You Must Hear This: Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs

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Earl Scruggs performing at Stagecoach, a country music festival held in Indio, Calif., in 2008.

Earl Scruggs performing at Stagecoach, a country music festival held in Indio, Calif., in 2008. Michael Buckner/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Michael Buckner/Getty Images

David Johnston, banjo player for the Yonder Mountain String Band, says the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys launched his career in music.

In June of 1993, I was listening to a radio show, and it was the first time I'd heard this sound that I loved. I was in college and my girlfriend had left for the summer, so I spent my afternoons laying around and drinking coffee. My radio was tuned to a bluegrass station. Every once in a while, they'd spin something that sounded like it came from a bygone era. It turned out to be The Foggy Mountain Boys. I investigated some more, and what I had heard was Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys: The Complete Mercury Sessions. I went to the record store, and I'll admit that I picked the one that had the most songs on it for the best price.

So, all these years later, here's what I do with this amazing music: I get home and, in the evening, when the crickets are going and the lightning bugs flashing, I shut my bedroom door and listen. "Pike County Breakdown" comes on, and from the first four notes, I feel a golden rhythmic imprint press across my head, and I have this huge smile. This is the stuff. "Doing My Time" comes next. I was doing my time, too, exploring my rowdy ways — and vicariously thrilling to the words, "They call me by a number but not a name." But it was more than just those two songs. My life had elements of all these things that The Foggy Mountain Boys were describing with their words and music: My girlfriend had baby-blue eyes; I swore I'd never love another. I was preoccupied with Blue Ridge vistas and my cabin home where everything could come out right.

A couple years later, l traded in my guitar for a $40 credit on a Kay Banjo and got a job washing dishes at the Cracker Barrel to pay off the rest. Because of The Foggy Mountain Boys, I became obsessed with learning how to create that same kind of sound. And their music still informs what I do today. Simplicity has as much power as anything. You must hear this.

You Must Hear This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Frannie Kelley. Brendan Banaszak mixed this piece for All Things Considered.



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