70 Years Ago This Week, Bluegrass Classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" Was Recorded in Cincinnati

This Saturday, Dec. 14, celebrate Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys' landmark Bluegrass song at the space where it was first recorded in 1949

Dec 12, 2019 at 12:46 pm
click to enlarge Flatt & Scruggs on the cover of 'The Complete Mercury Records' compilation album - Mercury Records
Mercury Records
Flatt & Scruggs on the cover of 'The Complete Mercury Records' compilation album

On Dec. 11, 1949, one of the most important, influential and well-known Bluegrass songs of all time was recorded in Cincinnati.

Shortly after leaving Bill Monroe's band and forming the Foggy Mountain Boys, banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt  — better known as Flatt & Scruggs — recorded a few times at downtown Cincinnati's Herzog recording studio, a hotspot at the time that hosted sessions by the likes of Hank Williams, The Delmore Brothers, Patti Page and many other top acts.

That material (which made up the bulk of the 2003 compilation The Complete Mercury Recordings) laid the cornerstone for Flatt & Scruggs' venerated career, with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" standing as their most enduring song, one that would become a Bluegrass standard for generations to come. It was a hugely important song for the genre, helping to popularize the music to mainstream audiences. And, according to John Hartford, it established the banjo as a lead instrument in Bluegrass.

"Here's where (the banjo) steps out of the band, and, instead of becoming a sideman, becomes the lead instrument and the main thing," Hartford said of the song when NPR chose it as one of the 100 most important musical works in American music history. "This is where… in other words, this is where (the banjo) makes the transition from being a backup singer to the lead vocalist. You know, like a lot of lead singers around town start out as backup singers in other people's groups and then they go and make their own record. Well, this is the first one where the banjo steps up there and becomes the star of the show. "

Written by Scruggs, in 2004, "Breakdown" was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

"Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was first released on the Mercury label in 1950.

Mayor John Cranley has proclaimed Dec. 14 "Foggy Mountain Breakdown Day" in Cincinnati in honor of the song and its Queen City roots.

To further celebrate "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Herzog Music and the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation will be hosting a special event. "70 Years of Foggy Mountain: A Tribute to Flatt & Scruggs" will take place Saturday, Dec. 14 (conveniently, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown Day") at the old Herzog studio space above Herzog Music (811 Race St., Downtown, herzogmusic.com).

The free event begins at 1 p.m. and will feature performances by expert local Bluegrass ensembles Vernon McIntyre and his Appalachian Grass and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars, as well as a few speakers and an open Bluegrass jam to cap off the festivities. Visit the Facebook event page or herzogmusic.com for more info.

Event organizers have been asking musicians worldwide to join in on the celebration by posting their own recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and tagging it on social media with #foggymountainbreakdown70.