Born on June 19, 1914 in Duncan's Chapel, Tennessee, Lester Flatt was a pioneering bluegrass musician and guitarist. He played with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys during the 1940s before joining with band mate Earl Scruggs to form the famous Flatt & Scruggs duo, leading the band the Foggy Mountain Boys. The two amassed a huge following in both country and folk music circles, and scored a No. 1 hit with "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," from The Beverly Hillbillies. Flatt died on May 11, 1979 in Nashville.
Early Life and Career
Lester Raymond Flatt was born on 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 as the Happy-Go-Lucky Boys and then with Charlie Monroe as the Kentucky Pardners. Flatt eventually joined Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, a band led by Charlie's sibling. Flatt played guitar and sang lead, performing his first gig with the group at the iconic Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1940s.
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 enjoy great popularity in bluegrass circles. Flatt's rich voice and traditional rhythm guitar worked well with Scruggs' more progressive banjo stylings, creating a unique sound that set the standard for musicians to come. Flatt popularized 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 and became members of the Grand Ole Opry. They also had a spot on a Martha White Flour-sponsored WSM radio 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 advertising jingles. The Foggy Mountain Boys wrote and performed "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was used famously in chase scenes in the iconic 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde and won a Grammy. (A later version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the 2001 album Earl Scruggs and Friends won a Grammy as well.)
The duo also found big success 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. 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 act, Nashville Grass. With the bluegrass festival scene starting to blossom in the early 1970s, Flatt's new offerings were well received and beloved.
In 1967, Lester Flatt suffered a heart attack that would lead to future health complications and result in his retirement by the end of the next decade. 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 That 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. 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."
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