When Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs left Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1948, neither of them could have foreseen that their partnership would become the most successful band in bluegrass history. My next two blog posts will consider how Flatt and Scruggs succeeded so spectacularly when so many others, including Monroe himself, often were barely making ends meet.
Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys had a national label recording contract. They were stars of the Grand Ole Opry and their syndicated television show aired weekly across the south. During the 1960s their music was heard from coast to coast each week as the theme of a very popular network television show as well as in the soundtrack of a landmark motion picture. Lester and Earl themselves made regular guest appearances on the network television show. They played at Carnegie Hall and on many college campuses. Their records outsold those of every other bluegrass band. Since their heyday in the 1950’s-60s, no other bluegrass band has come close to rivaling Lester’s and Earl’s impact on popular culture.
The success of Flatt and Scruggs resulted from many causes, including good luck, but their musical talent and their genius in attracting great sidemen was the primary factor. They made music that was novel, very exciting, and just plain fun to listen to. First and foremost was Earl Scruggs’ banjo virtuosity. Scruggs had supercharged the Blue Grass Boys when he joined in late 1945 and he continued to hone his sound with the Foggy Mountain Boys. In the band’s very first recordings, in 1948 for Mercury, Earl played guitar, rather than banjo, on two gospel songs, but soon he was back on banjo and in 1949 he recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the iconic bluegrass banjo tune. He followed that with his banjo renditions of a Bill Monroe mandolin instrumental, “Pike County Breakdown,” and a 1920’s jazz tune, “Farewell Blues,” which early on showed his willingness to branch out musically. Earl’s banjo also featured prominently on the songs that the band recorded, many of which, such as “Down The Road,” “My Little Girl In Tennessee,” “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “Old Salty Dog Blues,” promptly became bluegrass standards. And Earl contributed a smooth baritone part to the band’s vocal trios and quartets.
Earl’s partner Lester Flatt brought his own star power to the band. Flatt had honed his vocals with Bill Monroe, and some of their songs together, like “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” remain among the finest bluegrass duets ever recorded. Flatt also wrote songs with Monroe, including “Little Cabin Home” as well as “Why Did You Wander” and “Will You Be Loving Another Man.” He continued to write songs that are now part of the bluegrass canon for the new band. Early Flatt compositions included “Why Don’t You Tell Me So,” “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear,” and “I’ll Stay Around.”
Flatt brought to the Foggy Mountain Boys a relaxed style of singing, which seemed almost effortless, and his genial approach carried over to his masterful emcee work for the band. In his way, Lester’s vocal style and his friendly stage patter had a Bing Crosby feel. As a guitarist, Flatt provided a solid rhythmic anchor for the songs and for Scruggs and the band’s other virtuoso soloists. Flatt played with a thumbpick and an index fingerpick, unlike today’s guitar flatpickers but similar to several other noted guitarists of his day, such as Charlie Monroe (with whom Flatt worked before joining the Blue Grass Boys), Clyde Moody, and Carter Stanley. There is a good reason that the trademark bluegrass guitar G run, a quick ascending pattern based on a G chord, is called the “Lester Flatt G Run.”
From the beginning, Flatt and Scruggs hired great musicians to be Foggy Mountain Boys. Many of their hires stayed with the band for years, and such longevity contributed to the band’s polished sound. Thus, Josh Graves on dobro, hired in 1955, and Paul Warren, on fiddle, hired in 1954, stayed with the group until it broke up in 1969. Graves was a resonator guitar innovator who brought that instrument to bluegrass and helped Flatt and Scruggs distinguish their sound from Monroe’s. For his part, Paul Warren is rightly considered one of the best of what disc jockey, fiddler, and former Johnson Mountain Boy Eddie Stubbs calls the “blood and guts bluegrass fiddlers.” And Curley Seckler, on mandolin and tenor vocals, was a Foggy Mountain Boy for much of the 1950s and into the 1960s. Although Seckler’s mandolin playing was rarely heard on record, he was one of the music’s all time great tenor singers, and he gave his duets with Lester a special shine. One of my favorite Flatt/Seckler duets is “That Old Book of Mine,” which Curley wrote (and he even gets half a chorus on mandolin).
Even before Warren and Graves joined the band, Lester and Earl had some of the best sidemen there were. In addition to Seckler, Mac Wiseman, fiddler Benny Martin, bassist Howard Watts, and fiddler Chubby Wise (Watts and Wise had been Blue Grass Boys with Lester and Earl) all recorded and/or performed with the band in the early days.
In addition to the band’s exciting music, Lester’s and Earl’s smart business decisions enhanced their popularity. In 1950, Flatt and Scruggs signed with Columbia Records, a national label for which they recorded until they parted company in 1969. As a major national label, Columbia could promote their records more heavily to radio stations and record retailers. Flatt and Scruggs also acquired an important sponsor, a flour company based in the south called Martha White Mills, for whom they composed and performed a popular commercial jingle, “You Bake Right With Martha White.” This sponsorship proved very beneficial to the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Martha White advertised heavily on Nashville radio station WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and used its clout with WSM to get Flatt and Scruggs on the Opry in 1955 (over the strenuous objections of Bill Monroe, still sore over their departure from the Blue Grass Boys years earlier). Moreover, Martha White sponsored the band’s weekly syndicated television show. These programs were originally aired live in multiple southern cities, resulting in a grueling travel schedule. In the late 1950s Flatt and Scruggs began taping their television show, which spared them much travel and created a priceless video record of the Foggy Mountain Boys in their prime.
There’ll more to say in my next post about the Flatt and Scruggs television show and the other things that contributed to their enormous popularity.