Friday, June 19, 2009
Lester Flatt - b.June 19, 1914 d. May 11, 1979 - A Bluegrass Pioneer
Lester Flatt—one of the reasons bluegrass music is successful today There are few guitarist/lead singers who are better known in bluegrass music than Lester Raymond Flatt—probably none. His long career with Earl Scruggs and earlier with Bill Monroe made him a legend. And his strong rhythm guitar playing helped make bluegrass music the identifiable entity that it is.
Lester Flatt was born near Sparta, Tennessee, June 19, 1914. He was one of nine children. Young Lester was taught by his father to play the drop-thumb frailing banjo but could never master it so he quit to divert his energies elsewhere. By age seven, he was playing guitar and singing in the church choir. He became well-known near his home for his singing at schools and church programs before he was ten. Later in life, when asked about his musical style, he said that the music he played was simply the same type of music that his family had taught him. As a member of the Blue Grass Quartet, singing Monroe’s gospel tunes was just an extension of what he’d been doing all along. As a teenager, Lester left to work as a rayon weaver at the Sparta Silk Mill, Sparta, North Carolina. In 1934, Lester and wife Gladys bought a home in Sparta for $350 down and $5 per month payments. When the mill shut down that fall, the Flatts moved to McMinnville, Tennessee. Before the year was out, however, they were both employed in Johnson City by a silk mill there. The next year found them with the mill in the different location near Roanoke, Virginia. The Flatts did a little local entertaining together as a duo, and there in Roanoke, Lester joined Charlie Scott’s Harmonizers, playing on WDBJ. Flatt’s bout with rheumatoid arthritis forced him to quit the mill and to pursue music on a more regular basis. Lester and Gladys Flatt moved to Burlington, North Carolina, in the fall of 1940, where Gladys worked for the huge Burlington Industries, and Lester joined veteran entertainer Clyde Moody on WBBB where he sang tenor to Moody and played mandolin with Moody’s band. Also, it was during this period when Flatt worked at the mill that he worked with Jim Hall and the Crazy Mountaineers. In 1943, Flatt played with Charlie Monroe’s Kentucky Pardners in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Flatt played mandolin with this band only because Charlie played the guitar; he wasn’t accomplished on the mandolin but got a pay raise from Charlie to do it. He had to sing tenor to Charlie (just like Charlie’s brother, Bill, had done in the Monroe Brothers duets). Even though Flatt’s voice was capable of this type of work, he didn’t like it, and upon leaving Charlie Monroe he vowed never to do it again. There at WSJS (Winston-Salem) they were recorded on a thirty-minute 16-inch disc—a transcription (this was before tape recording). The master disc was then duplicated and shipped to other radio stations allowing the artist to appear at two or more places at once. They played on the Noon-Day Jamboree which was broadcast over seven radio stations and brought tremendous appearance demand. This led to Charlie’s purchase of a huge tent which could seat 2,000 people. They would fill it twice almost every night. The band had seven people plus a tent crew. Although he usually played mandolin with the band, it was here that most of Flatt’s guitar playing became refined. As did Clyde Moody, Cleo Davis, Charlie Monroe and occasionally Zeke Morris, Flatt adopted that style which included a thumb pick and a steel pick on the index finger. Flatt played guitar bass runs and melodies with his thumbpick on the low strings while brushing the high strings with his first finger to add rhythm. After quitting the Kentucky Pardners, Bill Monroe offered Flatt a job as rhythm guitarist and lead singer with the Blue Grass Boys, which he accepted. Stringbean met him at the bus station in Nashville and ushered him around until performance time. They all played on the Opry that night with no rehearsal. This was March 1945 according to some sources. Flatt’s voice fit well with the Blue Grass Boys and Monroe, quick to recognize good talent in his band, began listing Flatt’s name on the labels. Out of the next nineteen singles which featured vocals, only three did not feature Flatt singing lead.
At Christmas of 1945, Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys. According to Jake Lambert’s biography on Lester Flatt, “With the addition of Scruggs, Monroe’s band became one of the hottest groups working the Opry. Bill purchased a stretched automobile and they were on the road almost seven days a week. When they finished a Friday night show they would head for Nashville and the Opry. Most of the time they would leave as soon as the Opry was over and travel the rest of the night to do a Sunday matinee—maybe four hundred miles away. Flatt said that there were many times Gladys would bring his clothes to the Opry and he would never go home. For both Lester and Earl, the road seemed to be endless. The personnel of the Blue Grass Boys in 1946 and ‘47 were Monroe, Flatt, Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts. This band would go down in bluegrass history as being probably the best ever assembled.”
Lance LeRoy, bluegrass enthusiast, band manager and well-respected Lester Flatt biographer, gave his opinion of bluegrass at its best, “Looking back on it all, I think it would require someone with extreme tunnel vision to dispute the viewpoint that bluegrass music was first introduced to the world there around Christmas of 1945 when Earl first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill and the Blue Grass Boys. I don’t buy this ‘bluegrass as we know it today’ cop-out. I regard it as being the first time bluegrass music was introduced to the world...PERIOD! It took Earl’s three-finger roll on the five-string banjo to supply the music’s single most distinguishing characteristic. The four other parts were already here; he added the fifth one that is absolutely essential if you are going to have bluegrass music. The sound of the banjo played with a three-finger roll has always symbolized ‘bluegrass’ to both fans and the general public as well. I doubt that any other of the instruments even come close.
“Now I’m certainly not suggesting that Earl created bluegrass music,” continued LeRoy, “but then again neither did any other one individual. Bill Monroe was the band leader and, as a Grand Ole Opry member, provided the forum. Whether through fate, blind luck or whatever, he assembled what I think is the first and the best group ever to play bluegrass. Nobody has been able to improve on it since. For all this, he richly deserves to be called the ‘Father of Bluegrass Music’. It’s one of those honorary titles that befits the role he played in that band. Bill Monroe has been symbolic of bluegrass music throughout the world for a long, long time. In reality, though, bluegrass had a number of fathers.”
They worked hard and made good money. The road was difficult and Earl was concerned about his mother back home. “I was fully determined to get out of music,” said Scruggs. “My cup was ‘runneth over’ with the aggravations of road life. I was going home. I think the reason Lester put off leaving was because he didn’t think I’d leave. When I left, that’s when he gave his notice.”
Earl quit the Blue Grass Boys in early 1948, followed within two weeks by Lester and Cedric. “When I got home, Lester called and said, ‘I don’t think we’d be happy going back into the mills. Let’s think about it.’ He said we could stay close around home if I wanted, so I could look after my mother.” Lester invested $3300 of his life savings into a car and a sound system and they were on their way.
Scruggs recalled, “We went to Danville, Virginia. Lester, Cedric Rainwater and myself. Jim Eanes was there. There were just the four of us and we were only there two or three weeks. We called Jim Shumate, wanting a fiddle player; he wanted us to come to Hickory (North Carolina) to work on a radio station there. He was working in a furniture store in Hickory and didn’t want to leave. We were there just a matter of weeks.” (Eanes didn’t make the trip.)
“Mac Wiseman called, wanting a job, and we told him we weren’t doing anything. He said he wasn’t, either, ‘Just sitting in the Shenandoah Valley, going crazy,’ he said. He came to Hickory to work with us and told us about WCYB. We contacted the radio station and moved to Bristol within a few days. That’s where we started making a living.” They got there “about the last of April, the first of May 1948.” Also there were the Stanley Brothers and Curley King with his band. It was here they were billed as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Lance LeRoy elaborated on the next stage of bluegrass music: the era of Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, “In their twenty-one years together, Flatt and Scruggs had more impact on the music, in my opinion, than anything that’s gone on before or since.” LeRoy, who knew Lester Flatt as well as anyone, continued to describe the situation, “They went their separate ways in early spring of 1948, neither one apparently with any immediate plan to continue playing music professionally.”
Some of the songs Flatt wrote through the years were “My Cabin in Caroline,” “Come Back Darling,” “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear,” “Down the Road,” “Head Over Heels in Love with You,” “Why Did You Wander,” “We’ll Meet Again, Sweetheart,” “I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open,” “Bouquet in Heaven,” “God Loves His Children, “Get in Line, Brother,” “I’m Going to Make Heaven My Home,” “I’m Working on a Road to Gloryland,” “Be Ready for Tomorrow May Never Come,” “Little Girl [of Mine] in Tennessee,” “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” “Cabin on the Hill” and “The Old Home Town.” He co-wrote “No Mother or Dad” with Curly Seckler.
The remainder of the history of Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys is discussed in the Earl Scruggs portion of this chapter. Lester and Earl split in 1969. Earl joined his sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue while Lester formed the Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass with Lance LeRoy as manager.
LeRoy spoke of how the departure of Earl Scruggs as Flatt’s partner presented Flatt with a serious dilemma: whether to continue in music or not. “But without Earl and his ‘security blanket’ at that crucial point and without the strength of Earl, who was such an enormous presence, I honestly believe that Flatt would have retired with a gold watch from the (textile) mill in Covington, Virginia, where he had worked, or the one in Sparta, Tennessee, where he had worked at one time, too.” LeRoy explained that Lester cared little about the business end of the band—even in personnel problems with his band members. He left those problems to Earl and Louise Scruggs (manager), and later to LeRoy when LeRoy became Flatt’s manager. Without Earl and Louise’s business sense, Flatt probably would not have ventured into a band of his own. But Flatt could rely on LeRoy to handle those things in 1969. “I’ve always felt that Earl’s role in the total picture of Flatt and Scruggs’ career was underplayed and certainly Louise never got more than a fraction of the credit she should have,” told LeRoy. “She handled their business just exactly the way it should have been done for more than fifteen years.”
Now in Flatt’s Nashville Grass were Flatt (guitar), Roland White (mandolin), Vic Jordan (banjo, he left Bill Monroe’s band to join the Grass), Paul Warren (fiddle), Josh Graves (Dobro®) and Jake Tullock (bass).
By 1972, the banjo player for Flatt’s Nashville Grass was Haskell McCormick. Josh Graves quit the Nashville Grass and joined the Earl Scruggs Revue for a couple of years. Marty Stuart joined Flatt’s band as guitarist Labor Day weekend. He was twelve. He moved in with Flatt’s family, toured, and continued his schooling by correspondence.
In a 1980 interview, Marty Stuart described his time with Lester and Gladys and the band. “As I look back on it today, I realize that I have been one of the most richly blessed people in the world, being able to get my start with such a past master as Lester Flatt. I mean, going over the whole realm of music from every respect, to me, Lester Flatt was the greatest. He started me out in a very dignified way and there is no way that I could have ever repaid him... When I go on stage to do my show, I’ll always go back to how Lester would have done it. He was always point ‘A’ in my life and when I think I have got above that, I’ll always go back to Flatt. Just like going back to your alma mater.”
In 1979, while Lester Flatt was recovering from a visit to the hospital, Flatt asked Curly Seckler to take over the band while he recuperated. LeRoy recalled that “Lester’s whole manner changed a lot in those last couple of years and by then he’d totally lost interest in what the band sounded like and so forth, and it showed. But his mind and his perception never wavered. I talked with him in his hospital room on the Sunday before he died, the following Friday, about a contracted festival appearance that was a month away. A big tear rolled down his cheek and he turned his head away quickly and said in a barely audible whisper, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever play another one.’ After all the years and all the good times, that was awfully hard on me emotionally, and it shocked me into finally realizing that this is it.”
Earl visited Flatt in the hospital before he died. That meant a lot to Lester. LeRoy described Earl’s visit, “Earl gave Lester his flowers while he was living. Any fellow Flatt and Scruggs fan will know immediately what I have reference to.” In the instance Earl visited Lester when he could barely talk above a whisper, Earl stayed with him for more than an hour. When LeRoy tells of the visit to all who ask, he considers it “One of my most memorable moments throughout it all.” Earl described the visit to Lester’s bedside, “I went to see Lester—I don’t know how many days it was before he passed away, but he was really in bad shape. He was in the Baptist Hospital here in Nashville. He could hardly talk loud enough for me to tell what he was sayin’. He wanted to know if we could play some reunion dates together. And my answer immediately was, ‘Lester, number one, I want you to get well. Number two, yes we’ll play dates together when you get well. But my biggest concern now is for you to get more strength and get to feelin’ better; then we’ll talk about doin’ reunions. So that was kind of the way it was left.” Lester Flatt never recovered—he died after an extensive period of sickness.
Lester Flatt died on May 11th, 1979. The Nashville Grass became a partnership with all members as equal partners. Soon Seckler and Nixon became the leaders of the group until Nixon’s health failed about 1981. Then the band became Curly Seckler and the Nashville Grass .
Posted by Tom Thomas at 8:10 AM