Lester Flatt biography
Lester Flatt was a pioneering bluegrass musician and guitarist, and part of the famous Flatt and Scruggs duo.
Country musician. Born June 19, 1914 to Nannie Mae Haney and Isaac Columbus Flatt, in Duncan's Chapel, Overton County, Tennessee. Thanks to the encouragement of his musical family, Flatt began playing instruments at an early age. Though he began his musical career playing the banjo, at the tender age of seven he switched to the guitar. His skill with the instrument would later help charm fans and win him a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. When he was still in elementary school, Flatt began playing his guitar in a variety of local school and church groups.
Flatt quit school at the age of 12, and in his early teenage years moved to North Carolina to work in a textile mill. All the while, he continued playing guitar and integrating himself into the local music scene. At the age of 17, he met and married singer Gladys Stacey. The young couple would continue to work and make music together for the next decade.
Flatt struggled with early-onset rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually forced him to quit the mill and focus solely on his musical career. His voice and his guitar led him to play with Clyde Moody and eventually form a new band (The Bluegrass Boys) featuring the famous Monroe brothers, Charlie and Bill, in 1945. With the Bluegrass Boys, Flatt played guitar and sang lead vocals. Making a quick splash on the country music scene, Flatt played his first gig with the band at the iconic Grand Ole Opry in 1945, famously appearing without rehearsing at all.
The Foggy Mountain Boys
Soon after Flatt joined the band, so did bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, a talented banjo player who would partner with Flatt for decades to come. From 1945 to 1948, the band toured exhaustively, wowing bluegrass fans and selling out music halls night after night. The tiring schedule soon became too much for Scruggs, who left the band in 1948. Flatt soon made the fateful decision to leave as well, partnering with Scruggs to create the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Over the next 20 years, the Foggy Mountain Boys would reign supreme as the Kings of Bluegrass. Flatt's rich voice and traditional rhythm guitar worked well with Scruggs' more progressive banjo stylings, creating a unique sound that would set the standard for bluegrass musicians to come. Flatt would even come to popularize what is known as the "G-run" among rhythm guitarists. Remarking, "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."
The duo cut records with Mercury and Columbia, appeared often on WSM radio, and became members of the Grand Ole Opry. They even had a spot on a Martha White Mills-sponsored television show, which helped significantly widen their audience and influence. Flatt took care of most of the duo's songwriting, once saying, "I used to write practically everything we did.
Maybe they weren't good, but they were original, and they were selling."
Some of the pair's most famous work became seared into pop culture history via theme songs and even advertising jingles. The Foggy Mountain Boys wrote and performed "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was used famously in chase scenes in the iconic film Bonnie and Clyde and won two Grammy Awards. Their next success would come on the small screen, when their "Ballad of Jed Clampett" became the theme song for the popular Beverly Hillbillies television show. This consummately catchy tune found its way to No. 1 on the country charts in 1963.
After two decades of success and influence, Flatt and Scruggs parted ways due to musical differences. Flatt was more of a traditionalist, and the ever-progressive Scruggs wanted to take his sound in a more contemporary direction. The banjo player would eventually start a new band with his sons, while Flatt hired a majority of the Foggy Mountain Boys' ensemble musicians to create a new solo act, Nashville Grass. With the bluegrass festival scene starting to blossom in the early 1970s, Flatt's new offerings were well received and truly beloved.
In 1967, Lester Flatt suffered a heart attack that would lead to future health complications and result in his retirement in 1979. The bluegrass community deeply mourned the loss of a legend when Flatt passed away on May 11, 1979. Claire Lynch would later write a song called "The Day Lester Died," echoing an entire community's grief with the lyrics, "The songs will live on, we'll sing them again, but somehow it will never be the same."
Lester Flatt was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985 and is remembered today as one of the true legends of bluegrass. With a guitar in hand, there wasn't a studio or stage that Flatt didn't command with his natural grace and home-spun style. Remarking on his own truly down-home style of performing, he once said, "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."