My last post explored some of the reasons that Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys became the most popular bluegrass band in the history of the music. Their extraordinary talent and that of the Foggy Mountain Boys, their record deal with Columbia, a national label, the sponsorship of Martha White Mills, and their membership on the Grand Ole Opry, all contributed to their success.
In addition, the band’s videotaped television program ran weekly throughout the southeastern US. The program dramatically increased their visibility and allowed fans old and new who were unable to attend their shows to see as well as hear the band. Flatt and Scruggs were experienced showmen, and they recognized that the band’s visual stagecraft was an important part of their appeal. Their choreography was masterful, as vocalists and instrumentalists weaved into and away from the microphone at their turns to sing or pick. Josh Graves, long time dobro player with the band, compared their stage movements to running plays in football. “Scruggs was the quarterback…[h]e’d hand the ball off to me, and I’d go though that hole. If you didn’t get out of there, you’d get stepped on.” Josh also explained that his sense of self preservation made him a quick study: “I weighed 120 pounds…[t]hem guys, all of them weighed 200. They’d tromp on you. When a new man would come in, he’d almost get killed before he learned.”
Because the television programs were recorded on videotape, they also created a visual record of the Foggy Mountain Boys in their prime during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the first decade of this century, ten DVDs each containing two half-hour programs were released. For those us who knew the band only from audio recordings, these performances were a revelation. The musical excitement they created was tangible, even more than on records (and their records are plenty exciting). Earl stepped up to the mic for his banjo break with a slight smile, and seemingly without effort, poured forth a cascade of sparkling notes. Paul Warren, grinning broadly, sawing away at a breakdown or the “Sugar Tree Stomp,” Josh sliding in from the side with his dobro angled so the resonator was pointed at the mic, or teaming up with bass player Cousin Jake Tullock for a novelty number or one of Josh’s compositions. Many of these memorable performances are also available on the internet.
Another important part of the band’s success was their management, provided from the mid-1950s on by Earl’s wife. Louise Certain Scruggs had a business background and was shrewd and knowledgeable, and she became very successful in a then mostly male field. Early on, she took advantage of the band’s appeal to the urban folk music fans and banjo devotees who dominated the folk revival in northern cities and on college campuses. She targeted their recordings to this market. For example, the Foggy Mountain Boys recorded an album of Carter Family songs with guest Maybelle Carter, and began including a larger number of traditional folk and old time songs in the band’s concerts and recordings. She also emphasized their folk roots in her liner notes on the band’s album jackets and in the texts of their souvenir song books. She got Flatt and Scruggs booked on college campuses, at the Newport Folk Festival, and on their first network television appearance, a 1960 CBS program called Folk Sound U.S.A. And Columbia Records recorded two of the band’s concerts in the early 1960s for live albums that showcased them at prestigious venues: Carnegie Hall and Vanderbilt University. By pursuing the folk revival market, Louise Scruggs helped the Foggy Mountain Boys break out of their regional market in the southeast and become known to music fans nationwide.
During this time, Flatt and Scruggs further enhanced their popularity when they provided the theme music for the Beverly Hillbillies television program on CBS. This show was a weekly half hour situation comedy featuring the adventures of a suddenly wealthy rural mountain family transplanted to California. It was enormously popular, and repeats of it air to this day. The band (minus Flatt; the TV theme was sung by Jerry Scroggins) performed the theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” and Earl’s banjo picking was heard each week in millions of American homes. Although Lester did not sing the theme for the TV show, the Flatt and Scruggs recording of it hit number one on the country charts, the first bluegrass song to do so. And Lester and Earl appeared occasionally on the show, playing themselves as friends of the Clampetts. The Beverly Hillbillies and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” made Flatt and Scruggs household names throughout the country.
Flatt and Scruggs also received nationwide exposure in 1967 when movie star Warren Beatty chose their 1949 recording of the banjo instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for the soundtrack of the movie Bonnie and Clyde. The tune was used several times to supercharge the outlaws’ getaway scenes. The movie was very popular and the band had a pop hit with a new recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
By the mid-1960s, Flatt and Scruggs had achieved nationwide recognition and popularity on a scale that no bluegrass band before or since has ever matched. Perhaps the closest recent contenders are Alison Krauss and the musicians heard in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. But even they, popular as they are, did not have their music played on network TV every week.
However, this spectacular success ultimately led to the band’s breakup. Lester Flatt became increasingly dissatisfied as the band continued to record more folk and pop hits in the mid and late 1960s. He preferred the older bluegrass songs and was miserable singing songs like Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Lester and Earl parted company in 1969, each starting a new band. Earl and his sons formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, playing a contemporary hybrid of rock and bluegrass. Lester returned to his roots, forming the Nashville Grass, a traditional outfit. Although both enjoyed success after the Foggy Mountain Boys ended, neither again attained the popularity they had known together during the 1960s.