By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Banjo innovator and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died on Wednesday at a Nashville hospital at age 88.
He had been in failing health for some time, according to his son, Gary Scruggs, who played bass guitar with his father. Talking about his father's death, he said with a cracking voice: "He‘s 88 and it's a slow process."
A four-time Grammy winner, Scruggs was perhaps best known in popular culture for "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for "The Beverly Hillbillies" television program, and for "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," a Flatt & Scruggs classic which was used in the 1967 classic film, "Bonnie and Clyde."
While he dabbled in all forms of music, and was at home in the company of all creative musicians, he was among the first to popularize what his former boss, Bill Monroe, referred to as bluegrass music.
After breaking with Monroe, Scruggs and his guitar-playing friend, Lester Flatt, formed Flatt & Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Scruggs' style of banjo playing set him apart. Rather than flailing at the banjo strings, as most of his contemporaries did, he delicately hit the strings with three right fingers, coaxing the instrument to produce precise melodies.
His style influenced the likes of The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and others who took up the banjo because of the playing of Scruggs, a native of Shelby, North Carolina.
The "Scruggs picking style" was saluted in a statement released after his death by Recording Academy President and Chief Executive Neil Portnow, who said that he "helped popularize the banjo and helped change country music."
Those who played with the banjo wizard mourned his loss.
"I will miss my friend," Mac Wiseman, an original flattop guitarist with the Foggy Mountain Boys, said from his Nashville home. Wiseman, 86, said his own maladies will keep him from Sunday's funeral at the Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry in downtown Nashville.
"I'm not getting around too well," said Wiseman. "I'll remember him as he was when we were together."
Marty Stuart, who broke into bluegrass music as a child prodigy with Flatt, was performing on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. But his wife, classic country singer Connie Smith, said Scruggs will be missed.
"It leaves a hole in your heart," she said. "He's just a part of our life." She said her husband would perform at the funeral.
Dixie Hall, a longtime friend of the Scruggs family and wife of Tom T. Hall, the great storyteller and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, said Scruggs "was a dear friend and Louise was too."
Louise Scruggs, who helped guide her husband's career, died in 2006. "It's good to know they are together," said Dixie Hall.
Tom T. Hall teamed with Scruggs on what many consider among the best bluegrass albums, "The Storyteller and the Banjoman" in 1982.
"You know there's a lot of people out there, a lot of others. There's one Earl," Hall said.
Scruggs is survived also by a second son, Randy.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham)