Return to BITS Home Page
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
By Frank Overstreet
One segment of the career of Flatt and Scruggs stands out. Their appearances on the television shows, "The Beverly Hillbillies," and "Petticoat Junction," which will be rerun for many years, introduced millions to bluegrass music. What proves more difficult to identify are the years of musical experience that was so necessary to their unique sound.
Lester Raymond Flatt was born at Duncan's Chapel, near the boundaries of Putnam and Overton Counties, Tennessee, on June 19, 1914. He learned much about the music he would play in the homes of friends and neighbors of his family. His father played the clawhammer style of banjo, and Lester dabbled with that instrument until he settled on the guitar. He moved to Virginia, where he made his living as a textile worker, finding like so many of his generation a weekly paycheck preferable to work on the family farm. He played in a band called The Harmonizers and appeared on his first radio show in 1939. One of the members of those early bands, Mac Wiseman, would figure prominently in Lester's future. Lester and his wife, Gladys, whom he had married when he was seventeen and she sixteen, joined Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Partners band, where she was a singer using the name "Billie Jean," and Lester played mandolin and sang tenor.
Lester joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1945 as the guitarist and lead singer. The combination of his rhythm guitar work, emphasizing the "G-run" he made famous, and lead vocals with Bill's mandolin and soaring tenor played an invaluable role in developing the musical style of the Blue Grass Boys.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born January 6, 1924 in the Flint Hill community near Shelby, North Carolina, where the three finger style of banjo playing that Earl would popularize, was a big part of the country or hillbilly music of those days. Earl has said many times that his brother Junie, Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammett, Rex Brooks and many others, played in that style long before he did. He began playing the banjo at age 5, at first in a two finger style, with the thumb and index finger. Then he went into a bedroom of their home and practiced until he could add the middle finger to his picking. The tune that he played in that room for many hours was "Reuben," and when he came out, he had it down pat. Earl played in a band with his brothers, then began his radio career when he was fifteen with The Carolina Wildcats. He moved to South Carolina where he joined The Morris Brothers and worked in a textile mill during the years of World War II. He had joined the band of "Lost John" Miller and wound up in Nashville, Tennessee. When Lost John decided to quit the road, Bill Monroe hired Scruggs in late 1945, to replace Dave "Stringbean" Akeman.
Folklorist Neil V. Rosenberg notes the impact that Lester and Earl made as members of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in his book Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (page 13): "Many Bluegrass fans, especially those who began listening to the music in the late forties and early fifties, consider the four Columbia recording sessions of 1946 and 1947 definitive for Bluegrass Music. In terms of Monroe's recorded sound, the most striking innovations in the stylistic vocabulary of the band were the introduction of vocal trios, religious duets, and the three fingered style banjo picking, pioneered in the Blue Grass Boys by Earl Scruggs."
Bob Artis, author of the book Bluegrass, described the band (page 25): "The Blue Grass Boys had been popular from the beginning at WSM, but it was the band that included Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise, that really caught fire. Audiences just couldn't believe that anyone could play the banjo like Earl Scruggs. It was so fast and smooth, and there were so many notes, but all the melody was right there in the shower of banjo music. The crowds would roar every time Earl would step to the microphone. Lester Flatt's outstanding, beautiful inflected lead voice blended with Bill's on the duets, trios, and quartets, as none of Monroe's lead singers had done before, and his rhythm guitar playing, with its characteristic bass runs, gave the band a unity of sound that was as unique as it was excellent."
This group of Bill's Blue Grass Boys recorded twenty eight songs in four sessions, the first on September 17, 1946 and the last on October 28, 1947. These recordings were of major importance to the world of music. They not only established the band sound that Bill sought, but also provided was a valuable experience for Flatt and Scruggs. It would serve them well.
Earl Scruggs left the Monroe band in the Spring of 1948, and just two weeks later, Lester Flatt left to return to the textile mill in Virginia. They had no plans at this time to continue in music, but there had been some discussion about forming their own group while they were still with Monroe. They first played on WDVA, Danville, Virginia, with Jim Eanes. Fiddler Jimmy Shumate did not want to leave a good job in Hickory, North Carolina. Lester and Earl wanted him in the band, so they moved to radio Station WHKY in Hickory. When that did not produce the desired results after they had played there for two weeks, they followed Mac Wiseman's suggestion to go to Bristol, Tennessee and play on the "Farm 'N Fun Time" program on WCYB radio. It was during their time at WCYB that they became known as, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, with the band name coming from the Carter Family Song, "Foggy Mountain Top." Wiseman joined them playing guitar and singing tenor, with Howard Watts, bass fiddle, and Jim Shumate, fiddle.
They were very quick to demonstrate that their own musical ideas would move them into a new sound that would forever be identified as their very own. Earl was composing banjo tunes and co-writing songs with Lester. The vocal and instrumental drive of their music would have far reaching effects on future Bluegrass musicians. They selected the members of the Foggy Mountain Boys very carefully and molded their talents within the framework of their music. The songs and tunes that they recorded are still performed around the world, on stage and in jam sessions. The recordings of Flatt and Scruggs became available in many foreign countries, long before those of Bill Monroe. Bluegrass bands in Japan, Sweden, Australia, and other countries including the United States have mentioned that their first exposure to Bluegrass music was the records of Lester and Earl. Flatt and Scruggs played many radio stations throughout the Southeastern United States in the early days with their own band, and recorded for major record labels, establishing themselves as a force in the music business. The early years of their careers have been called "The Hungry Times," since they worked hard at their music, struggling to earn the fame and fortune that would eventually come their way. After recording for Mercury Records during the late forties, their first session for Columbia Records happened on November 21, 1950, in Nashville, Tennessee. Personnel were: Lester, guitar, Earl, banjo, John Ray "Curly" Seckler, mandolin, Benny Sims, fiddle, and Jody Rainwater, bass fiddle.
Their hard work paid great dividends when contacted by the Barry-Carter Mill Company, which made and distributed their products under the name, "Martha White." A bigger break could not have occurred for Flatt and Scruggs. They were able to move to Nashville, Tennessee, where they played the early morning radio shows on WSM. Their "Martha White Theme Song" kicked off each show with an enthusiasm and spirit that has seldom been equaled. Sales of Martha White Flour and Cornmeal increased, as did the demand for personal appearances. This allowed them to pay a steady salary to members of their band. The success that they were enjoying left them one major step in music. It was the goal of every country music act to become members of the Grand Ole Opry, but not until 1955 were they finally accepted as members of that show.
The band had added a new instrument in 1955, when Burkett "Uncle Josh" Graves, joined the Foggy Mountain Boys playing the Dobro guitar. This instrument had been used in other country style groups, but never in the way it was played with Flatt and Scruggs. It has now become one of the "traditional" Bluegrass instruments. Flatt and Scruggs created a powerful on stage presentation of their music. They developed a ballet-like routine around the one microphone used in those days that was beautiful to observe. The following statement by "Uncle Josh" Graves can be found in Rosenberg's book Bluegrass: A History (pages 312-313):
We had to learn that when you hit the microphone, you play wide open, and when somebody's singing, you soften up. They used to call us a football team at the Opry. Earl was the quarterback, and I was the running back. Earl would hand it off to me, and I'd cut through the hole. One time we had this boy come in––he'd worked with us before––he'd forgotten the patterns that we'd run. That poor boy, I remember I caught him on the back of the head with my Dobro neck. Liked to plumb knock him off the stage. Flatt told him: "you'd better learn the patterns; you're gonna get killed." It all looked pretty from the audience:
Their musical careers continued to flourish. They not only had the early morning radio shows, but at one time played live television shows throughout the Southeast United States, driving 2500 miles a week by car. Video tape did not exist for the first several years of their program. Their recording of the "Ballad of Jed Clampett" was used as the theme for the popular television show, "The Beverly Hillbillies," and was a number one hit in 1963. The recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," made on December 12, 1949 for Mercury, brought new recognition to Flatt and Scruggs when it was used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. The use of these songs proved not only beneficial to Flatt and Scruggs, but created new fans for what had become known as Bluegrass Music.
In response to the "folk craze" of the early 1960s the recorded sound of Flatt and Scruggs was augmented by the addition of studio musicians on drums, harmonica, and other instruments. Retitled "Folk Music with Overdrive," by Alan Lomax, their sound grew quite different from the early days. "Cousin" Jake Tullock was playing bass fiddle and singing high harmony, Paul Warren played fiddle and sang bass, and '"Uncle Josh" Graves played Dobro.
On February 22, 1969 Lester and Earl shocked the world of music with the dissolution of their partnership that had lasted twenty one years. After some legal difficulties were resolved, it was decided that the name The Foggy Mountain Boys would not be used by either man. Lester formed a band that was named The Nashville 'Grass, a name chosen through a contest, and Earl went on to form The Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons, Randy, Gary and Steve. Louise Scruggs had done an excellent job as the manager and booking agent for Flatt and Scruggs. She would continue in that capacity for Earl's new group.
Accountant Lance LeRoy, a native of Tignall, Georgia, who describes himself as a "Flatt and Scruggs Groupie," had moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1966. When the partnership with Earl dissolved, Lester asked Lance to become his personal manager, a duty he was most willing to accept. Lester, Lance, Bob and Sonny Osborne teamed in April 1975 to form a booking agency, Allied Entertainers, Inc. The Osborne's purchased Lester: and Lance's portion of the agency in August, 1977. Then Lester and Lance created The Lancer Agency, that Lance still operates today.
Lester Flatt underwent open heart surgery, a gall bladder operation, and suffered a brain hemorrhage prior to his death on May 11, 1979. He had become a born again Christian, and was heard to remark to the minister who baptized him, "Well, Preacher, I guess that was my greatest performance." Earl Scruggs visited Lester in the hospital at the urging of Marty Stuart, who had played mandolin with Lester in the Nashville 'Grass and is now a country music artist. Earl still lives near Nashville, Tennessee, and makes rare appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and television.
This legendary team left their mark on music far beyond bluegrass. Musicians in the twenty first century will be using many of the musical ideas set down by Flatt and Scruggs without knowing the history of this, one of the most influential Bluegrass bands of all time. Many of the young banjo players relate that their first exposure to Bluegrass Music was when they saw the movie Bonnie and Clyde and heard Earl's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," inspiring them to become banjo players.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were inducted into SPBGMA's Preservation Hall of Greats on January 25th 1985, a fitting and just honor for all the years they spent playing their music, still enjoyed today by their fans around the world. The following is a very small list of the many other honors they have received. They became members of the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 14, 1985, and later became members of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame. It seems only right that the first inductees into the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) Hall of Honor, in September, 1991, in Owensboro, Kentucky, were Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs. Plaques were presented to Bill and Earl on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in February, 1992, as they were unable to be present for the ceremonies in Owensboro. Earl Scruggs received the "1992 Medal of Art" from President George Bush, in a ceremony at the White House, on July 22, 1992.
Return to BITS Home Page