Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs And The Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs And The Stanley Brothers Selected Sides 1947 – 1953 (Disk 4)

Kurt Wolff

By Kurt Wolff

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Bluegrass began with Bill Monroe — the guy invented the sound, no argument there. However, what made bluegrass a genre, and not just one man's musical style, was when other artists began copying Monroe's rural, acoustic, high-lonesome sound (Monroe's band was called the Blue Grass Boys, a name soon used to describe the sound as a whole). The first major groups to begin recording in the Monroe style were the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.

Rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Lester Flatt and banjo whiz Earl Scruggs — whose three-finger rolls are a defining characteristic of the music — were actually former bandmates of Monroe's who, after helping fashion the bluegrass sound in the mid '40s, ticked off their boss by quitting to form their own outfit. Over the next couple of decades they helped bluegrass become a worldwide phenomenon, their music showing up in folk festivals, in the movies and even on television ("The Ballad of Jed Clampett" was the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies).

Natives of the Clinch Mountains in Virginia, Carter and Ralph Stanley simply liked Monroe's sound enough to copy it, and in 1947 they became the first to do so. Their mournful mountain sound eventually took on a life of its own, thanks in great part to Carter's songwriting mastery and the brothers 'gorgeous harmonies — Carter's warm, melancholy leads and Ralph's piercing tenor, which weaves in and out of the melody like a spooky messenger from another world.

This four-CD set contains the earliest recordings from both groups, all recorded between 1947 and 1953. Along with Monroe's music, these songs are an essential part of the bluegrass story.

Flatt & Scruggs were fairly well established as a duo (after leaving Monroe's band) by the time they signed with Columbia and recorded their first session for that label in 1950. The sound here is a bit cleaner and brighter than their earlier Mercury sides, but the warm and earthy quality of Lester's mournful voice (helping turn songs like "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered" and "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" into bluegrass standards), not to mention Earl's definitive banjo playing (rolling with rural life on cuts like the urgent "Get in Line Brothers"), is no less powerful.