Lester Flatt, guitar-player and vocalist from Tennessee, joined with Earl Scruggs, an extraordinary banjo player from North Carolina, to bring bluegrass to international prominence. From 1948 until 1969, when Flatt and Scruggs split up, they were the bluegrass band. Earl Scruggs reinvented banjo playing with his syncopated, three-finger picking – the five-string banjo was never the same again.
Lester Raymond Flatt was born near Sparta, Tennessee in 1914, one of nine children. By the age of seven he was playing guitar and singing in the church choir. Later, when asked about his musical style, he said that the music he played was simply the same type of music his family had taught him.
Flatt had a variety of musical jobs before starting as rhythm guitarist and lead singer with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945.
Earl Eugene Scruggs was born in Shelby, North Carolina, in 1924. His family of five children had a father, George, who frailed on the banjo, giving the young Earl an early introduction to the instrument, learning to play when he was four. He appeared on radio at age 11 and was playing in bluegrass bands by 15. Despite his early musical career he returned home to take care of his widowed mother in 1939 and worked in a local textile mill.
At Christmas 1945 Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys and a page of history was written. When Scruggs auditioned, Flatt was “thrilled. It was so different! I had never heard that kind of banjo-picking. We had been limited, but Earl made all the difference in the world.”
The Blue Grass Boys were busy and continual touring took its toll. Earl quit in early 1948, followed within two weeks by Lester. They took a name from the Carter Family track ‘Foggy Mountain Top’, and went out as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
During the fall of 1948, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys began a three-year recording contract with Mercury Records. Also in 1948, Earl Scruggs married Louise Certain, who helped manage the band and kept them working through the years.
With Benny Sims on fiddle, they recorded more than two dozen tunes between the years of 1949 and 1950. These included the Scruggs-penned ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ which reached Number 9 in the country charts, traditional ‘Old Salty Dog Blues’ and Charlie Monroe’s ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’.
Also in 1950 they made their first Columbia recording which included Flatt’s ‘The Old Home Town’. Flatt and Scruggs moved to WNOX in Knoxville where they recorded ‘Dear Old Dixie’, ‘Flint Hill Special’, ‘Thinking About You’ and ‘Pray For The Boys’, the latter especially timely because of the Korean War. In 1952 ‘’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered’ also rose to Number 9 in the country charts.
The Foggy Mountain Boys joined the Opry in 1955 and, in October 1957, released their first LP, ‘Foggy Mountain Jamboree’. This included tracks such as ‘Jimmie Brown, The Newsboy’, ‘Shuckin’ The Corn’, ‘Your Love Is Like A Flower’ and ‘Blue Ridge Cabin Home’.
Flatt’s ‘Cabin In The Hills’ reached Number 9 in 1959 and shortly afterwards in 1960 they had two minor country-chart hits with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’ and ‘Polka On A Banjo’, followed by ‘Go Home’ in 1961 and ‘Just Ain’t’ and ‘The Legend Of The Johnson Boys’ in 1962. Then ‘The Ballad Of Jed Clampett’ took them to Number 1 when The Beverly Hillbillies TV sitcom became the show’s theme song. It was the first and only bluegrass song to top the country chart, and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
After Scruggs’ July 1959 appearance at the first Newport Folk Festival, he was described by the New York Times as the ‘Paganini of the five-string banjo’. This was probably the impetus which sent Flatt and Scruggs to stardom during the folk boom of the early Sixties.
Bluegrass banjo instrumentals were becoming more and more prominent in music, and when Pete Seeger included a section in his folk banjo book about Scruggs’ playing method the group became accepted in educated urban folk circles.
‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ was used as the background music to the 1967 movie Bonnie And Clyde, winning a Grammy and earning a ‘Million-Air’ award for a million broadcasts, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were soon to split. The last time they played on stage together was in February 1969.
Lester Flatt died in May 1979, seven years before Flatt and Scruggs entered the Country Music Hall of Fame. Scruggs, who was on hand to accept the honour, died of natural causes in 2012, aged 88, a banjo pioneer and bluegrass legend who transformed the instrument forever.