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Published: 2007/05/23
by Mark Burnell

The Best of The Flatt and Scruggs TV Show - Volume 1 and Volume 2


When Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs broke away from Bill Monroe in 1948, they became the second biggest names in bluegrass, rivaling The Big Mon, himself, as a wildly popular touring act. After joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and enjoying much success on the Opry’s radio and television show, they were given their own half-hour show in 1955. Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys continued to be both a major touring draw and stars of their own TV show until 1969, when Scruggs’ embracing of his progressive tendencies, and his insistence on adding Dylan songs to the live repertoire, broke up the duo after 30-plus years. These are the first two volumes of a 12 disc series which intends to compile all the surviving episodes of the Flatt and Scruggs TV Show from 1956 to 1962 (perhaps copyright issues preclude the inclusion of the mid 60s shows?), two per DVD.

The early days of the Flatt and Scruggs TV Show predates the use of videotape. Until late in 1956, the band would travel around the six southern TV markets that carried the show, performing the same show live every night of the week, racking up over 3,000 miles every six days before returning to Nashville for Saturday night’s live performance from the Grand Ole Opry. The advent of videotape in 1956 meant the band could stop such a grueling schedule, but as videotape was so expensive, it was commonly recycled. No shows were preserved at the time, and this entire series is drawn from a cache of moldy tapes found in someone’s garage. Considering the source of this material, the quality of this debut release is nothing short of remarkable, featuring crisp picture and crystal-clear sound.

Volume One contains two shows, one from August 1961 and one from February 1962. The format is identical for both shows: ten tunes from the band (including one gospel number and two instrumentals), two brief cooking/advertising segments (the show’s sponsor was Martha White Foods) complete with jingles sung by the band, and an excruciating unfunny but mercifully short “comedy” segment. A quick perusal of the song list yields a song covered by Old and In The Way (“Pig in a Pen”), two songs covered by Yonder Mountain String Band (“100 years From Now” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”), and a traditional that popped up on Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions (“John Henry”), collectively proving the longevity of Flatt and Scruggs’ influence. As for the music itself? It’s superb.

As much as I love the jammed out madness of the contemporary Jamgrass bands, there’s something almost perfectly haiku-like in the simple precision of Flatt and Scruggs’ approach. Scruggs appears ridiculously beatific throughout, looking straight at the camera with a shy smile on his face as he lets rip with some insanely complicated banjo runs. The rest of the band is equally impressive, while de facto leader Flatt is surprisingly subdued, ceding lead vocal chores to Hylo Brown on a number of tracks. No song makes it past the two-and-a-half minute mark, but each still somehow finds the time to allow one band member to shine (most often Scruggs and heck, if you have the best damned banjo player in the world in your band, why wouldn’t you?) with a brief but jaw-droppingly good solo. Highlights on this volume include a sassy “Just Ain’t,” a rollicking take on the famous “Earl’s Breakdown,” and a kickass hoedown labeled simply Fiddle Tune” that amply demonstrates how the Bluegrass Boys became the biggest bluegrass touring band of the 1960s, even eclipsing Monroe himself.

In the 20 songs played on Volume Two, there is just a single repeat from the first disc. Just like on Volume One, there are many tunes here that are still played 40 years later by a whole new generation of musicians. “Over There” is a cornerstone of Del McCoury’s set, “Polka on the Banjo” and “Dance All Night With A Bottle In My Hand” are YMSB staples (the latter masquerading under the name “Boatman,” which is the same tune with slightly different words), and Scruggs’ signature instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” has become a rite of passage for aspiring banjo pickers. Future volumes promise some special guests (one upcoming disc will feature a seven-year-old Ricky Skaggs appearing playing mandolin on “Foggy Mountain Special” and actually singing lead on a take of “Ruby” the mind boggles!) and indeed Maybelle Carter from the Carter Family makes an appearance on this very volume, displaying some major skills during a guitar duet with Scruggs on “Wildwood Flower.”

Apart from the obvious musical delights, these DVDs also provide a window into a very different world. From the groan-inducing humor skits to the Martha White ads disguised as cooking spots, the Flatt and Scruggs TV Show depicts the world of the rural South at the end of the 1950s better than any documentary. Their target audience was, like the Grand Ole Opry itself, the rural communities of Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas. The program would air at 6:00 PM, timed perfectly for the workers returning home from the fields. There was no slickness or pretense in the presentation, just a straightforward down home simplicity. In particular, the cooking segments seem very strange to modern day eyes, as every recipe, which always included a Martha White product containing the patented “hot rize” formula, seems to require at least a cup of bacon fat (which begs the question of how much bacon had to be eaten to provide that much fat in the first place). Even in the presentation of the music itself, there isn’t an ounce of flash on display— no snazzy matching suits, no snappy banter, just a bunch of remarkably ordinary looking musicians playing the music they love in front of a plain backdrop resembling a General Store. There’s a simplicity and honesty that almost borders on purity in these volumes, and such a vibe feels as though it’s out of place in today’s jaded and complex world.

As archive projects go, The Best of the Flatt and Scruggs TV Show is up there with the best. It is obvious how much care has gone into the transfer of these shows, and anyone with even a passing interest in bluegrass should snag at least a couple of these discs. Series bluegrass aficionados should brace their wallet for the long term, as they’re not going to want to pass on a single disc of this series.

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