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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,603

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This is the grave of Lester Flatt.

Born in 1914 in Duncan’s Chapel, Tennessee, Flatt grew up around music. He learned the banjo, the mandolin and the guitar at the very time that people such as Bill Monroe were inventing bluegrass music and connecting it between country, old-time, and jazz. Duncan’s Chapel wasn’t in the mountains where bluegrass would really have its roots, whether that was the western Kentucky hills of Monroe or the deeper Appalachia of the Stanley Brothers, but Flatt fell in love with it. He and his wife started playing together around the area, just small-time stuff. Mostly, they both worked in the local textile plants.

In 1943, Flatt joined the band of Charlie Monroe, Bill’s older brother. A lot of Bill’s early songs were when he was with Charlie, playing down in the Carolinas in the late 30s. Bill had gone on his own path by 1943, but certainly he became aware of the new mandolinist that Charlie had found. Now, Bill did not need a mandolin, to say the least. But in 1945, Bill hired Flatt to sing and play guitar in his band and this would be the single most important band in the history of bluegrass, since he brought Earl Scruggs in to play banjo shortly after hiring Flatt.

Flatt did a lot to make this iteration of Monroe’s band so great. First, Bill didn’t like the limelight much, so Flatt did the talking to the audience. Second, Flatt’s smooth voice was a great contrast to Monroe’s mountain yelp and so the vocals in the band took a huge step forward. Monroe was enamored enough with Flatt to hire his wife, who was missing him and wanted him home more often, to run the merch table. Flatt also basically chose Scruggs to replace Stringbean on the banjo, telling Monroe to pay the kid whatever he wanted. This band recorded many of Monroe’s classic tunes.

In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs decided to leave Monroe and start their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Monroe never really would have a stable band again. The Foggy Mountain Boys though would become the big stars of bluegrass. That’s largely because Flatt and Scruggs were happy being in the media and Monroe was a crank who hated all of that stuff and yet was jealous when anyone else got the media attention he didn’t even want! Monroe was OK with them having their own band….until they got asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. That was in 1955. Monroe refused to even speak to Flatt again until 1973. That was Monroe in a nutshell, a very unpleasant man personally until he mellowed out later in life.

In any case, Flatt & Scruggs became hugely popular. Sponsored by Martha White Flour Mills, which made biscuit flour, they toured the South constantly and did tons of radio. In fact, it was White who demanded the Opry include them. They had a 5:45 AM slot on WSM in Nashville (good lord, I hope they were recording these instead of playing live at that time) and then had syndicated TV spots that went out through the South beginning in 1955.

In the early 60s, the folk revival really picked up on them. They were seen as the authentic vision of Appalachian music for a lot of these folkies. That was ridiculous–these were two extremely modern men–but you weren’t going to get in the way of a folkie’s idea of authenticity easily unless you did something crazy like use an electric guitar. So if you listen to the Live at Vanderbilt album from the early 60s, they are introduced as the ultimate in authentic music, which was somewhat ridiculous for a singer who based a lot of his style on Frank Sinatra and a banjo player who literally revolutionized the instrument in something called “the Scruggs style.”

Then there was the greatest hit Flatt & Scruggs would ever have–“The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies. Now, this slightly embarrassed them, but the money definitely did not embarrass them. But I’ve heard live performances where they are like, well, guess we have to play this. The largest selling song in bluegrass history is the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top,” because it became the ubiquitious theme song of the University of Tennessee. I am not completely sure that the Beverly Hillbillies theme is the second biggest song in bluegrass history, but I would bet actual money on the point. They also did the soundtrack to Bonnie & Clyde, making them even more money and adding a lot to that revolutionary film.

Flatt and Scruggs began to have tensions by the late 60s. There were two reasons for this, both really revolving around Scruggs being a fascinating human being. Flatt was a very traditional man, both politically and musically. Scruggs loved what he was doing, but desperately wanted to expand his horizons musically. He started playing with people such as King Curtis and wanting to incorporate material his kids listened to in the act. Flatt hated all of that. Scruggs also became a political liberal and Flatt really hated that. Scruggs was called the only Nashville star to vote for McGovern in 1972 and while that wasn’t quite true, while he was doing that, Lester Flatt was recording the odious “I Can’t Tell the Boys from the Girls” as his contribution to the anti-hippie songs coming out of Nashville at that time. So not surprisingly, the group broke up in 1969.

Flatt started a new band called Nashville Grass. It went through a zillion members like so many of these bands. But he did have one big contribution in these later years–he hired a 13 year old mandolin player named Marty Stuart into his band. Stuart later became a huge country star and is a senior Nashville figure today, beloved by almost everyone, no matter where you fall in the civil wars of country music. Flatt started slowing down though, with a 1967 heart attack and subsequent open heart surgery requiring less touring.

Flatt died in 1979. It was heart failure. He was 64 years old. Flatt did not live long enough to see his band be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That happened in 1985.

Let’s listen to some of Flatt’s great work:

Lester Flatt is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Sparta, Tennessee. 

If you would like this series to visit other bluegrass legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Both Ralph and Carter Stanley are in McClure, Virginia and Bobby Osborne is in Gallatin, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here. 

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