Saturday, May 11, 2013

Remembering Lester Flatt

I wanted to take a moment and remember one of the great bluegrass legends of all time, Lester Flatt, who passed away on May 11, 1979. Lester had a long association with the Grand Ole Opry, first with Bill Monroe as a member of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, then as part of the duo Flatt and Scruggs, and finally as the leader of his own group, the Nashville Grass.

Lester was born on June 14, 1914 in Duncan's Chapel, Tennessee. He grew up in a rural farm setting where music was often played. He left school at the age of twelve and worked in a textile mill. He married at the age of seventeen and by 1943 was working in radio. During this time, he worked with several bands including Charlie Monroe and his Kentucky Partners. In that group, Lester sang tenor and played guitar and mandolin. In 1945 he was hired as guitarist and led singer in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.

Lester met Earl Scruggs shortly after that, when Earl joined Bill Monroe's group. They stayed as members of the Blue Grass Boys until early 1948, when Earl and Lester left Bill's group. By the end of that year, Flatt and Scruggs were playing at WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee, and recording for Mercury Records. During the years that followed, they moved to various radio stations in the Southeast and in 1950 they signed with Columbia Records, where they would remain for the rest of their careers together.

In 1953 Martha White Flour began sponsoring Flatt and Scrugg's daily early morning radio shows over WSM in Nashville, and would continue to support them the rest of their career. Two years later, they became members of the Grand Ole Opry, over the objections of Bill Monore. Bill was so against them joining the Opry that he tried to get a petition started to prohibit them from joining. However, the executives of Martha White Flour, one of the Opry's biggest supporters and sponsors, threatened to pull their advertising from WSM and the Opry if Flatt and Scruggs were not made members. Based on that, and the support of other Opry members, Flatt and Scruggs were welcomed at the Opry.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flatt and Scruggs had a syndicated television show that was seen by millions of viewers across the Southeast and their recordings began to show up on the country charts. They made appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and were leaders in the folk music movement. They performed the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies and their recording of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" was their only #1 record on the country charts.

The early 1960s was the highlight of their popularity and while they would both battle health problems, they continued to tour and record widely. They traveled to Japan and made frequent trips to the West coast. In the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, their 1949 recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was used, giving the duo increased exposure.

Musical and business differences brought the act to an end in early 1969. Earl Scruggs would continue to perform a more progessive sound of bluegrass with his sons, while Lester, who in 1969 formed the Nashville Grass, would stick to a more traditional bluegrass sound. Lester remained a Grand Ole Opry member and he found new audiences while keeping the traditional sound of bluegrass that he was most comfortable with, alive. A number of the Foggy Mountain Boys stayed with Lester and critics and fans hailed Lester's early recordings on Nugget and RCA records.

It is interesting how the name Nashville Grass came about. Lester was contractually prevented from using the Foggy Mountain Boys name, so the advertising agency that handled Martha White's account promoted a "name the band" contest. More than 20,000 entries came in and Nashville Grass was the winner. Flatt initially disliked the name, a punning reference on Danny Davis's Nashville Brass. However, his resistance faded when it proved popular among fans and other bluegrass bands adopted similar "grass" monikers.

By 1972, the Nashville Grass began to turn over some of its members, but Lester made sure to keep the trademark, traditional bluegrass sound. In September of that year, 14 year old Marty Stuart joined the group as the lead guitarist, while Curly Seckler rejoined the group.

Troubled by lingering problems from a 1967 heart attack, Lester underwent open heart surgery in June 1975. Although his health continued to deteriorate, he kept the band on the road until shortly before he passed away on May 11, 1979. It was in 1985, well after his death, that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. If you get a chance, watch the video from that night when the announcement was made on the CMA Awards Show and you will see a priceless reaction from Earl.

Lester's final Grand Ole Opry appearance was on Friday April 6, 1979. His final Saturday Opry show was the previous Saturday, March 24, when he hosted segments on both shows. Even to the end of his career, Lester's long association with Martha White continued as he always hosted the Martha White 8:00 portion of the Opry, often singing the Martha White theme song.

From Friday April 6, 1979, here is the line-up of Opry members from that night:

7:30: Jimmy C Newman (host); Jeannie Pruett; Jim & Jesse; Willis Brothers
8:00: Lester Flatt (host); Stu Phillips; Wilburn Brothers
8:30: Roy Acuff (host); David Houston; 4 Guys
9:00: Billy Walker (host); Connie Smith; Carlisles
9:30: Bill Monroe (host); Charlie Walker; Stonewall Jackson; Marion Worth
10:00: Del Reeves (host); Ray Pillow; Wilma Lee Cooper; Ernie Ashworth
10:30: Billy Grammer (host); Justin Tubb; Charlie Louvin

An argument can be made that outside of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt was the greatest and most influential bluegrass performer in the history of that music. You will get no argument from me. He kept the traditional sound alive and served as a huge influence on the generation that followed. Not to take anything away from Bill Monroe, but Lester, because of his ability to reach out to the younger fans and performers, and his visits to college campuses and festivals, did much to popularize traditional bluegrass music. The influence is still felt today.

1 comment:

  1. Amen to all of that, Byron. And Gladys, Lester's widow, is, I believe, still alive and kicking.

    My mother, who introduced me to country music, laughed for years about Earl's reaction to the announcement that he and Lester were going into the Hall of Fame.

    There's a great story that Marty Stuart tells about how Bob Dylan inspired him to call Earl to tell him that Lester was dying, and he went to the hospital. I believe Marty said the two of them were like brothers, and fought as only brothers can and do. And then, to continue with this stream of consciousness, this week is also the anniversary of the death of Keith Whitley, who did the greatest Lester impression imaginable.