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Lester Flatt is the best-known lead singer in the history of bluegrass music. He was born on June 19, 1914, in Overton County, Tennessee, near Sparta, which is in the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee. He left school at an early age and had a variety of jobs, including work at a textile mill where he met his wife, Gladys, in 1931. After Flatt worked part time job on WDBJ in Roanoke with a group known as Charlie Scott's Harmonizers, both Lester and Gladys went to work for Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Pardners in 1943. A year later they moved to Nashville where he worked with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
Flatt and five-string banjo innovator Earl Scruggs led the Bluegrass Boys to great success before teaming up on their own in 1948. (Because of this move, Bill Monroe never spoke to Flatt again until the early 1970s.) Most of Flatt's career was spent from 1948 to 1969 in the legendary duo of Flatt & Scruggs. In 1948 they named their group the "Foggy Mountain Boys" after a song by the Carter family. Their first three hit records were "Tis Sweet to Be Remembered" in 1952, "Cabin Over the Hills" in 1959 and "Crying My Heart Out Over You" in 1960. The latter song was revived by Ricky Scaggs in 1981. Through shrewd promotion by their manager, Scruggs' wife, Louise, Flatt & Scruggs received more media attention than any other Bluegrass group. In 1962 they recorded their biggest hit, "Ballad of Jed Clampett," which was the theme song of the popular television show "The Beverly Hillbillies." In 1968 their original 1949 Mercury recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" wound up in the soundtrack of the hit film "Bonnie and Clyde."
By the late 1960s Scruggs began to affect the duo by playing folk-rock, jazz, and blues. They recorded a few songs by Bob Dylan and other contemporary folk stars. As added musicians became included on Flatt & Scruggs albums, older fans, and Flatt himself, became upset. The strain increased and the duo broke up in 1969. (The two never worked together again, although they settled their personal differences before Flatt died.)
After this split Flatt retained the Grand Ole Opry membership and the sponsorship of Martha White Flour on his early morning WSM radio show. He dropped Columbia Records and signed with RCA Victor. Marty Stuart, a mandolin prodigy, got his professional start working with Flatt in 1971. Flatt and Bill Monroe reunited during Flatt's appearance at Monroe's bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom in 1971. In 1972 the album "Flatt on Victor" returned to the musical style older fans still treasured. Three albums in the 1970s featured another vocalist, Mac Wiseman. In 1975 Flatt left RCA Victor and recorded for Flying Fish and Canaan as well as CMH Records. His albums continued to be successful but health problems began to affect Flatt. He survived heart surgery and continued performing until a stroke and further heart trouble ended his life on May 11, 1979. In 1985 the duo of Flatt & Scruggs was the second bluegrass act elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1991 Flatt and Scruggs were individually inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor.