One of the groups most synonymous with the advent of bluegrass as we know it today is Flatt & Scruggs. On Dec. 8, 1945, the pair made their debut on the Grand Ole Opry, the country music institution that brought their music, and the genre as a whole, into mainstream culture worldwide.
From that pivotal moment forward, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs became poster children of the Opry and its broadcaster, WSM-AM, during one of its most lucrative eras, and their relationship with the station spanned decades. Flatt & Scruggs’ legacy is pertinent to the bluegrass genre, and their time on TV and radio is essential to the history of the longest-running radio show in the world, as well as to the progression of WSM as a media entity.
Flatt and Scruggs’ first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry came as part of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, of which Flatt was a member first. Scruggs joined the band in 1945, when the group was in need of a banjo player, landing the gig due to his nontraditional picking style when the clawhammer method was the norm. On the Ryman Auditorium stage that night, they picked alongside some of the greatest bluegrass musicians of their time, and the performance was broadcast into the homes of thousands of people.
Under Monroe’s lead, the Blue Grass Boys recorded lasting hits such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and set standards for the genre. Their work together was important, and still is today, but after three years of a grueling tour schedule with Monroe and Co., both Flatt and Scruggs left the band to pursue music on their own terms (much to the dismay of Monroe, an Opry member since 1939 and regular act on the stage, who quit speaking to both musicians for over 20 years).
Together, Flatt and Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948. Scruggs played banjo, and Flatt, the guitar, and they hired other members. Though the group began with a traditional lineup of instruments like the Blue Grass Boys — including bass, mandolin and fiddle — they eventually traded the mandolin for a dobro. Their tuning and Scruggs’ picking style also contributed to their departure from the prototypical bluegrass sound.
Among Flatt & Scruggs’ successes — such as turning “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” into a standard — is their turn playing an early-morning bluegrass show on WSM. At this time, the radio station’s programming, minus the Grand Ole Opry, was news journalism- and talk show-oriented, and included little to no country music in the daily schedule. In fact, the station hinged mostly on classical programming until a full format change to country music in 1980.
During a golden era of honky-tonk sounds in American music, Flatt and Scruggs were stars on WSM and made many appearances on the Opry stage. In 1953, Martha White, the baking products company, began to sponsor their show. Despite this success, and their status as an integral part of the station, however, the two still weren’t Grand Ole Opry members. As it turned out, their exclusion was due to Monroe’s influence on the decision from behind the scenes: He prevented Flatt & Scruggs’ induction as long as he could, until Martha White threatened to pull their sponsorship unless the duo was granted membership status. Finally, a full decade after their debut, Flatt and Scruggs were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955.
Flatt & Scruggs appeared on various country music variety TV shows, but they received their own 30-minute syndicated television show through WSM in 1955. The Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show featured guests such as Maybelle Carter and many famous singers of the era, and this new form of broadcast media widely increased their fame and influence. The episodes captured a dynamic that couldn’t be translated over airwaves alone.
While Flatt called the shots and directed much of the banter onstage, Scruggs leaned on his technical ability more than flare. The show ran until 1969, when the two disbanded. Despite well-selling records and a soundtrack for the hit film Bonnie and Clyde, their time as a duo came to an end over creative differences. Flatt and Scruggs refused to speak to each other, but Grand Ole Opry manager Bud Wendell had made an agreement with them: They were to appear on an Opry float, representing the state of Tennessee, in President Nixon’s inaugural parade. That day, the two made their final appearance together with the Foggy Mountain Boys … and then, Scruggs left his associates to stand in a Vietnam War protest on the National Mall.
After their breakup, Scruggs continued with a travelling revue show and many more years Opry performances; Flatt, meanwhile, died in 1979, just after they promised each other they would reunite.
A Look Back at the Grand Ole Opry Through the Years: