Singer-guitarist Lester Flatt is widely considered one of the founding fathers of bluegrass music. As a member of the legendary Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Flatt did more to popularize bluegrass than almost any other musician; his group transformed the genre from a regional to a national favorite and assured it audiences for generations to come. At a time when country music in general struggled to compete with rock and roll, the Foggy Mountain Boys won fame with a strictly traditional sound, unhampered by drums, synthesizers, or electronic enhancements. This is not to suggest, however, that the Flatt and Scruggs sound lacked innovation. It actually helped create the distinction between country on one hand and bluegrass on the other.
One of nine children of a poor sharecropper, Lester Raymond Flatt was born in rural Overton County, Tennessee, in 1914. “Like all farm children in those difficult times,” writes Neil V. Rosenberg in Stars of Country Music, “Lester grew up knowing about hard work, for everyone in the family pitched in to do the chores.” In what little free time the Flatt family found, the members would gather for songfests; both of Lester’s parents played banjo in the old clawhammer, or “trailing,” style, and his father also played the fiddle. Lester gravitated to the guitar and began picking before he turned ten. He learned to sing in local church choirs and perfected his techniques by comparing them with songs he heard on the radio.
In 1931, at the age of seventeen, Flatt went to work in the textile mills. He felt lucky to have work during the Depression, and he stayed with mill work full-time throughout the decade. Music was a sideline, but one that he was devoted to; he and his wife liked to imitate their favorite duo, Charlie and Bill Monroe. By 1939 Flatt was playing radio gigs in Roanoke, Virginia, as a member of the Harmonizers. Then he met Clyde Moody, a former member of Bill Monroe’s band, and they formed the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys, a regional favorite.
Flatt was highly honored when he was invited to become a member of Charlie Monroe’s Kentucky Pardners in 1943. The Monroe brothers had split, each forming his own band, and Flatt moved into Charlie’s act as a tenor and mandolin player (the role Bill Monroe had previously taken). The following year Flatt quit the music business, but only briefly. He was given an offer too good to refuse: the chance to perform with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Bill Monroe had become a regular on the Grand Ole Opry—the pinnacle of success for a country band—and Flatt eagerly accepted the offer to sing lead and play guitar with the group. He soon made friends with another newcomer to the act, banjo player Earl Scruggs.
Full name Lester Raymond Flatt; born June 19, 1914, in Overton County, Tenn.; died of heart failure May 11, 1979, in Nashville, Tenn.; son of a sharecropper; married Gladys Stacey (a textile worker), c 1931.
Textile worker in mills in Sparta, Tennessee, and Covington, Virginia, 1931–43, also played in groups, including the Harmonizers, 1939, and the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys, 1941. Mandolin player and tenor vocalist with Charlie Monroe’s Kentucky Pardners, 1943–44; lead vocalist and guitar player for Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1944–48.
Founding member, lead singer, and guitarist for Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, 1948. Signed with Mercury Records, 1949, moved to Columbia Records, 1950. Best-known recordings include “The Martha White Flour Theme” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Group disbanded in 1969.
Founder, lead singer, and guitarist for Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, 1969–79.
Work with the Blue Grass Boys was very challenging for Flatt in particular. As Rosenberg explains, the tempo Monroe set in much of his music was daunting, and Flatt had to improvise to keep up. “Monroe was playing much of his music so fast that Lester had trouble keeping time on the guitar,” writes Rosenberg. “He solved this problem by catching up at the ends of phrases with a guitar run which, in its fullest form in the key of G, slid from F-sharp to G on the sixth string, then from A to B on the fifth string, from D to E on the fourth and ended in a ringing open G note on the third string. Often only the end of the run was audible. This was a common phrase in country guitar playing long before Lester used it, but because he used it so frequently and effectively it became associated with him, and eventually with bluegrass music, as ‘the Lester Flatt G run.”’
In addition to playing, Flatt was called upon to sing lead in many songs. He also became the master of ceremonies for the Blue Grass Boys, adopting an easy, friendly style onstage. Life with the Blue Grass Boys was never boring, to say the least—Monroe was an exacting artist and the pace of touring and radio work was exhausting. By 1948 both Flatt and Scruggs had decided to quit, even though their presence in the band had propelled it to new levels of popularity. Against Monroe’s objections, they both resigned within two weeks of one another. They were not idle long. Only one month later they began to meet informally, just to play, and they decided to take some local radio work. They signed with Mercury Records and made their first recordings in the summer of 1948.
Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys originally included fiddler Jim Shumate, bassist Cedric Rainwater, and tenor Mac Wiseman, all of whom had worked with Monroe. Wiseman soon left and was replaced by Curly Seckler. Thus from their earliest days the Foggy Mountain Boys drew on Monroe’s influence, especially in terms of tempo and choice of material. The group differed from Monroe’s, however, in two major respects: Scruggs’s banjo virtuosity elevated that instrument to prominence for the first time, and Flatt’s vocals lacked the piercing quality of Monroe’s high tenor. Together, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys became one of the hottest acts in the South. Country Music U.S.A. author Bill C. Malone calls the band’s early work “the most exciting in the history of bluegrass music.”
Touring and recording relentlessly, Flatt and Scruggs began to win a widespread popularity that had eluded Bill Monroe. This success was sealed in 1953 when the pair signed a lucrative contract for a daily morning show on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. The show was sponsored by the Martha White Flour Mills, and Flatt and Scruggs opened each segment with a ditty about their sponsor. Incredibly, the “Martha White Theme Song” has become one of the most famous pieces in the Flatt and Scruggs repertoire; some blue-grass radio shows open with it to this day. When Flatt and Scruggs were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, they continued their relationship with Martha White Flour, and gratitude for the association was expressed by sponsor and performers alike.
Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys entered the 1960s as the most popular bluegrass band in America. Few bluegrass groups have ever enjoyed a genuine hit on the Billboard charts; Flatt and Scruggs had several, including “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” a theme they wrote for “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” made both the pop and country charts, staying at number one on the latter for several weeks. Flatt and Scruggs were also among the first country performers to appear at folk festivals, including the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in 1959. In the mid-1960s they gave a sold-out concert at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Friction developed between Flatt and Scruggs as the 1960s advanced. Scruggs wanted to take the group in new directions, but Flatt preferred the traditional sound. They disbanded the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1969, and Flatt formed his own band, Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass. This group was a favorite of bluegrass purists, many of whom supported Flatt’s decision to steer clear of rock influences. Flatt played with the Nashville Grass for ten years until a chronic heart condition hospitalized him. He died May 11, 1979, at the age of sixty-four. Just before his death, Flatt was reconciled with his longtime partner after a decade of estrangement. Rolling Stone contributor Chet Flippo notes in a eulogy that Lester Flatt, in his tireless way, “spread bluegrass far and wide.” His music, Flippo concludes, was “unlike anything urban audiences had heard before.”
With Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
Country Music, Mercury, 1958.
Flatt & Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Harmony, 1960.
Songs of the Carters, Columbia, 1961.
Songs of Our Land, Columbia, 1962.
Hard Travelin’, Columbia, 1963.
Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall, Columbia, 1963.
Flatt & Scruggs at Vanderbilt University, Columbia, 1964.
The Original Sound of Flatt & Scruggs, Mercury, 1964.
Flatt & Scruggs with the Foggy Mountain Boys, Mercury, 1964.
The Golden Era of Flatt & Scruggs, Rounder.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Hilltop.
Flatt & Scruggs’ Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1966.
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Columbia.
20 AIJ-Time Great Recordings of Flatt & Scruggs, Columbia.
The World of Flatt & Scruggs, Columbia.
Foggy Mountain Chimes, Harmony.
Sacred Songs/Great Original Recordings, Harmony.
Bonnie and Clyde, Columbia.
Wabash Cannon bal I, Harmony.
The Mercury Sessions: Volume 1, 1948–1950, Volume 2, 1950, Rounder, 1985.
You Can Feel It in Your Soul, County, 1988.
With the Nashville Grass
Lester Raymond Flatt, Flying Fish, 1975.
The Best of Lester Flatt, RCA.
Flatt on Victor, RCA.
Kentucky Ridgerunner, RCA.
Country Boy, RCA.
Before You Go, RCA.
Flatt Out, Columbia.
Lester Flatt Live with Bill Monroe, RCA.
(With Mac Wiseman) On the Southbound, RCA.
(With Wiseman) Lester ‘n’ Mac, RCA.
(With Wiseman) Over the Hills to the Poorhouse, RCA.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Sand berg, Larry and Dick Weissman, The Folk Music Source-book, Knopf, 1976.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Bluegrass Unlimited, January, 1968, February, 1968, January, 1971, November, 1971.
Esquire, October, 1959.
New York Times, July 19, 1959.
New York Times Magazine, June 13, 1970.
Rolling Stone, July 12, 1979.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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