Personalities | Flatt & Scruggs | Bluegrass | Country

Lester Flatt (1914–79) was relieved when Dave ‘Stringbean’ Akeman left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1945, for Flatt felt the group was better off without a banjo, which had been hindering their efforts to play faster and cleaner than anyone had before.

But Monroe agreed to audition a 21-year-old banjoist from western North Carolina, and Earl Scruggs (b. 1924) played the old fiddle tune ‘Sally Goodin’ with the Carolina three-finger roll that no one in Nashville had heard before. It transformed the banjo from a brake on the music into a gas pedal.

The Biggest Bluegrass Duo

Monroe hired him, and thus began the partnership between Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs that lasted 24 years and gave them more hit singles than any act in bluegrass history. Scruggs was a musical revolutionary, but he needed Flatt as much as Flatt needed him. The older man lent a warm, inviting voice to the young banjoist’s radical inventions and made them accessible to the broader audience that needs a familiar story and a reassuring face attached to musical experiments.

After two-plus years as the lead vocalist and instrumental star of The Blue Grass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs figured, not unreasonably, that they deserved more than the meagre wages Monroe was paying them. So, in January 1948, Flatt, Scruggs and Cedric Rainwater left to form their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. Blackballed from the Opry by an aggrieved Monroe, they recorded briefly with Mercury, but struggled until they signed with Columbia Records in 1950, then enjoyed a Top 10 country hit with 1952’s ‘’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered’. Their big break came in 1953, when they picked up a powerful sponsor, Martha White Flour, which put the duo back on the Opry and booked them for tours and television shows.

New Sounds In Country Music

By 1956, Flatt & Scruggs had clearly differentiated themselves from their ex-employer. Through emphasizing Scruggs’ banjo, deemphasizing the mandolin and adding Josh Graves on dobro, they created a different instrumental sound. By having Flatt sing lower and warmer than before, they created a different vocal sound. By writing and borrowing new tunes, they created a different repertoire.

Though he never went to college, Scruggs was a natural intellectual who read widely and sought out new experiences. His wife, the former Louise Certaine, became Flatt And Scruggs’ booking agent and manager and proved as ambitious as her husband was inquisitive. She pushed the band beyond the traditional bluegrass circuit to play the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, to record Live At Carnegie Hall in 1962, to play San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom at the height of hippiedom in 1967 and to tour Japan in 1968. She won Flatt And Scruggs the jobs of playing the soundtrack on the movie Bonnie And Clyde and the television shows The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction.

Flatt was less enthusiastic about all these moves away from traditional bluegrass, and the tensions eventually led to a...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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