By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Moments before Earl Scruggs' silver-colored casket was escorted from the historic home of the Grand Ole Opry Sunday, a video of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys performing the old gospel tune "Precious Memories" played on a screen above the stage.
The last song of a video montage saluting Scruggs, who died Wednesday at age 88, "Precious Memories" showed him singing without a banjo in his hands, unusual for a man who revolutionized the way that instrument was played.
Scruggs' pioneering picking style -- delicately tapping the strings with three right fingers, coaxing precise melodies from the instrument -- forever changed the way banjo music was perceived.
Yet, while this final song played, the only banjo visible was Scruggs' Gibson Mastertone propped below the screen on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the former long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry.
"I can't even begin to explain the depth and sound of that instrument sitting out there," Vince Gill had said moments before he teamed with Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless for "Go Rest High on That Mountain."
Gill's personal lamentation -- he wrote it about his brother's death -- has become the symbolic finale at Nashville's funeral services of the legends of country music.
The death of one of the last and most-beloved pioneers of the musical form brought tears to Gill's eyes as he said of his mentor: "That friendship is something I cherish like none other."
For two hours Sunday afternoon, the former Union Gospel Tabernacle -- the original name of the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville -- returned to its roots as fans, friends and family jammed the pews for a service heavy on spirit, scripture and spirituality.
Gill's performance and testimony of love capped a celebration during which musicians saluted Scruggs by performing his songs or by demonstrating and testifying to his influence on them.
The Del McCoury Band -- bluegrass superstars whose style is a direct descendant of the music pioneered by Scruggs and his longtime partner, Lester Flatt -- set things off with "Take Me in your Lifeboat," one of that duo's songs.
That was followed by Skaggs and The Whites' performance of "Gone Home." Skaggs showed another side of Scruggs' genius by playing the lead guitar, note for note, the way the world's most famous banjo player had played guitar on that song.
The common denominator shared by the acts taking time to play, preach or pray was that they were friends of the man they were "sending home."
Bela Fleck, an acclaimed banjo "modernist," described how his "life was never the same" after he first heard Scruggs' banjo when he turned on "The Beverly Hillbillies" television show and heard "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."
Scruggs and Flatt, who died in 1979, are best-known in popular culture for that song about "a man named Jed" and for "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," popularized in the gritty 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde."
After a spoken tribute by Charlie Daniels, Emmylou Harris teamed with Gill and Jon Randall Stewart for the heavenly "The Other Side of Life."
"I was thinking how lucky we all are to have lived at the same time as Earl Scruggs," Harris said.
After The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen teamed with Jim Mills for "The Carolina Traveler" and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs pronounced the eulogy, the stage was turned over to Marty Stuart, who performed "Who Will Sing For Me," a Flatt & Scruggs examination of death.
That led up to Gill's teary "Go Rest High" farewell to Scruggs, which preceded the video salute that concluded with "Precious Memories."
While the crowd jumped from their pews and applauded each performance, the longest and loudest ovation came for the man in the silver-colored casket, just before he was escorted from the auditorium where he first performed in 1945.
(Editing by David Bailey)