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1991 Inductee – Lester Raymond Flatt

LesterFlatt
Born: June 19, 1914, Duncan’s Chapel, Overton County, Tennessee
Died: May 11, 1979, Nashville, TN
Instrument: Guitar, mandolin

“That little run you hear on the guitar, and hear so many people doing today – I used that for a time setter; we were playing so fast we had to have something to come back in on, and it fit perfectly.”
-”A Conversation with Lester Flatt,” interview with Vernon, Bill in Muleskinner News, August, 1972.

Composed

More than 150 songs, many co-written with Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs

“Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong” (Billboard peak at #11, 1948 for Bill Monroe)
“When You Are Lonely (Billboard peak at #12, 1949 for Bill Monroe)
“Cabin on the Hill” (Billboard peak at #9, 1959 for Flatt & Scruggs)
“The Legend of the Johnson Boys” (Billboard peak at #27, 1962 for Flatt & Scruggs)
“My Saro Jane” (Billboard peak at #40, 1964 for Flatt & Scruggs)
“Don’t Get Above Your Raising” (Billboard peak at #16, 1981 for Ricky Skaggs)
“Backin’ To Birmingham”
“Crying My Heart Out Over You”
“Get in Line Brother”
“I’m Going To Sleep With One Eye Open”

“I used to write practically everything we did. Maybe they weren’t good, but they were original, and they were selling.”
-”A Conversation with Lester Flatt,” interview with Vernon, Bill in Muleskinner News, August, 1972.

Early influences

Monroe Brothers

“I remember the first time I heard them – I really liked them from the start, because it was singing like we used to do at home. When I went to work with Bill, I didn’t have any problem, because it fit right in there.”
-”A Conversation with Lester Flatt,” interview with Vernon, Bill in Muleskinner News, August, 1972.

Came to fame with

  • Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1945-1948

Performed with

  • Charlie Scott’s Harmonizers, Roanoke, VA, 1935
  • Clyde Moody and the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys, Burlington, NC, 1940
  • Jim Hall and the Crazy Mountaineers, Burlington, NC, early 1940s
  • Charlie Monroe and the Kentucky Pardners, Winston-Salem, NC ,1943-1945
  • Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1945-1948
  • Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, 1948-1969
  • Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, 1969-1979

Led the Way

  • Lead singer and guitarist for the classic edition of the Blue Grass BoysCo-led the first nationally and internationally prominent bluegrass act
  • Popularized the famous “Lester Flatt G-run” among rhythm guitarists
  • Hosted the first widely syndicated bluegrass television show
  • Grand Ole Opry member, 1955-1979
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1985
  • Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 1991

By the Way

  • Lived on a lake, where he enjoyed fishing with his wife Gladys.
  • Mentored Marty Stuart, who joined the Nashville Grass and moved in with the Flatts at the age of
  • Bluegrass and country star Keith Whitley could do a close imitation of Lester Flatt’s distinctive speaking voice. Lester enjoyed hearing it, and holding conversations “with himself.”

Lester Flatt’s grandfatherly emceeing style, relaxed southern singing voice, solid rhythm guitar playing, and songwriting endeared him to generations of bluegrass and country music fans. A member of the classic edition of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Lester’s star burned even hotter when he and Earl Scruggs formed a partnership in 1940s, heading the Foggy Mountain Boys. Mercury and Columbia records, WSM radio, the Grand Ole Opry, constant touring, a Martha White Mills-sponsored television show, themes to “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Bonnie & Clyde,” and full participation in the folk revival ever widened Lester Flatt’s visibility and influence. After splitting with Earl Scruggs in 1969, Lester headed a crack bluegrass ensemble, the Nashville Grass, on Nugget, RCA, and CMH records right up to the year of his death at the age of 64 in 1979.

Lester Flatt was born to a musical farming family in central Tennessee, near Sparta. He started on banjo, but switched to guitar at the age of seven. Lester played with a thumb and finger pick, as did most country guitarists in the 1930s and 1940s. He left school at 12, married singer Gladys Stacey at 17, and alternated between textile millwork and music for a decade before committing to a professional music career after a bout with rheumatoid arthritis. Lester sang tenor, first with Clyde Moody and then with Charlie Monroe, before permanently switching to lead upon joining the band of Charlie’s younger brother Bill in 1945.

It must have been a heady experience appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and recording for Columbia records in Chicago with the Blue Grass Boys. But by this time Lester Flatt was a seasoned professional, and emceed stage shows for the more reticent Monroe. Like contemporaries Frank Sinatra with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, and Tommy Duncan with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Flatt was prominently featured as a crooning vocalist. Lester’s wife missed him during the long road tours, and soon was also employed by the Monroe organization, selling concessions. When banjo player Stringbean left the group, Flatt didn’t share Monroe’s enthusiasm for finding a replacement – until he heard young Earl Scruggs play the instrument in an exciting new style at an impromptu backstage audition. In a 1979 interview with Don Rhodes for Pickin’, Lester recalled telling Bill, “Hire him no matter what it costs.”

After three years of stardom as sidemen, Flatt and Scruggs decided that they were ready to co-lead their own organization. In 1948, they founded the Foggy Mountain Boys. Relations with their former employer were cordial until 1955, when Martha White Mills insisted on Flatt and Scruggs’ addition to the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Bill Monroe considered this direct competition for his niche and tried to block the decision, but was unsuccessful. He and Flatt didn’t speak until a 1973 reconciliation at Bean Blossom, Indiana.

The Foggy Mountain Boys worked hard at a series of small radio stations before landing a 15-minute, 5:45 am slot in 1953 on WSM: “Martha White Biscuit Time.” This, and a television show which followed two years later, were syndicated to other southern markets. But technology at the time forced the group to travel to these locations for the broadcasts. A bus was fitted out for the band and they traveled more extensively than any other Grand Ole Opry act.

Hugely successful for two decades on the air, on records, and on stage, Flatt and Scruggs finally split in 1969 after differences about musical direction. Earl wanted to play more modern music with his sons. Uncomfortable singing Bob Dylan and other folk material demanded by a Columbia record contract, Flatt headed off on his own to play a much more traditional brand of bluegrass. Martha White sponsored a “name the band” contest. The winning name, “Nashville Grass,” was a pun on the currently popular Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass.

Lester Flatt made some strong recordings as a solo act, including three albums of duets with former associate Mac Wiseman. His appearances, with a strong ensemble of side musicians, were enthusiastically received on the burgeoning bluegrass festival scene. But health problems arising from a 1967 heart attack led to an open-heart operation, lowered stamina, reduced touring, and eventual retirement early in 1979. Flatt persuaded Curly Seckler to continue the Nashville Grass, and died a few months later. In her song, “The Day That Lester Died,” Claire Lynch spoke for the entire bluegrass community, “The songs will live on, we’ll sing them again, but somehow it will never be the same.”

“In their 21 years together, Flatt and Scruggs had more impact on the music, in my opinion, than anything that’s gone on before or since.”
Lance LeRoy, quoted in Willis, Barry R., America’s Music: Bluegrass, 1989.

“[Earl Scruggs and I] thought when we first started, they wanted something a little more modern, but they wanted ‘Salty Dog Blues,’ ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,’ and numbers like that, so we wound up doing them.”
“A Conversation with Lester Flatt,” interview with Vernon, Bill in Muleskinner News, August, 1972.

“People will say to me, ‘I see you on television, and you’re the most relaxed guy I ever saw.’ I just can’t do it any other way. I have to be like I am at home – if I can’t… I might as well forget it.”
“A Conversation with Lester Flatt,” interview with Vernon, Bill in Muleskinner News, August, 1972.

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