In The Footsteps of a Good Man: Coming of Age With Lester Flatt

This article by Marty appeared in Country Music Magazine - November/December 1992

The first time I ever saw Lester Flatt in person was at Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom, Indiana festival in 1971. I was 12 years old. I looked at the program and found out what time he was playing, and I stood by his bus to watch him come out.

That old bus was a sight. It looked like a rolling billboard, "Lester Flatt and The Nashville Grass Sponsored by Martha White Flour." It was a vision in diesel. I had no idea that within the next year I'd be on that bus. That's where I'd spend my teenage years. To this day when I'm asked, "Where were you raised?," I say, "In the back end of Flatt's bus."

When Lester finally came out of the bus, the speech I'd planned for about seven years kind of got lost inside of me. I did manage to get an autograph.

As I followed him on the long walk all the way to the stage, I noticed the hat and the trademark way he cocked it on his head. It was almost like his signature. Bob Dylan, in a song he wrote about Lenny Bruce, the controversial comedian, describes a short cab ride he took with Lenny--it seemed like two years because he was so in awe. When I heard that song, I thought about that walk that day behind Lester.

He moved in a classic way through the dust and the endless sea of campers. People sort of changed as he passed the effect of a preacher walking through a poker game. And now, here was Lester right in my sights. I couldn't believe it. Here was the guy walking in front of me who wrote "Will You Be Loving Another Man." Skyrockets were going off in my head. For the moment I was walking in the footsteps of a good man. The only thing that could have possibly made it better was if Earl Scruggs had been there too.

I don't remember much about the show that day other than I finally got to see Paul Warren, Haskell McCormick, Uncle Josh, Johnny Johnson and the guy who later showed me the way--Roland White. I'd just started playing the mandolin and had been watching "Chee-Chee," as Lester called him, on TV.

Roland let me play his mandolin, showed me a couple of licks, and I'm sure I didn't ask him over a couple of hundred questions, but he took time to answer all of them. Roland made me feel like somebody. Now, after years of knowing him, I understand that that's just the way he is. He's always been faithful to bluegrass music, even when it wasn't faithful to him. He's always been an open door for young players, and he's always willing to share what lives inside him with anybody. More times than he knows, Roland's been a beacon for me.

As the festival drew to a close, I was completely star-struck and on fire with a wealth of new information and music. I went home and spent most of the rest of that summer around Carl Jackson. When Carl was on the road with Jim and Jesse, his daddy worked with me quite a bit on the mandolin. Carl was my first bluegrass partner.

When I went back to school that winter, I spent most of my time daydreaming, thinking about bluegrass music and marking the days until I could go to another festival. Jim and Jesse let me ride with Carl on the bus a couple of times that winter. That helped me out until summer rolled around.

When Carl left Jim and Jesse, he spent a season playing bluegrass gospel music with The Sullivan Family. They played a church near my home, and Enoch Sullivan let me get up and play a couple of songs. Afterwards, I persuaded Carl to call Enoch and ask if I could go on the road with them during the summer. Enoch agreed, and that's where my life began as I know it today.

We played mostly Pentecostal churches on the back roads of the deep South. I discovered that the Holy Spirit likes pickin' music too. People would be shouting, clapping their hands and dancing in the aisles. Enoch's fiddle playing just kind of brought all that together. Sister Margie could really sing those holiness songs, and sometimes her "I'd Rather Be Saved and Have Salvation Tonight Than Be Rockefeller's Daughter" testimony would just roll it on out into a deeper place. Carl, Unk Dickerson and I added a bit of fire and youth. And all of this was being driven by Emmett Sullivan's wonderful, wacky, cosmic banjo. It was great fun, good music and good times. And a good first experience on the road.

People loved The Sullivan Family and welcomed us everywhere we went. So I followed the Lord and the bluegrass trail with great expectations. Then we played a festival at Lavonia, Georgia and I saw Roland White again with Lester's show. We hung out a bit more and, when the festival was over, he gave me his phone number and told me to give him a call some time if I could go out on the road with them for a weekend, if that was all right with my parents. I made it a point to remember his invitation because the season was ending and, after a summer like I was having, the thought of getting up at 7 o'clock to go to a school where no one had ever heard of "Salty Dog Blues" didn't inspire me at all.

The road is a powerful thing. It has a way of changing and claiming you. Some people just aren't cut out for it. But I love it. To this very minute, I feel right at home out here. It's a hard thing to give up once you've known it. Mostly, the road means freedom and that's what I had to give up when I went back to school.

I was really a poor excuse for a student. The only thing I had to keep me going was my records, Bill Monroe's autograph and a mandolin pick he's given me...and Roland White's phone number. The final straw came one day when a teacher came up behind me when I was supposed to be reading history and I had a Country Song Roundup inside my history book. She busted me and informed me that I could make something out of myself if I would get my mind off music and get it on to history. I told her that I was more into making history than learning about it. On that, and something about my attitude and haircut, I was excused from school.

I went home and called Roland to see if his invitation was still open. He got an okay from Lester and, after an entire afternoon of crying, begging and pleading, my parents reluctantly agreed to let me go to Nashville for the weekend.

It's around 400 miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi to Nashville. I was so excited that I stood and talked to the bus driver almost the entire way. The old bus station in Nashville was across the street from the Ryman Auditorium. When I got off the bus, I stopped for a second to remember where I came from and took a look at the Opry to see where I wanted to go because I had a feeling that I was going to stay for more than just a weekend. I didn't know how, but I had a feeling.

Roland picked me up and kind of filled me in as we went along. A day later, I was at Higgins Gulf Station in Hendersonville standing by the Coke machine, waiting for Lester. I had met the guys in the band and they were cordial. It was such a staunch old fraternity...very set in its ways. I don't know why anybody would let someone like me in their band; but thank God it happened.

Flatt came driving up in this green '72 Cadillac. He parked, got out with his bag and walked up real slow. I was still behind the Coke machine because I wanted to watch him to see what kind of mood he was in. But since he was wearing sunglasses, I really couldn't tell. Until, that is, this old black man named Tom who worked there asked Lester to loan him a little money so he could go fishing. Lester asked him how much. Tom said $10,000. Lester asked him where in the hell did he plan on fishing for $10,000. Tom said, "Hawaii." Lester just died laughing, knowing Tom had probably never been past the county line. And what I suspected all along was true: Lester Flatt did have a sense of humor.

Roland introduced us again. Lester said he was glad to have me along, and that was about it. We got on the bus and headed for a Labor Day weekend festival in Glasgow, Delaware. I just sat listening for a long time. I was loving it because the minute the door closed, the bus became a fun-loving club house. You could tell it was business, but these guys knew how to have fun along the way.

On the way out of town, we stopped to get coffee. The waitress at the truckstop was all excited about seeing a star. She stepped on the bus to get an autograph and was talking 90 miles an hour about "So happy to have you, I can't believe this, oh I watch you all the time." Then, "Have you seen Porter Wagoner lately? He's my favorite. What's he really like?"

With that remark, as far as Lester was concerned, she lost all her charm right then and there. When she finally stepped down, he said "what a terrible fog of perfume she left behind. I sure wish I knew what it was so I could get Gladys some." Out of nowhere I said, "I believe that it's Cat Shit-on-Avon." Well, for some reason, that just floored him, and he busted out laughing and shook my hand. So, I had finally connected with Lester Flatt thanks to some loud, smelly Porter Wagoner fan in Gallatin, Tennessee.

But the thing that really got his attention later on was when I told him I much I loved his music, and how I had traced him and Earl back to when they were working with Bill Monroe in the 1940's. I rattled off some of my favorite songs he had written like "I'm Working On A Road." I told him I thought I knew where the D-18 Martin guitar was that he had played on those sessions. Lester looked at me like he'd seen a Martian.

I was trying to ask him about Earl, but I knew that the time wasn't right. Before the weekend was over, he'd spew smoke and anger out of one side of his mouth on the subject of Earl. But underneath it all what glared like the sun was that he still loved Earl like a brother, no matter how mad he was. I saw that as a ray of hope. They meant so much to me and to everybody else. Because it was none of my business and because I was young enough not to know better, I used every opportunity for the next seven years to try to promote something good between Lester and Earl. For example, knowing how much Lester claimed to hate the music Earl and his sons were playing, every time they released a new album, I made sure Flatt got a copy.

Later in the day, Roland and I got out a mandolin and a guitar and started playing some tunes. Flatt came back to go to bed and stopped for a minute to listen. He kind of laughed and said, "Why don't you all do a couple of songs on the show tomorrow." That pretty much made by year, and I was thinking that this was turning into a pretty good trip. I was hoping it would turn into something more than a weekend. I'd still have to sell my mom and daddy, and I didn't have a clue how to go about that.

Lester seemed to be enjoying his success during this period. One achievement that he seemed especially proud of was his renewed friendship with Bill Monroe. He told me how he and Bill hadn't spoken in over 20 years and how Monroe walked up to him at Bean Blossom and welcomed him and how they sang together just like old times. I loved hearing every word of this kind of stuff. He must have loved telling it because he told it to me twice, word for word, during the weekend.

Lester let me play on all four shows the band did over the two days. I picked, Roland and I would sing "Love Please Come Home." Of course, Lester, the consummate entertainer and greatest emcee I've ever known, believed in giving people what they wanted. So, in a way only he could do, Lester built me up and promoted me so, before the weekend was over, everybody knew me.

On Sunday, while the band was packing, I thanked Lester for letting me play with him. I could see the wheels turning in his head: old act, new blood, this might work. Plus, by that time we had a routine of gags between us. Our friendship grew fast. He suggested that if we could work out something about school, he would talk to my parents about working with them. Now the weekend was really looking good. I think I used most of the pay phones between Delaware and Tennessee begging my parents for a little more time.

I really had a lot to tell them: Lester had invited me to stay on to play the Martha White radio show on Tuesday; he wanted me to play the Friday night Opry; Roland had a hat he said I could use; I had money left over; Lester had offered me a job.

It was perfect. I know it must have been a lot coming down on my family. We're really close with a lot of love between us. I'd pulled some really good ones before, but this one must have floored them. I convinced them, though, that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They said I could stay until the end of the week. Then I'd have to come home.

Tuesday at WSM was just business for Lester and the guys after so many years. But for me, going to WSM Radio as part of this was great. Lester and Mac Wiseman had a new album out that was doing good, so they were promoting it heavily. During the theme, announcer Grant Turner read his Martha White script and added "along with special guests, Mac Wiseman and Marty Stuart." Oh, was I proud. I was hoping my history teacher was listening. I called home with every new detail that week. But it was the Opry that blew my mind. My god, there was Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Brother Oswald and on and on. I couldn't believe that I was on the inside.

Lester put Roland and me on to do our by-this-time-big-hit, "Love Please Come Home." I remember only how much fun it was and how I had to stand on my toes to reach the mandolin mike. But we must have nailed it because we got an encore. By this time people were jamming backstage to see what was going on. When the song ended, there were reporters and pickers coming up to us. But what meant the most was that Roy Acuff and Tex Ritter gave me a compliment and a welcome. Lester was watching it all go down and getting a big kick out of it. The only thing I hoped was that my family was listening and that I'd made them proud.

I remember praying a lot right after that. There was some down time during the next week, and I spent a good deal of it in Roland's back yard just thinking. I was kind of happy, kind of lonesome and kind of amazed at how fast all this had happened. I loved it, but it was a lot to take in. I felt safe and secure, but I remember asking God to comfort my mother, to let her know I was all right. I felt God would give her the wisdom to deal with this decision I had put before her.

Now, letting your 13-year-old kid go out into the world must have been a heavy decision. I don't think my folks would have let me do it with anybody but Lester. There was no family business to go home to, and I didn't think I had a future as a cotton farmer. I couldn't see myself at a factory. I knew that I was in my world.

Mom and Dad got plenty of free advice. So at the end of the week when they came to Chatom, Alabama to either let me go or take me home, I'm sure they must have been confused. I knew they would do what was right. And I knew that Lester would shoot straight with them. He assured them I'd be seen after, that I'd keep a little money and send the rest to the bank. He'd have our manager, Lance Leroy, work out the details of how to finish my education. And he would assume responsibility for it all.

With that and their love and faith in me, they let me go after my dream. It was a great act of love. I know that there have been times since that I have let myself down as well as my family. But the weight and responsibility of that moment keeps me going. Some important people in my life believed in me, and I've never taken it lightly. I wish every young person could have that kind of support.

After my parents agreed, I asked Lester if I could go home and get my things. He said, "Well, we've got radio shows on Tuesday; you might ought to have them sent to you." I've always thought that he didn't want to chance a reverse decision. There wouldn't have been one, but that was Flatt's way of doing business, so I accepted that.

I told my mom and dad and sister goodbye and got on the bus. As their cars faded from sight in the Alabama dust, I had to fight back tears, but I knew that beyond that cloud of dust there was a big world waiting, and I wanted to see it........every bit.

Article written by Marty Stuart

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