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Flatt & Scruggs

The Complete Mercury Recordings

(Universal Chronicles; US: 22 Apr 2003; UK: Available as import)

Although Bill Monroe was at it for several years, the emergence of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt as a bluegrass duo only provided more credence to what Monroe had been developing—namely a bluegrass style that is as deep and alluring now as it was then. The tandem are probably best known to the common person as the pair who opened up and closed The Beverly Hillbillies comedy, with the “Y’all come back now, y’hear!” that became a piece of Americana. But for two years in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Scruggs and Flatt had more than ample material. And this recording, originally released in 1992 but re-released with remastered sound, is proof that the tandem, despite musical differences that led to personal differences later on, was one of the cornerstones of “country” bluegrass music.


“We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart” kicks this 28-song, 74-minute collection off on the right toe-tapping foot. Featuring Flatt’s vocals and Scruggs’s fine banjo picking, the tune isn’t necessarily the frantic bluegrass of Monroe and his stellar supporting cast but rather a pure blend of country leanings with bluegrass formats. Mac Wiseman is also featured on the track. “God Loves His Children” is a gospel tune (obviously) and is a give-and-take tune that picks up the pace simply by not picking up the pace. The musicianship and the bass are the key ingredients to the song. “I’m gonna follow Jesus everyday,” they sing, as the listener can almost envision them in a horseshoe, packed closely around the suspended mic from the dimly lit ceiling.


This music also has far more in common with the Carter Family than Monroe in some respects, especially on the pleasing “My Cabin in Caroline”. Recorded in the autumn of 1948 at a studio in Knoxville. “Baby Blue Eyes”, another Flatt-Scruggs original, is the slowest track thus far and is probably the most heartfelt mountain-sounding tune. Wiseman again appears on vocal here, but it’s the harmony that gives this song its lift. The second batch of recorded material is from a two-month period in 1949 recorded in Cincinnati and starts with “Baby Blue Eyes”. It’s the highlight of the early material covered, with John Ray “Curly” Seckler’s mandolin the crowning achievement of the song. It’s also the closest thing to O Brother Where Art Thou on the record.


“Down the Road” is extremely infectious and down-home, with Art Wooten’s fiddle and Scruggs intricate yet melodic banjo lead being joyful ear candy. “Why Don’t You Tell Me So” is more of the old-time country sound so rare in this current climate, although it does have a definite swing to it. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is the second of eight songs that were recorded in Cincinnati, but in one day! Yes, one day, what could take months for some was done in one day. And this instrumental is basically the heavy metal of bluegrass riffs, it is a mother of a track along the lines of “Orange Blossom Special”. “No Mother or Dad” tones it down a notch or four, but still is a fine effort despite the hiss of static from the primitive recording gear. Well, that is, primitive by today’s standards. The rousing “My Little Girl in Tennessee” comes off as something Ricky Skaggs perfected for many more ears many years later.


The simplicity of the music never grows tired for this large and lengthy collection, as “I’ll Never Love Another” is a no-nonsense country tune that artists like Faron Young or Hank Cochran would do justice to. “So Happy I’ll Be” doesn’t come off as strong though, with the barbershop-quartet approach diminishes the story in the song. Thankfully the prison lament “Doin’ My Time” atones for the previous miscue. Gospel was a big portion of the content of these songs, and “Preachin’ Prayin’ Singin’” is a perfect example.


The last third of this album is eleven songs that were recorded . . . you guessed it, in one day! “Cora Is Gone” and “Pain in My Heart” are generally straightforward country bluegrass tunes, with Seckler singing lead on the latter number. The highlight of the album has to be “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, a barnraising song that has the pair going on all cylinders from the opening note of the song. Benny Sims’s bass playing is basically forgotten about as Scruggs seems to be on another planet from his maniacal playing. “Salty Dog Blues” and “Take Me in a Lifeboat” are also impressive recordings. But the joy and ability this duo had is something that country or bluegrass circles will never see again.

Rating:

Originally from Cape Breton, MacNeil is currently writing for the Toronto Sun as well as other publications, including All Music Guide, Billboard.com, NME.com, Country Standard Time, Skope Magazine, Chart Magazine, Glide, Ft. Myers Magazine and Celtic Heritage. A graduate of the University of King's College, MacNeil currently resides in Toronto. He has interviewed hundreds of acts ranging from Metallica and AC/DC to Daniel Lanois and Smokey Robinson. MacNeil (modestly referred to as King J to friends), a diehard Philadelphia Flyers fan, has seen the Rolling Stones in a club setting, thereby knowing he will rest in peace at some point down the road. Oh, and he writes for PopMatters.com.


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18 Jul 2005
Hours of bluegrass, country, and gospel from one of the 20th century's most important musical duos, reissued with thought and care for all y'all.
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