proof that Scruggs not only had heard traditional church music as a kid in rural North Carolina, but was fully steeped in it. He knew it in his soul.