By Dr. Gary Boye
The big news around Boone in November 1948 involved one of the most exciting presidential races in history: President Harry S. Truman, despite being given little chance of victory by the national press, had stunned the Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. The headlines of the local newspaper that week shouted: "TRUMAN WINNER / Truman Elected In Face Hostile Press, And Polls" (Watauga Democrat, November 4, 1948, p. 1). Truman and the Democrats carried North Carolina and much of Watauga County as well.
Two weeks later the front page still carried a photograph of celebrations at the Truman house in Missouri, but politics were not the only cause of excitement in town. The yearly opening of the burley tobacco market was being planned for the end of the month, as was the official kickoff of the Christmas season. In that twilight period between the end of World War II and the escalation of the Cold War, Boone residents enjoyed a bit of excess: they decorated King Street with multi-colored lights and evergreens, called on the high school band to lead the Santa Claus parade of more than a dozen floats, and planned for dances and parties surrounding the tobacco festival season. In football, the Appalachian State team was 8-0-1, North State conference champions, and heading to the Burley Bowl in Johnson City (where, unfortunately, they would lose to the team from West Chester University in Pennsylvania).
On page 5 (Watauga Democrat, November 18, 1948), the following ad showcased a busy week at the Appalachian Theatre with six feature films, a variety of shorts, and live entertainment for the coming Wednesday:
Interestingly, the group we now know primarily by their leaders, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, went solely by the band name, the Foggy Mountain Boys, in 1948, their first year of existence. The film that night, Village Barn Dance (1940), included locals Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman.
For the members of the Foggy Mountain Boys, this was not their first trip to Boone. Flatt and Scruggs, as they would generally become known, had played in a tent show as part of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in June 1946. The tent was pitched in what was called the Hardin Show Grounds, near the current New Market shopping center east of Boone. After leaving Monroe and forming the Foggy Mountain Boys, they played the Pastime Theatre on June 9, 1948; publicity that they were from a Bristol radio station confirmed their identity (Watauga Democrat, June 3, 1948, p. 5). Flatt and Scruggs played on WCYB in Bristol from late spring 1948 into 1949. Using Bristol as a base, they performed in schools, theaters, and other venues between radio shows. The Pastime Theatre performance also featured fiddler Jim Shumate (incorrectly listed in the ad as Jim Shoemaker), from Wilkes County, North Carolina. Apparently, the group was so successful at the smaller theater that they were invited back for the November show in the larger Appalachian Theatre advertised above.
Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys
Lester Flatt (1914-1979), from Sparta, Tennessee, sang lead and played guitar; his partner, Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), from Flint Hill (near Shelby), North Carolina, played banjo and sang occasional baritone harmony in trios and quartets. Other members of the group that night in Boone would most likely have included Jim Shumate on fiddle and Howard Watts (aka "Cedric Rainwater") on bass. Mac Wiseman was also in the band around this time as harmony vocalist and rhythm guitarist, although the ad fails to mention any specific band members. Note that the early Foggy Mountain Boy ensemble lacked the mandolin, the instrument closely associated with their former boss, Bill Monroe. Through the years, the group's makeup changed and eventually stabilized, but the early band included only two real lead instruments and thus heavy doses of fiddle and banjo.
The sound of Scruggs-style banjo is today so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to appreciate the impact it had on audiences back in the early days. Scruggs hit the big time with Bill Monroe on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. Live recordings from that year feature "Bill and Earl," who brought down the house with fast breakdowns and fiddle tunes. For the next few years, Flatt and Scruggs played and recorded as members of the Blue Grass Boys throughout the Southeast and to national radio audiences. By early 1948, it was only natural that the two would head their own band, featuring Earl's new banjo style.
Unlike most five-string banjo pickers who used only the thumb and index finger, Earl plucked the banjo with his thumb and two fingers (the middle as well as the index). He wasn't the first to do this—and never claimed he was—but it wasn't just that he used an extra finger that set him apart anyway. What distinguished the Scruggs-style from the more typical two-finger styles was a driving cascade of notes, something that was to be called a "roll." He could play as fast as any fiddler with each note clear and clean. He could also, at slower speeds, add a bit of jazz syncopation and blues. Aside from the instrumentals, some of his best work came accompanying Lester's singing or a fiddle break.
Was it bluegrass? Well, no one would have called it that way back in 1948. Both Flatt and Scruggs had been Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe and, no doubt, absorbed some of his style and repertoire—in fact, they wrote a goodly portion of it and reinvigorated Monroe's music in the mid-1940s. And once Earl left the band, Monroe went in search of the growing number of banjo players who were listening to and imitating the Scruggs style—the Blue Grass Boys would rarely be without someone playing banjo like Earl for the rest of their existence, into the 1990s.
But the influence clearly went in both directions. Even at this early stage, Flatt and Scruggs had clearly learned from and absorbed the styles of not just Bill Monroe, but also his brother Charlie, with whom Lester had played years earlier. Charlie's easy-going stage presence and banter carried over into Lester's emcee style, as did his thumb-and-finger guitar strumming—ironically and confusingly, Lester Flatt did not use a flat pick. And Lester's voice, while thoroughly country, was deeper and more resonant than the older Monroe brother’s piercing style, appealing to a newer generation who grew up with singers like Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Bill Monroe's high-speed mandolin pyrotechnics were not lost on Earl Scruggs either, who realized that a good instrumental breakdown could have them literally dancing in the aisles. In short, some came to hear Lester sing and some to hear Earl pick, but they came—and in reliable numbers. Years later, Lester was to say that they could always count on a good audience when they headed into the Carolinas and especially into the mountains; the group would return to Boone several times into the 1960s.
Tunes played on that night in November 1948 would have certainly included the band's theme song and Scruggs' best-known instrumental, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." There would have been plenty of singing as well, with many of the tunes featured on current and later Mercury records. And just as in their mentor's band, the former Blue Grass Boys would always include a bit of comedy (via Watts aka Cedric Rainwater) and some gospel tunes to complete the show.
A couple of examples will illustrate the early Flatt and Scruggs sound. The first is the 1949 version of "Down the Road," which displays Lester in full voice and lots of Earl's banjo throughout:
Note that Earl has absorbed not just the folk music tradition, but a healthy dose of big band swing as well. I sometimes jokingly refer to this tune as "banjo music with singing."
The original "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" recording is from the same year:
Although re-recorded many times through the years, there is an excitement and energy to this original version that made this one of their most popular early numbers.
After their November 1948 show, Flatt and Scruggs returned to the Appalachian Theatre stage in August 1961. At that point, they were playing increasingly for Folk Revival audiences and just a few months away from recording a song that would forever change their careers: the theme for a new TV show to be entitled The Beverly Hillbillies (1962). Amazingly, the show became one of the biggest hits in television history, twice ranking as the number one show in the nation. Even though Flatt's voice is missing in the TV version of the song—studio musician Jerry Scoggins sang lead and did commercial voiceover work for the show in place of Lester—the duo was now suddenly a household name throughout the country. And their version of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" garnered them their only number one country hit. The magic continued late in the decade, culminating in 1969 when Earl's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was revived for Arthur Penn's groundbreaking film, Bonnie and Clyde. The duo went their separate ways after this, Lester to form his own band that carried on in a more traditional vein while Earl formed what was basically a rock band with his sons, the Earl Scruggs Revue.
There was some acrimony in the breakup, and the duo never played together again, but Scruggs was able to visit Flatt and work things out before Lester's death in 1979. Earl lived on well into our own century and became a living legend in the bluegrass music world, so much so that it is difficult now to appreciate what seeing a young, 24-year-old Earl Scruggs would have been like. He was taking the banjo to new levels, completely beyond what contemporaries had managed to do, and he made it all sound so natural we couldn't imagine it never having been there. Perhaps those who saw a young Bela Fleck in the 1980s would have experienced something similar. And it was Scruggs who inspired Fleck and a new generation of banjo players into the present day. So, the Appalachian Theatre audience was witness to the start of something bigger than anyone could have imagined when the Foggy Mountain Boys took the stage that cold November night in 1948.