The Bluegrass Legends Who Made Their First Records on Gay Street

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The Knoxville Sessions box-set release of 1929 and 1930 recordings—celebrated with a frequently surprising festival this past weekend—is remarkable for several reasons, nationally or even internationally. It’s a pretty fascinating echo of an underdocumented era from the beginnings of popular music.

Knoxville has been known as a place where famous musicians learned to play, where they first performed before audiences, where they first broadcast on the radio, and, infamously, where they gave their final performances. Knoxville isn’t much known as a place to record. That’s another reason the St. James Hotel sessions were such an interesting anomaly.

But the St. James recordings were not the only significant recording ever made here. Just when you think you know everything about Knoxville, there’s always something else. I learned about this just last year, thanks to Charlie Lutz, the gentleman scholar who hosts bluegrass shows on Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons on WDVX.

Built in 1912, the tall, white Holston Building at Gay and Clinch is one of downtown Knoxville’s architectural landmarks. In photographs of the city from a century ago it pops out at you, impossible to mistake. In 1948, when it was known as the Hamilton Bank Building, it was one of Knoxville’s most respectable addresses, attracting doctors, lawyers, bankers, and coal executives. On the fifth floor were the regional headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The men who walked through its doors daily were serious, respectable, no-nonsense sorts. They wore their hats flat on their heads.

The five fellows who showed up with instrument cases looked a little different. They were younger than most of the building’s 9-5 denizens, and wore their hats at an angle which, if it were not precisely rakish, it was a good deal more rakish than any banker would dare.

Of course, the folks who got off the elevator on the third floor always looked a little different. It was the radio studios of WROL, which daily hosted live country music, especially the still-new form known as bluegrass. WROL differentiated itself from the more mainstream WNOX by its frequent adventures down that unproven road. Millionaire grocer Cas Walker sponsored a live-music show on WROL, and Cas liked bluegrass.

Among the newcomers that day were four former members of Bill Monroe’s famous Bluegrass Boys, the Nashville-based band that had introduced the genre to the world. They included 27-year-old fiddler Jim Schumate and stand-up bassist Howard Watts, 35, who was better known to some for his comic stage persona of Cedric Rainwater. The youngest was Mac Wiseman, a 23-year-old singer and guitarist.

The other two were Lester Flatt, then 34, and Earl Scruggs, 24. Until they’d mutinied earlier in the year, they’d been the white-hot core of Bill Monroe’s band, Flatt with his guitar and distinctive tenor vocal, Scruggs with his unusual finger-picking style on banjo. They’d never before made a record as a duo, but it would become a habit.

In the soundproof studio at WROL, they cut four sides, all songs written by Flatt and Scruggs. Two religious tunes, “God Loves His Children” and “I’m Going to Make Heaven My Home.” Then a couple of high-octane love songs, “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” and “My Cabin in Caroline.” Mac Wiseman’s high voice cuts through the atmosphere in a couple of cuts.

They all feature more notes per second than nearly anything else in popular music at the time. Flatt and Scruggs’ version of bluegrass turned Monroe’s idea up a notch.

They walked out of the Hamilton Bank Building as recording artists. The four singles were released on Mercury. Over the next few years, with mostly different sidemen, they recorded dozens more singles in other studios in other cities.

Neither Flatt nor Scruggs was from East Tennessee. Flatt was from Overton County, in Middle Tennessee, Scruggs from Western North Carolina. Scruggs was more familiar with Knoxville than Flatt was; he’d lived and worked in radio here a few years earlier. As if making a geographical compromise, they were about to adopt Knoxville as a part-time home, while they did work in several other cities, from Cincinnati to Tampa. They’d be familiar faces on Gay Street for about seven years, regulars at Harold’s Deli, and among Knoxville’s first live-television performers. They were here so often that by 1950 they were listed as Knoxville residents, living with their wives at the same address on Rutledge Pike.

Flatt and Scruggs may have done more to popularize bluegrass music than even Monroe did, and became a phenomenon of their own. Recognizable by name in the 1950s, they became extremely famous later through their unlikely influence in very different media. One of television’s most popular sitcoms, The Beverly Hillbillies, for which they not only composed and performed the theme, but also made occasional guest appearances as their gentlemanly selves; and on their own national TV show, on Saturday evenings, where they touted their sponsor, Martha White Self-Rising Flour.

As a kid, I studied them. In the era of the dramatic gesture, they stood coolly apart. These were two guys who knew what they were doing, were confident it was going to come out exactly, jaw-droppingly right. Only their fingers moved. They reminded me of NASA engineers, doing amazing things with their instruments without making a big deal of it. On stage they were polite, low key, smiling but never grinning, as if maybe they were hoping maybe you’d serve them a slice of pie when they were done.

Then, startlingly, their music underscored the ultraviolent (or so it seemed at the time) 1967 movie, Bonnie and Clyde, if anachronistically. When Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of gunfire in 1934, bluegrass was hardly a twinkle in Bill Monroe’s eye, but no fussy historian can deny that, as chase-scene music, it’s unbeatable. By 1967, everyone in the western world, even those who claimed to despise country music, could recognize “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the tune Flatt and Scruggs had been working on since the late ‘40s.

Those first four recordings from 1948 are available on a couple of compilations and online.

There are lots of spots in Knoxville that I think deserve plaques, and that’s one.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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