Hi, there... This page is part of the Slipcue guide to various bluegrass artists, which is part of a much larger Hick Music website. This "guide" is not meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, just a quick look at a few records I've heard recently, as well as some old favorites. Comments or corrections are invited... and recommendations are always welcome!
This page covers the letter "F"
Guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo super-whiz Earl Scruggs first met in 1945 while working in Bill Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs showed up one night and blew everybody's mind with his three-fingered banjo picking style, which was about twelve times faster than anything anybody had ever heard before: thus was born the bluegrass tradition of musical drag racing. Flatt & Scruggs were both star performers, helping define the aggressively flashy, instrumentally expansive sound of early classic bluegrass. Tasting the limelight, they teamed up in 1948, leaving Monroe's band to form their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys. These are their first recordings, made with an ever-changing roster of top-flight super-pickers. The earliest tracks feature singer-guitarist Mac Wiseman, who sang super-sweet harmony duets with Flatt; later sessions include other, equally talented sidemen filling in after Wiseman left to form his own band. These 1948-'50 recordings are pure gold, and this CD gathers all 28 together in a tight set of nonstop bluegrass explosiveness. It's great stuff, absolutely essential for anyone who wants to check out the classics.
Later on, the Foggy Mountain Boys moved to the Columbia label, a relationship that lasted for two decades, and brought Flatt & Scruggs into the American mainstream. This 2-CD set follows their career from 1950 to the end of the '60s, from hardcore bluegrass to the various folk- and country-flavored crossovers that the duo tried out in the '60s. Flatt & Scruggs hit the bigtime doing soundtrack work for the Beverly Hillbillies TV show (they played the theme song and made infrequent appearances as Clampett family "cousins"), as well as for the movie Bonnie And Clyde, which was also a big hit. From its inception, bluegrass had always been a consciously commercialized art form, but the mainstream success of Flatt & Scruggs opened up a whole new can of worms, prompting the same sort of agonized purism-vs-crossover debates that also raged in the Greenwich Village folk scene. This split became even more pronounced within the band itself, when Scruggs decided to go experimental and Flatt dug in his heels as a bluegrass traditionalist. In 1970, Scruggs left to form the fusion-oriented Earl Scruggs Revue, while Flatt went solo, retrenching musically and keeping it real for the folk festival faithful. This collection does a good job picking through their later years, but you can hear the creative strain on the group in some of the more commercial recordings. But for an overview of their Columbia years, this set is pretty hard to beat. Recommended!
When they made this tasty tribute to the Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs were still major stars of the then-slowed down bluegrass scene, but also poised just on the edge of mainstream fame. Slowing their sound down a little and meeting the doleful Carter Family sound halfway, the bluegrass kings capture the whistful, nostalgic tone of these old songs just perfectly, giving these old songs a slight modernized touch-up. It's also a nice chance to hear Earl Scruggs give his banjo a break, and work a little magic on the guitar instead. Mother Maybelle also chimes in with a little bit of autoharp (though, sadly, no vocals...) A nice down-home album made just as F&S were moving into their most commercial years, and a fitting tribute to the Carter Family legacy. Worth checking out!
A major meeting of talent here, even if F&S's glory days were well behind them and they were kind of phoning 'em in by the time these sessions were made. There's plenty of great picking on here, and a uniformly high level of musicianship, but there are some of the tropes of the Columbia studios that get in the ways (what was up with those harmonica tootles from Charlie McCoy, for example?) Still, this disc is worth checking out if you're a picker, or into hearing some high-class picking, even if the music itself flags at times... Also features Josh Graves doling out a few perfunctory dobro riffs as well.
Now, for the truly hardcore, this 4-CD set of all the best Flatt & Scruggs material from their first decade together is probably a must-have. It's an awful lot of bluegrass, to be sure, but it's all awfully good. Like all Bear Family releases, this has great sound quality, handsome packaging, and a wealth of historical information... a real class act.
This second box set tracks the duo through to their controversial commercial success in TV and film, but stops short of including the truly iffy stuff they did later in the '60s. Another nice Bear Family box and, again, if you're really hardcore, probably one you'll want to track down.
Flatt & Scruggs "Flatt & Scruggs: 1964-1969, Plus..." (Bear Family, 1992)
Another six CDs worth of Flatt&Scruggs-o-mania! Yow.
A great set of choice tracks culled from his early '70s solo albums, recorded after the breakup of the long-lived Flatt & Scruggs partnership. Lester proved himself more than up to the task of reorganizing, bringing in hotshots and younger pickers like Marty Stuart, Roland White and Josh Graves to fill out the sound. The songs are great -- some are oldies, others were new (like the topical hippie-era tune, "You Can't Tell The Boys From The Girls"), and many of the instrumental numbers are as fun and as inventive as anything in the F&S canon. Though this disc only includes 16 tracks, that's probably enough for the casual fan in the digital age: more hardcore collectors maybe want to track down the half-dozen or so LPs (and numerous singles) Flatt recorded for RCA early in the decade. As itis, though, this disc is pretty swell!
If you want to dig even deeper -- I mean really deep -- into Flatt's solo recordings on RCA Victor, well then, dang! This humongazoid, 6-CD Bear Family box set should pretty much settle the matter. Includes his duo recordings with Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman as well..
A very pretty album, with some of the best, most soulful work Fleck has ever recorded. Features a series of restrained, inventive duets with flks such as John Hartford, Darol Anger, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, etc. His dual banjo duet with John Hartford is particularly nice. I'm no big fan of Fleck's work (see below) but this is, for the most part, a very nice record. Recommended.
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Bela Fleck & The Flecktones" (Warner Brothers, 1990)
A rather dreary set of soft pop/smooth jazz/twang takes. I mean, I "get" that this is made for a different listenership than the typical, traditional truegrass audience, but even taken on its own terms as a jazz album, it's rather unadventurous and unengaging. Gets a big yawn from me, at least.
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "UFO Tofu" (Warner, 1992)
Sigh. Well, I suppose as these things go, this is one of the better Flecktones albums. At least Bela's banjo is pretty prominent. But this stuff sure sounds dorky to me!
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Three Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (Warner, 1993)
Bland and blander still. This opens with a glossy fusion tune straight out of the Pat Metheny school of doodly-doo-doo jazz, and only reluctantly slides into "folk" territory later on. But if you want muzak with a little twang...
Bela Fleck & The New Grass Revival "Deviation" (Rounder, 1995)
Fleck jams with a few of his old pals -- Sam Bush, John Cowan, Mark O'Connor, Jerry Douglas and others -- and gives them a chance to get loose, funky, and jazzy. This disc starts off with a little more sizzle than many of the Flecktone albums, then settles into a more demure, geriatric groove. A lot of this stuff just never seems to go anywhere, really. Snoozy, but with a few tracks that are kind of intriguing.
Bela Fleck "Tales From the Acoustic Planet" (Warner Brothers, 1995)
This super-talented young'un came up through the ranks of the '70s "newgrass" scene, plunking the banjo for The Newgrass Revival and on a zillion records with various high-powered pickers. He eventually became famous for taking the jazz-fusion innovations of "space grass" to previously-unimagined heights (or depths, depending on your temprament...) Fleck's commercial success as a pop crossover artist has been phenomenal, but I personally count among the ranks of bluegrass traditionalists who find his music trite and ephemeral. I don't begrudge any fans their preferences, or Fleck his explorations, but this muzak-y fusion definitely ain't my cup of tea. This is one of his better albums, with a more pronounced acoustic bent. (Link: Bela Fleck's website, like his music, may be just a little too fancy for its own good. It offers plain old HTML navigation, but that option appears to be busted, so you're stuck with a glitzy, cumbersome Flash presentation instead. How ironic.)
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Left Of Cool" (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Horrible! A shotgun wedding between Earl Scruggs and Tom Scott, featuring the dreaded soprano saxophone, and equally cloying doses of "funky" electric bass, flute, even lame spoken word and soul vocals. Even if you like soft jazz and/or soul, this music is still pretty tepid and unengaging.
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Little Worlds" (Columbia, 2003)
Mega-ugh. More boring soft-jazz meanderings, with an album "highlight" being a collaboration with Bobby McFerrin on a lackluster soul-rap version of "The Ballad Of Jed Clampett." And that actually is one of the better tracks on here. If your tastes are twangy, avoid this one.
Nice, mellow, skillfully composed, mature newgrass instrumentals. The pioneers of the style may have shifted gears -- David Grisman has by and large moving towards a more traditional sound, and Bela Fleck is a hopeless hack -- but mandolinist Flinner seems to be keeping both feet in the melody-driven progressive style of years gone by. These are tunes you can hum along to, mellow but not goopy or fusion-obsessed and flashy. It's nice.
Matt Flinner "Latitude" (Compass, 2001)
Still restrained, simple and mature, perhaps a bit less focused on the ensemble and more directly centered on Flinner's mandolin. Again, this may be easy listening, but it's still quite good, and relatively down-to-earth. Consistently listenable and engaging.
Sigh. I guess it had to happen: Flinner has plunged headlong into the murky waters of pop-jazzgrass crossovers, producing a dreadful, dreary record packed with tacky "funk" riffs and a wild mismatch of acoustic and electric instruments, ala Bela Fleck. I'm sure they were aiming for more of a Martin, Medeski & Wood kinda vibe, but this ain't nothin' but Muzak. So a mandolin player is picking "Caravan" over the rhythm to the Meters' "Cissy Strut..." So what? Do I care? Not really. I liked Flinner's earlier work, but this album seems entirely lacking in the subtlety and restraint that marked those discs. Oh well.
Fragment "Fragment 2000" (Hicon, 2000)
Folk-ish newgrass, made in the Union Station mould. Singer Jana Dolokova sounds for all the world like Alison Krauss -- almost slavishly so, but if you like the style, ya might wanna check this out as well. Decent picking, too -- nothing dazzling, but they've got the formula down... and you'd never guess that they actually hail from Czechoslovakia! (PS- The band has email at: hicon @oasnet.cz. )
An early album by vocalist Claire Lynch, playing here with her husband Larry Lynch and a couple of their pals, including Michael McClain of the McClain Family Band... Lynch went on to a long solo career, recording under her own name... The band had been together for several years before this disc was recorded, but this is their earliest album currently available in print...
The Front Porch String Band "Lines And Traces" (Rebel, 1991)
A fine reunion album, made after a ten year hiatus...
A sweet, simple bluegrass gospel set, with an impressive set of all-new material written by lead vocalist Bob Amos. The material tilts towards the "judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged" brand of religious piety, which is fine by me. Nice harmonies, decent picking -- nothing dazzling, bur heartfelt and effective. Recommended!
Front Range "Ramblin' On My Mind" (Sugar Hill, 2000)
Friendly, unpretentious, progressive-tilted bluegrass, similar to the New Grass Revival, with a few goofy tunes, and others that are rock solid. Once again, Bob Amos proves himself an impressive and able songwriter, and while the picking won't floor you, it's pretty nice and lighthearted...
A real winner. Bluesy, country-flavored truegrass, with swell picking all around. Don Rigsby produced the album, and plays fiddle and mandolin, while Phil Ledbetter provides some mighty sweet dobro licks throughout. Most of all, though, this album features the fince, fine vocals of Fuller himself, an ex-miner from Kentucky, who devoted himself to music fulltime after a mining accident sidelined him in the '80s. I ain't complaining; this is precisely the kind of album that I really love: musically rich, and quite heartfelt. Recommended!!
Tony Furtado & The American Gypsies "Live Gypsy" (Dualtone, 2003)
He's a talented picker, but these live performances, with their soft pop/jazz/smooth blues flourishes (including the -- ugh -- soprano sax) are just not my cup of tea.
Bluegrass Albums - Letter "G"
Hick Music Index