I do not know the complexities involved in playing the banjo, the fiddle, a guitar, singing, nor do I play any instruments traditionally involved in bluegrass. I cannot do any of those things well at all in fact. However, having grown up listening to bluegrass often, I always find myself impressed by the players of these instruments, and both relaxed or moved by the music. In “Foggy Mountain Jamboree”, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, along with guest artists, including Paul Warren and Howdy Forrester on fiddle, demonstrate the very skill and sound that have led to the feelings I always have when listening to bluegrass music. It is a type of music that can express all the emotions of any other musical style, while maintaining its unique flavor and sound.
In “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” Flatt and Scruggs include a large variety of music and songs which reflect many different feelings, times, events, and a part of the culture around bluegrass music. “Flint Hill Special” starts out with a upbeat and quick tone, bringing the listener of the album to a fast pace that simply forces them to at least tap their foot. Scruggs defining banjo playing is very present and clear here, backed up by the fiddle. “Some Old Day” takes a much slower tone, almost immediately relaxing and slowing to the listener. The strum of the guitar and slight twang of the banjo, combined with the regretful and nostalgic lyrics that follow, give a feeling of simultaneous regret for the past and the feeling of the singer thinking forward to “Some Old Day”, when he will be free and go home. This sort of theme continues throughout the album as it alternates between pieces featuring Earl Scruggs excellent banjo picking bringing everything it can to the music, and slower pieces that are often nostalgic and yet future oriented in the lyrics, and sometimes religious in nature such as “It Won’t Be Long” and “Reunion in Heaven”. Even in a more romantic tune like “Your Love is Like a Flower”, the view is almost always future oriented, with a tinge of sadness in some respects (i.e. in “Your Love is Like a Flower” the lyrics speak of love fading in the “fall”) . The whole album sets an excellent tone and feeling in this alternation, and as I listened to it I personally felt very “evened out”, by the change between one theme and the other.
Overall I personally enjoy the album, and found myself continually listening to it over and over during the past weeks before this review in all settings and times, whether I felt happy, sad, homesick, or stressed. The album in its totality gave a feeling of peaceful simplicity amid what seem to be very complicated banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and very full harmony vocals.
“Foggy Mountain Jamboree” is largely considered a very successful album which acts as a standard to what much of people call “bluegrass” today (1) since its release in 1957 by Columbia Records, and some would say that even today bluegrass simply doesn’t get better. (2) On Amazon, out of 57 reviews the album gained a solid 4.9 rating, with some reviewer’s goings so far as to say it is “The Holy Grail of Bluegrass.” (3). While such is perhaps a little bit of an exaggerated claim , one thing certainly remains true, the album has long stood the test of time in its near 60 years on the market, sold well, and was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. (4)
Perhaps one of the reasons it is so highly revered and why it is so attached to what bluegrass is comes from the culture contained within the music. The vocal pieces tell stories that highly relate to Appalachia, with songs featuring everything from “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” speaking of the old hills of Virginia, to pieces like “It Won’t Be Long” and “Reunion in Heaven” telling of the more religious views prevalent in the region. Poverty and imprisonment are also themes in “The Newsboy Jimmie Brown” and “Some Old Day”, which are issues that Appalachia has been associated with for a long time. Aside from the vocal pieces, the instrumental pieces are reminiscent of Appalachia due to the heavy use of the banjo, which is an instrument that has found quite a “home” in Appalachia and Bluegrass music. This is particularly true in this album due to Earl Scruggs distinctive style on the banjo.
Both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were born before and lived through the Depression, as well as other hard times in Appalachia’s history, and in the image of Appalachia and the themes of the album I believe the influence of this can be sen. (5) (6)
Before the release of “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” Flatt and Scruggs had each gone a long ways from where they had begun, having learned to play their respective instruments (and in Flatt’s case, sing) from the time they were very young and performing locally. Earl briefly joined the Morris Brothers & the band of Lost John Miller, before becoming a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, to play banjo as a replacement for one of their members who had not been performing as needed in 1945. Lester Flatt’s went through a somewhat similar period, working with groups of musicians in radio, such as the Kentucky Pardners and Charlie Scott’s Harmonizers, before being offered a job as lead singer and guitar rhythm for The Blue Grass Boys. Flatt was already a member of The Blue Grass Boys when Scruggs arrived, but quickly found himself liking the new member’s style of banjo playing. (5) (6).
After some time playing with The Blue Grass Boys, the two left the group in fairly close succession in 1948, but were uncomfortable working outside of playing bluegrass music, even if not quite ready to continue the show and road life. Rather than go back to the mills where they had worked earlier in life, they joined together and gathered with them friends known for being able to play instruments they needed for performances. The two formed what would become known as “Flatt, Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys”. They played on radio stations and at other venues, going from place to place writing and performing music. They also did several recording works. All of this time and work together with various other artists eventually resulted in the 1957 release of Foggy Mountain Jamboree by Columbia Records as their first album. (5) (6) The release by Columbia Records was no doubt a very big milestone and point for Flatt, Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys, even today Columbia Records is the oldest brand name in the recorded sound business, and is a substantial business. (7)
Perhaps it can be said that “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” and its music was ultimately a result of “The Blue Grass Boys” and Bill Monroe’s work, as Flatt and Scruggs met through that group and coined the term “Bluegrass” in reference to the music style. However, each made such an important contribution to the music and style in their own lifetimes and work, one could also say that it was simply the continuation and development, as well as a perfect example of, a sort of music that had existed in Appalachia even before Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys. Through Scrugg’s three finger banjo picking style, which he had learned from the locals of his area and perfected, and Lester Flatt’s both memorable vocals and guitar, the two came together with the many friends and fellow artists that made up “The Foggy Mountain Boys”, to make something even better of their style of music, which is very well exemplified in “Foggy Mountain Jamboree”.
(1) Monger, James Christopher. “AllMusic Review.” AllMusic. AllMusic, n.d. Web. 7 July 16.
(2) “Flatt & Scruggs and Earl Scruggs – Foggy Mountain Jamboree, Gospel and I Saw The Light.” Vintage Guitar Magazine. N.p., 2007. Web. 29 July 2016.
(3) “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
(4) “Foggy Mountain Jamboree to Grammy Hall of Fame.” Bluegrass Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
(5) “Biography of Earl Scruggs.” Biography of Earl Scruggs. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
(6) “Biography of Lester Flatt.” Biography of Lester Flatt. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
(7) Sisario, Ben. “From One Mine, the Gold of Pop History.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2012. Web. 29 July 2016.