Mar 29, 2012

The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show, archived at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

With the recent passing of banjo master Earl Scruggs, we find more video and audio recordings of Flatt and Scruggs appearing across the Web. Some footage you won't see (near as I can tell) is coming out April 11 on the DVD set Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films from the Forgotten Froniter

Here's a modified excerpt from the set's booklet.

The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show
excerpts featuring Jake and Josh (1961)

Guitar-banjo duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs honed their musical chops as part of Bill Monroe's famous group, the Bluegrass Boys, for two years before they broke away in 1948 to form Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1953, they became popular Nashville radio regulars on WSM's early morning Martha White Biscuit Time. After six months of live weekday broadcasts, the group recorded its fifteen-minute shows and shipped them to WSM from the road. Thanks to their popularity and Martha White sponsorship, the team became "members" of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, performing regularly on its Nashville stage and broadcasts. Soon they were television stars of The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show. The half-hour TV program aired weekly, syndicated to local stations across the South, and running until the duo split in 1969.

The tunes in these excerpts from the show feature Foggy Mountain Boys Jake Tullock and Josh Graves. (Right names: English Pierce Tullock Jr. and Burkett "Buck" Howard Graves.) Like all members of Flatt and Scruggs groups, both were talented string players. Graves in particular mastered the dobro (resophonic guitar), while Tullock played bass fiddle and guitar. "Cousin Jake" and "Uncle Josh," however, were better known for their comedy segments, done in the guise of country rubes. As with their contemporary comic television characters on The Beverly Hillbillies (on which Lester and Earl appeared) and The Andy Griffith Show, the stereotypes could not disguise a sly knowledge of the modern world and accomplished musicianship.

In these New Frontier performances from 1961, Jake and Josh sing about the space race in the topical novelty songs "They're Gonna Put a Monkey on the Moon" and "The Sputnik Dog" (aka "When That Shaggy Dog Gets Back from Outer Space"). Flatt introduces both numbers, while Scruggs and fiddler Paul Warren provide accompaniment. The lyrics to "Monkey on the Moon" directly reference Ham, the chimpanzee NASA launched into orbit, January 31, 1961. (The Orphans in Space DVD also includes footage of Ham, shot on February 1; courtesy of the University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections.) "Sputnik Dog," written by Flatt in 1959, alludes to Laika, the canine cosmonaut aboard the Soviets' Sputnik II (1957) and to the popular 1959 Disney film The Shaggy Dog (which opens with its protagonist building a missile interceptor and culminates with the apprehension of foreign spies trying to steal a "hydrogen missile"). This Cold War hillbilly ditty is remarkably free from the post-Sputnik panic that permeated American culture of that moment. In fact, it practically celebrates the Red dog who "comes back from outer space." (In fact Laika died during her flight).

Neither song appears among the many commercial recordings by Flatt and Scruggs, or anyone else its seems. 

Here's a note on "Sputnik Dog," courtesy of UNC's Southern Folklife Collection.

Preservation Note

The archive of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum holds original 16mm kinescopes of 36 televised episodes of The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show. Although hundreds of episodes aired during the program's 1955-1969 run, all were presumed lost until 1989, when retired advertising executive William Graham found 24 films in his private holdings. After the museum announced the acquisition, an anonymous donor gave 12 other filmed episodes. The warped and shrunken prints required extensive restoration. After rights were cleared, in 2007 the Country Music Foundation and Shanachie Entertaiment released a ten-volume DVD series, Best of the Flatt and Scruggs TV Show: Classic Bluegrass from 1956 to 1962. Volume 7 includes a segment about the preservation and restoration work done by the museum's archivists.

The recovery of these Flatt and Scruggs programs illustrates the peculiar distinctions between the roles that film and videotape played in early television. Initially, The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show was broadcast live from wherever the bluegrass stars were touring. Then, as band member Curly Seckler recollected, “videotape came along and we danced a little jig." When 2-inch Quad videotape reached the market in 1956, the shows were recorded on the new format. The cast performed at WSM-TV studios in Nashville, often recording material for four episodes in a single day. Producers then re-recorded the video playback on film. Local stations received the edited half-hour kinescopes for broadcast, then returned them to Nashville.

It should be noted, however, that a pair of original Quad videotapes survived erasure and were donated to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1979. Cataloged in the Martha White Flour Show Collection as The Flatt & Scruggs Show, nos. 383 and 384, these two episodes, shot in color in 1968, feature guests Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. This modest video preservation work escaped the attention of fans and collectors, who celebrated the film bonanza the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum announced a decade later.

Thanks to Kelli Hix, Curator of Moving Images, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville, Tennessee.