7 Flat Mountain Boys

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Perhaps setting the stage for actor Russell Crowe's band Seven Odd Foot of Grunts, or maybe influenced by the earlier old-time outfit Seven Foot Dilly & the Hot Pickles, this historic Kentucky bluegrass…
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Perhaps setting the stage for actor Russell Crowe's band Seven Odd Foot of Grunts, or maybe influenced by the earlier old-time outfit Seven Foot Dilly & the Hot Pickles, this historic Kentucky bluegrass outfit's name instantly provokes questions when photographs of the group are shown or the names of the members listed. And no, the question isn't "what it is a flat mountain?," after all, that could be any Kentucky peak that has had its top lopped off by aggressive strip miners. No, the problem is the "seven," since at best the group only had five members, sometimes only four. Mandolinist Cuddles Newsome, who was the fellow researchers were able to track down when the group's material was reissued as part of the Rounder label's Early Days of Bluegrass series, explained the group's name thusly: "I don't know. He made a misnomer there," thus passing the blame for the miscalculation onto bandleader Estil Stewart, who was himself long gone from a heart attack before a new generation of bluegrass scholars discovered the group.

Stewart was one of the few bluegrass bandleaders who did not play either guitar, banjo, or mandolin. The group did have the ability to sound like it contained more players then it really did, based on the strength of some of the Flat Mountain Boys such as fiddler Kenny Baker, the powerful rhythm guitarist Jack Cooke, or the fairly obscure but apparently hilarious banjoist Jimmy Braham. In the mid-'50s, this lineup cut several singles for a label known as Arrow, part of the legacy of independent, regional releases created by bands mostly to sell at their own gigs, which eventually became something much bigger; a documentation of the entire development and growth of bluegrass out of old-time music in the first half of the '50s. Arrow operated out of Columbia, KY, and although the people who actually invested in the label's operations have remained unaccounted for, the recording of the 7 Flat Mountain Boys came about as a result of the group's series of broadcasts over the Whitesburg station WTCW. The record releases and the band's gig activity in the region were something along the line of small phenomena feeding each other: the recording leading to gigs; the gigs attracting large crowds to shows held at venues such as drive-ins; the band building up an impressive fan base equally enamored with the hard driving music as with the youth and exuberance of the members. Distribution of the group's music and its reputation also grew as a result of some of the material being picked up by the Starday label, who in its characteristic way released tracks hither and yon on various repackagings and compilations as if trying to conceal evidence from the police.

Attendance reports show the 7 Flat Mountain Boys out-drew some popular country stars of the day which appeared at the same types of venues -- often drive-in movies -- including Carl Story or the largely forgotten Esco Hankins. The 7 Flat Mountain Boys' stage show also included comedy performed by both Stewart and banjoist Braham, the players alternating as each other's straight men. Yet, despite the success and potential of the group, the players drifted off into other ensembles, Stewart eventually supporting himself as a disc jockey in Virginia before his untimely death, making great use of his comedic talents over the air. Newsome continued trilling his mandolin in a variety of traditional bluegrass contexts; while fiddler Baker achieved the greatest success of all in the genre, going out with country singer Don Gibson and then eventually staying with Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys for a long stretch before starting his own groups.