In Search of Thomas B. Allen
The first time I heard the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs it touched something inside my heart that changed my life. The album that introduced me to them was Flatt and Scruggs' Greatest Hits. The cover illustration caught my eye as much as the music caught my ear. It was the first time I'd ever seen anything other than a photograph on a record sleeve. I thought it was brilliant. It gave the musicians a kind of immortality. I noticed that the artist's name was Thomas B. Allen.
Thomas B. Allen illustrated Lester and Earl in their white suits, white hats, sporting their traditional red Kentucky Colonel ties. He melded the images of these icons onto a canvas of dark blue. It truly was an eye-opener for me to see Lester and Earl in color; we didn't own a color TV. Until I saw that album cover, they had lived in my mind only in black arid white.
All of the above took place during the summer of 1963 in the record department of the Morgan and Lindsey dime store in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I bought the record for $1.97, took it home and displayed the album cover in my bedroom as if it were the Mona Lisa. I spent most of that summer getting to know Lester, Earl, the Foggy Mountain Boys, and whoever Thomas B. Allen was a whole lot better. They all became a big part of my world.
Nearly thirty years later I was visiting Earl and Louise Scruggs in their home. I asked Louise if she had any idea where I might find Thomas B. Allen. She told me, "The last I heard he was teaching in Sarasota, Florida." I asked for his phone number. A week or so later I called him, introduced myself, and basically invited myself to come down and meet him. He granted me an appointment. I flew to Florida, found his house, knocked on the door and, as I'd hoped, we became instant old friends. I spent that afternoon with him, asking questions, looking at his archives, listening to him play the banjo, reminiscing and sneaking glances into whatever the future held for us concerning art and music.
On the way back to Nashville, I knew I had to find enough believers to help me bring the name of Tom Allen and an exhibit of his life's work before the public. For the past four years, it's been a cause I've dedicated myself to. It's truly been a labor of love.
I firmly believe that Tom Allen should he knighted as American music's patron saint to the arts. His work is as timeless as the music itself. He is a master who can bring art to life in its most complex form, yet his genius is knowing how to present it in a way that even an eight-year-old child in a dime store can understand.
By Marty Stuart
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