Bluegrass History in Person #2 – Flatt & Scruggs 1964

In the last chapter I mentioned my dad surprised the family with the news that we were going to drive to Sunset Park in southeast Pennsylvania to see Flatt & Scruggs in person. Summer of 1964. He had the new Ford Falcon for the trip (standard transmission). I just couldn’t believe it! I was 10, and I had literally prayed a prayer that somehow I would get to see Flatt & Scruggs in person. Well, that prayer was answered. I felt a little guilty about such a selfish prayer, I’ll tell you!

So we headed for the little town of Oxford PA. There were a few turnpikes between Maine and PA at the time, but the “Interstate” system wasn’t all built and connected yet. I remember we drove from Maine to NY and crossed the Bear Mtn Bridge!

In any case, we made it to Oxford PA on Aug 29 1964, a Saturday. We stopped at a little country store that was the emporium of radio DJ and bluegrass band leader Alec Campbell. His band was the New River Boys & Girls, featuring Ola Belle Reed. (His sister, I think.) Now Alec and Ola Belle were the REAL THING, from the Appalachians of western North Carolina. Some of the New River Boys’ families came from that same country, notably fiddler Sonny Miller and bass player young Jerry McCoury (Del’s little brother). They had long-standing contacts with the “real” country and bluegrass bands from Nashville. Sunset Park’s owner booked all the big bluegrass acts every summer, since the days of WWII!,

Alec was perched up on a high desk in the general store, spinning bluegrass and country records. While the records played he asked my dad where we were from. Maine was just beyond his imagination. He wanted to announce us on the radio, but for the life of him he could NOT pronounce “Bowden”, nor the town we were from in Maine “Orland”. He struggled and struggled and finally gave up. He played a request for us. He invited us to come back at MIDNIGHT when he and Ola Belle would go on live radio right after the close of the Wheeling West VA Jamboree, with the New River Boys. Now my dad had heard this Saturday midnight broadcast on WWVA, but I never had. A little side room in the store had folding chairs for maybe 30 people and a small stage. It was PACKED. I was so excited I couldn’t believe it, my first live bluegrass show!

As I said in the last chapter, I was WAY into Dobro playing at that time; having retuned my little Gibson guitar to play like a Dobro. And the New River Boys had a famous old Dobro player named Deacon Brumfield. He played an old style in between Brother Oswald (with Roy Acuff) and Buck Graves with Flatt & Scruggs. I also remember the banjo player’s name was “Beryl” or “Berle”, and he was hot!

The show was thrilling, with live commercials by Alec. Occasionally we would hear Station Identification for WWVA in Wheeling, as Alec’s show went by telephone wire to WWVA. What a thrill.

Ola Belle eventually got national recognition as one of the first authentic mountain women to bring the music of her youth to national attention. She was recognized by the Smithsonian and eventually made some solo records with her guitar and banjo. Del McCoury recorded a few of her songs as hard-charging bluegrass. Notably, “High on a Mountain”.

So, we went to a little motel VERY tired, knowing we’d go to Sunset Park on Sunday Aug 30 to see Flatt & Scruggs. My greatest wish was to meet Dobroist Buck Graves.

We drove out through farm country to the tiny town of Jennersville/West Grove. Farm fields in all directions. We saw a grove of big oak trees and there was the sign! We drove in on a winding dirt farm lane til we saw what looked like a small carnival set-up, and a large open pavilion with plank seats and a nice stage under the trees.

My brother and I walked around checking out the fair food, cheap fair rides, etc. We were in awe of the local Philly accent. We heard a boy ask for a Coke, but to us it sounded like he said “Kyoke”.

Finding Mom and Dad out behind the stage near the big Flatt & Scruggs bus I had seen in so many photos, Lester and Earl were in their their black suits, straw Stetsons and string ties, posing for endless photos and shaking hands with folks. My mom got a photo of Dad talking to Earl. Then she pushed me up to Earl so the two of us could pose for a photo. When I felt Earl’s hand on my shoulder, it was a THRILL for ten year old me, I’ll tell you. And I vowed I would never wash that shirt again.

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs & Paul Bowden

My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t get to speak to Buck Graves. Apparently, being “junior man” in the Foggy Mtn Boys, he was the designated gopher. He ran back and forth to the bus constantly bringing instruments, records, song/picture books, etc. Busy as a bee.

The time came for the first set. Alec Campbell gave them a huge intro, and away they went. The band was Lester, Earl, fiddler Paul Warren, Dobro Buck Graves and bass fiddle Jake Tullock. Just 5 pieces. Curly Sechler was no longer in the group, nor rhythm guitarist Billy Powers.

HOLY SIMOLEANS! Their show was just STUNNING. The music was familiar and excellent, but what really transfixed me was the seamless choreography. They moved like ice skaters, using just two mics. I found out in recent decades that the Martha White Flour management hired a pro choreography to teach Lester and Earl and band how to move around so beautifully. I don’t know if I believe this or not, but it’s “out there”.

Another disappointment was about ¾ of the way through the set, everybody but Josh Graves and Jake Tullock left the stage. (I found out decades later this gave Flatt a chance to have a smoke on the backstage steps.) Josh and Jake did about 20 minutes of the WORST comedy imaginable. I was furious! Bring back the band and stop wasting time! I remember one of their “jokes” involved Josh asking Jake if he’d been paid yet today. Jake replied “Yeah, Earl gave me twenty bucks”. Josh nodded and said, “Fine, I got twenty too”. Jake flipped out, thinking Josh got “twenty-two”. The kept this foolishness up for 10 minutes. Honestly! Finally the band came back.

During the long intermission, we walked around the parking lots in the Park. And we got another delightful surprise. We found a few “parking lot pickers” sitting around picking and singing bluegrass! Now this was astounding to us. We watched a couple of “college boys” sitting on the tailgate of a station wagon with guitar and banjo. I snapped a photo of them with my Brownie camera. Do you think I had sense enough to get their names? No. The photo has been in my scrapbook for 60 years, labeled “college boys”. I’ve gone on-line to ask if anyone recognized them – no answers. These guys were really good! This was mighty eye-opening!

Parking Lot Pickers

The second set was wonderful, as the late afternoon twilight darkened the oak grove.

Then it was over, my brother and I removed our elbows from the front of the stage, we got something quick to eat, and away we went to the motel.

In the last 10 years or so I saw a show poster for this show, on-line. The exact show!

In the 1990s I got to perform on the Sunset Park stage as half of the Case Brothers – Martin & Gibson, opening for Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright (her husband, of the Opry band Johnnie & Jack). Same oak grove, concessions, games, etc. And the big pavilion with plank seats. Later in the 1990s a freak spring snowstorm collapsed that pavilion, and that was the end of over 50 years of country shows at Sunset Park.

So, as far as live bluegrass, I was blessed to START AT THE TOP! I NEVER saw a live show to beat Flatt & Scruggs anywhere, anytime.

Oh, also, when I got home I changed my little Gibson guitar back to regular tuning, and started sneaking to use my dad’s new Gibson RB 100 banjo!! A few years later he gave it to me. Earl ruint me!

Ed. Note: Some may wonder how Earl was able to autograph the snapshot with Dick. He took an 8×10 enlargement to IBMA in Owensboro KY in the 1990s and had it signed there.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

16 Responses

  • Dick this is pure gold! If there is an archive for bluegrass oral history, your memoir should be in it. Thanks for the stories and the photos.

  • Thanks Andy. They wouldn’t have enough video tape or computer memory to record everything I could say. I like dredging up these stories for folks. Next up, seeing Don Reno and Bill Harrell perform LIVE in Maine!

      • Dick Bowden, read your article. I grew up in Madison, Tn near Earl Scruggs and Kitty and Johnnie. I have an authentic photo of Earl, Lester and the boys in front of their bus. I can send you a picture of front and back for certification. I own anantique store in WhiteHouse, Tn.

        • Several years ago a friend introduced me to the Flatt and Scruggs tune “I’m Workin’ On A Road”. What a joy to hear both faith and musical genius set free.

      • Buck Graves, aka Uncle Josh Graves, Buck being his first-acquired nickname.
        Real name Burkett R. Graves.

        A second famous Dobro player with two nicknames is Beecher R. Kirby, aka “Pete” Kirby, aka Brother Oswald Kirby.

  • Sunset Park was a treasure. My buddy Harry Grant (Wind Gap promoter) would often drive there from Jersey. Great memories.

    • I love stories on how people meet these famous people. I always loved Flat n Scruggs. I got to see Earl several times and always love hearing his music. Most of these old-timers are gone now and keeping their legacy and music alive. Thank you again for your wonderful story.

  • Interesting article.
    Did you ever go to Berryville Festival ?
    I seen the Country Gentlemen there for the first time in 1968 . Blew me away. DUFFY , ADCOCK and Waller . I think ED FERRIS was on the bass.

    • Any idea when Bill Monroe played Sunset Park. It may have been when Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia traveled cross country to be there.

      • Dick you brought back memories with this recent article. I played for many years with Olabelle Reed both at Sunset Park and other venues .A great banjo player and human being. I am from Boston and played with the Lilly Brothers at the Hillbilly Ranch.

  • The is the best article Ihave read about bluegrass in a very long time,.my hometown of Huntington west virginia was one of cities that had a live TV show with flat and scruggs,the Martha white flour people were the sponsers.

  • I was born in 54, family is from PA abs Wheeling W.VA. we are related to the Bowden’s.
    This article jogged my memory. Today is our 47th anniversary also.
    Beverly Hillbillies brought Flatt n Scrugg to us.

  • My family have been fans of bluegrass since listening to the Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s. My son plays banjo and other son plays guitar. My wife can play the fiddle really well. My wife and I belong to the Bay Area Bluegrass Association which is located in Webster, TX .

  • When I was a teenager my family went to a fourth of July party with whole hog bbq swimming pool and all sorts of activities. There were a lot of guests and Flat and Scruggs was there and I got to sit in a log house and have a live show with the fireplace in the background. I very much enjoyed that and remember to this day. They were very nice and talked with everyone.

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