In Kentucky with Hankins, he had met Scruggs, a banjo fireball who was less than four years older than Graves but, with Flatt, already had left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys to become a headliner. Under Scruggs’ tutelage, Graves had learned to play in revolutionary fashion.
“I’d watch him,” he says of Scruggs. “He said, ‘What’re you lookin’ at?’ I said, ‘I was watchin’ your fingers, how you do that with them picks.’ He said, ‘You can’t use three?’ I said, ‘No.’ So he started me off like this.”
He drums his right thumb, index finger and middle finger in succession, over and over, on the kitchen table.
“Then he’d do it backwards,” he continues, drumming the fingers again in reverse order. “He taught me and [noted banjo player] J.D. Crowe at the same time.”
Having heard Graves was good, Stoney Cooper ended up offering him $50 a week, and Graves went to Wheeling and then on to Richmond, Virginia, with the husband-and-wife team. He backed them for “three or four years” in what he remembers as “good experience,” but he says working for married partners was difficult: “You can’t please” both.
In search of greener pastures, he found that another rising singer, Mac Wiseman, had moved into the same Richmond trailer park, and Wiseman offered him $75.
That, too, though, turned out to have a downside.
“We’re the best of friends now, but he run off and left me in Boston one time without a penny,” he remembers. “The old Uncle always bounced back, though. I got home.”
In 1955, a half-dozen years after his first lesson from Scruggs, he got a call from his picking mentor, who asked if he’d be interested in a job with Flatt & Scruggs — playing bass.
“Mac was doing a tour through Canada, coming back to Bean Blossom [Indiana, Bill Monroe's home stage] and then into Nashville to record, and he didn’t know where I was going,” he recalls. “But the old Tulane Hotel here in Nashville was where I was coming to. I sold the [band] uniforms I had to the boys in the group and sent Evelyn $70 back to Richmond.
“When we got to the Pepper Pot [restaurant] across from the Tulane, Mac said, ‘Get that bass and put it inside.’ I said, ‘You put the thing in there yourself. Yesterday was my last day.’ Well, Wilma Lee & Stoney were there. I had stopped to see them in Niagara, New York, comin’ down, and they wanted me back and offered me 110 bucks. But I had that shot with Flatt & Scruggs, and I wasn’t gonna turn it down.”
He was supposed to meet his new employers at 2 p.m. that day to leave for their first trial date, a schoolhouse gig about 70 miles east of Nashville at little Silver Point. Wiseman, the Coopers and Graves were all in the Pepper Pot when a Lincoln pulled up out front. On its side was written “Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Sponsored By Martha White Flour.”
“Stoney said, ‘I shoulda known! You’re goin’ to work with Flatt & Scruggs!’ I said, ‘I’m sure gonna try,’ and I waved at Mac when I left. I had $35 in my pocket, but I was a happy little bastard.”
Thus began the glory days, a run that took the Foggies to Carnegie Hall and many another vaunted venue. Scruggs’ banjo became a pop phenomenon playing the theme song of “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV series as well as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the dominant soundtrack tune of the prominent movie Bonnie & Clyde. In the process, the world was reintroduced to the dobro, which had fallen into disuse with the rise of the electric pedal steel.