(CBS/AP) It may be impossible to overstate the importance of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to American music. A pioneering banjo player who helped create modern country music, his sound is instantly recognizable and as intrinsically wrapped in the tapestry of the genre as Johnny Cash's baritone or Hank Williams' heartbreak.
Scruggs died Wednesday morning at age 88 of natural causes. The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys was evident all around Nashville, where he died in an area hospital. His string-bending, mind-blowing way of picking helped transform a regional sound into a national passion.
"It's not just bluegrass, it's American music," bluegrass fan-turned-country star Dierks Bentley said. "There's 17- or 18-year-old kids turning on today's country music and hearing that banjo and they have no idea where that came from. That sound has probably always been there for them and they don't realize someone invented that three-finger roll style of playing. You hear it everywhere."
There was nothing jokey about the way Scruggs attacked his "fancy five-string banjo," as Opry announcer George D. Hayes called it.
Dave Rawlings, a Nashville singer-songwriter and producer, says Scruggs remains every bit as influential and fresh seven decades later. He said it's impossible to imagine nearly every guitar player mimicking Jimi Hendrix, but with Scruggs and the banjo, that's the reality.
"The breadth and clarity of the instrument was increased so much," he said. "He invented a style that now probably 75 percent of the people that play the banjo in the world play Scruggs-style banjo. And that's a staggering thing to do, to play an instrument and change what everyone is doing."
News of Scruggs' passing quickly spread around the music world and over Twitter. Bentley and bluegrassers like Sam Bush and Jon Randall Stewart celebrated him at the Tin Pan South gathering of songwriters in Nashville and Eddie Stubbs dedicated the night to him on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. On the Internet, actor and accomplished banjo player Steve Martin called Scruggs, with whom he collaborated in 2001 on "Earl Scruggs and Friends," "the most important banjo player who ever lived."
Hank Williams Jr. sent prayers to the Scruggs family and Charlie Daniels tweeted, "He meant a lot to me. Nobody will ever play a five string banjo like Earl."
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences said in a statement the four-time Grammy winner and lifetime achievement award recipient "leaves an indelible legacy that will be remembered for generations to come."
Flowers were placed on Scruggs' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Thursday.
Scruggs is survived by two sons, Gary and Randy. Louise, his wife of 57 years, died in 2006. He often talked of her, recounting how their eyes had met while she watched him perform at the Ryman, and friends noted a sense of melancholy in Scruggs over his final years.