R.I.P. Earl Scruggs, Banjo Legend and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Regular

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Earl Scruggs, the North Carolina-born banjo legend who was a regular at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival, died at a Nashville hospital this morning, according to news reports. He was 88.

Known as part of a seminal duo with guitarist and mandolin player Lester Flatt (who died in 1979), Earl Scruggs helped popularize bluegrass music in the United States. His influence was so great that the three-fingered banjo style is now known as the "Scruggs style."

Scruggs was also a favorite of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder and fellow banjo player Warren Hellman, who passed away last December. Scruggs played at every Hardly Strictly since 2005. And four years ago, according to festival booker Dawn Holliday, Scruggs asked Hellman to join him onstage for "Solder's Joy."

"It made Warren's life," Holliday says. "At that point Warren had only been playing a couple of years, and he was scared to death."

The performance went off without a hitch -- if anything, Holliday says, Hellman's obsessive practice helped him play faster than Scruggs. Afterward, Scruggs gave Hellman a red bolo tie that Hellman wore every subsequent time his band the Wronglers played Hardly Strictly.

The Golden Gate Park festival also offered a rare opportunity for Scruggs to play in front of a large audience -- even though, in later years, he had to travel to S.F. on a private plane. "Earl couldn't get over the fact that so many people would come out to hear ... banjo players," Holliday says. "It was amazing to him. He didn't play to crowds like that anymore.

Scruggs was also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and won a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys. He performed the theme for TV show The Beverly Hillbillies with Flatt, and the duo contributed the instrumental song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" to the film Bonnie and Clyde. In 2003, Scruggs was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This year will be the first Hardly Strictly festival since Hellman's death in December. Given that, plus today's loss of Scruggs, "It's going to be one really weird bluegrass this year," Holliday says.

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