From their days as key members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys to their 21-year partnership as one of the most influential duos in bluegrass and country music, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs built a solid career upon outstanding musicianship and great innovation.
The famed duo became united when Scruggs, who hails from North Carolina, joined the Blue Grass Boys in late 1945. Tennessee native Flatt had joined the band earlier that same year.
At the time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of Monroe on mandolin, Flatt on guitar, Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on bass. Through their radio programs, live performances and recordings, it is this particular unit, under Monroe’s lead, that popularized what we know today as bluegrass music.
With low pay and grueling tours, Flatt & Scruggs, realizing the potential of their own act, left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948. Drawing from the old Carter Family tune "Foggy Mountain Top," they formed the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Initially, Flatt & Scruggs worked out of radio stations in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Following a two-year stint on Mercury Records, they signed with Columbia in 1950, and two years later, scored their first top 10 hit, "’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered."
In 1953, Martha White Mills hired Flatt & Scruggs to host its morning show on WSM. That same year, the duo joined the Grand Ole Opry. Still under the Martha White sponsorship, they started a series of television programs on five local stations in 1955. Within four years, the programs were in syndication and gaining popularity among the college crowd.
In 1962, their music became the opening theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies," as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" marked the first bluegrass song to reach number one on the country charts. Flatt & Scruggs started making occasional appearances on the CBS sitcom and had another hit "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl," due to their association with the show.
Already at the height of their career, Flatt & Scruggs received another big break in 1967. Their instrumental, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” was used as the theme for the film "Bonnie and Clyde," although the tune was actually recorded in 1949.
By the late 1960’s, Scruggs’ tastes for other styles, like contemporary folk, blues and jazz, were affecting what they recorded. This created tension between them. The two went their separate ways in 1969.
Flatt formed the Nashville Grass, a traditional band, while Scruggs, who made the three-finger method of banjo playing highly popular, teamed with his sons and continued experimenting with progressive sounds as the Earl Scruggs Revue.
Flatt, whose guitar licks and tenor voice have influenced countless bluegrass performers, passed in 1979. Scruggs died in 2012.
Looking back on their career, the legendary duo was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1985. Six years later, they were each individually inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
During their tenure as a team, Flatt & Scruggs helped broaden the appeal of bluegrass music with such early 1960’s masterpieces as "I’m Crying My Heart Out over You," "Go Home" and "The Legend of the Johnson Boys." Monroe created bluegrass music, but it was Flatt & Scruggs who set the benchmark of quality that we associate today with the genre.
Charles Haymes is a country music journalist and historian. He has been covering the genre for more than 25 years. He served as co-host for the first two Arkansas Country Music Awards and is slated to return to that role for the third annual show in 2020.