The Foggy Mountain Boys

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The Foggy Mountain Boys

Created in 1948 by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Foggy Mountain Boys were one of bluegrass music's most popular acts, introducing millions of listeners to the style through their association with well-known movies and televisions shows in the 1950s. Though the act's full name was Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, they were widely referred to as Flatt & Scruggs, as the two co-leaders were the sole permanent members of the band during its almost 20-year existence.

The Foggy Mountain Boys' first recordings were made shortly after Flatt and Scruggs left Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1948, and in the space of little more than a year they created 28 of the most influential and enduring songs in the style, virtually all of which have become standards. With John Ray "Curly" Seckler singing tenor harmony to Flatt's genial lead vocals, and Scruggs providing the lower, baritone harmony part, the band sought to distinguish itself from Monroe's by downplaying the role of his instrument, the mandolin, featuring instead Scruggs' dazzling banjo picking and the work of a succession of fiddlers, including Benny Sims, "Chubby" Wise, "Howdy" Forrester, and Benny Martin. Where Monroe's sacred ("gospel") songs were performed with spare backing featuring the mandolin, Flatt and Scruggs opted to retain the full band's sound, with the substitution of Scruggs' bluesy, finger-picked lead guitar for his banjo. Working for a succession of radio stations in places like Danville, Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; and Versailles, Kentucky, they quickly built a devoted following that made them an attractive acquisition for the Columbia label, whose roster they joined in 1950, remaining for the duration of the band's career.

While the Foggy Mountain Boys scored their first charting record in 1952, "'Tis Sweet To Be Remembered," their real breakthrough came when the Martha White Mills signed on as their sponsor, a relationship that was to continue for as long as the band existed. The deal gave Flatt and Scruggs an early-morning show on Nashville's WSM, the radio home of the Grand Ole Opry, starting in the spring of 1953, which led to regular weekly appearances on a Martha White-sponsored portion of the Opry, as well as a series of television shows that aired in cities around the South. Together with a busy touring schedule and regular recording sessions and releases, these appearances kept the Foggy Mountain Boys before an increasingly devoted audience, while the security of their Martha White sponsorship allowed them to retain a relatively stable lineup—Paul Warren on fiddle, Burkett "Uncle Josh" Graves on dobro (resonator guitar), Seckler and English "Jake" Tullock on string bass—at a time when other bluegrass acts were suffering the economic effects of the rock'n'roll boom of the late 1950s.

Indeed, Flatt and Scruggs' defied conventional wisdom by achieving their greatest success during a period when many country and bluegrass acts were suffering hard times. On the one hand, their increasingly sophisticated recorded sound—often augmented by drums, additional guitars, and other instruments—found favor on the country charts (they placed six singles in the Top 40 between 1959 and 1962), while on the other, Earl Scruggs' brilliance on the banjo brought the act attention from the growing numbers of urban folk revival enthusiasts, which was carefully tended to by his wife, Louise. The greatest boost to their popularity, however, was their recording of the theme song for television's Beverly Hillbillies, which spent three weeks at the top of the country chart and exposed millions of viewers to their music—and to the co-leaders directly, as they made several guest appearances on the show. When they appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York the same December, 1962, week that "The Ballad Of Jed Clampett" reached #1, it was apparent that the Foggy Mountain Boys had reached hitherto unattained heights of popularity for a bluegrass act.

From then on, the band led what amounted to a double life, aiming single records at country radio, LP albums at the folk audience, and making appearances at both folk and country venues, including at the prestigious and increasingly well-attended Newport Folk Festivals in the mid 1960s. Though the strategy worked well from a commercial point of view, many of their fans were dismayed by the resultant changes to their music, which drew increasingly from the folk realm, both older, traditional numbers as well as songs written by newer, urban folk artists such as Bob Dylan. The Foggy Mountain Boys' sound moved increasingly in the direction of folk-rock, with an ever-growing number of studio musicians playing a prominent role in their recordings; the change was further sharpened as Earl Scruggs, encouraged by his teenaged sons, began to develop a greater interest in contemporary popular styles, while Flatt yearned for a return to the more countrified, strictly bluegrass sound of the 1950s and early 1960s editions of the band.

By 1969, despite even greater popularity resulting from the prominent use of their "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as background music in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, both Flatt and Scruggs were unwilling to maintain their association, and the Foggy Mountain Boys disbanded shortly after Scruggs' appearance with his sons at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C. Both of the leaders established their own groups, Flatt forming The Nashville Grass, with a more traditional sound, Scruggs creating the Earl Scruggs Revue with his sons and other young musicians interested in a bluegrass-rock hybrid. The Foggy Mountain Boys passed into history. The band's reputation, tarnished by the end, rebounded as their earlier recordings were reissued, and their influence has proven to be both immense and enduring; most of their recordings from the band's first 15 years of existence have become staples of the bluegrass repertoire, and virtually no bluegrass festival takes place without the performance of a healthy number of the Foggy Mountain Boys' classic songs.

—Jon Weisberger

Further Reading:

Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Kochman, Marilyn, editor. The Big Book of Bluegrass. New York, William Morrow, 1984.

Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Willis, Barry R. America's Music, Bluegrass. Franktown, Colorado, Pine Valley Music, 1992.