Lester Flatt’s 1942 Martin D-18 #81197
The “First Guitar of Bluegrass Music” Emerges after Decades of Isolation
April 15, 2023. By Matthew Tessier and Alan W. Tompkins. D-18 photography by Nate Dalzell.
Several guitar players have made their mark in the history of bluegrass music since the 1950s, including Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Jimmy Martin, Clarence White, Tony Rice, and Kenny Smith, but many still consider Lester Flatt to be the “founding father” of bluegrass guitar. Flatt was the guitarist for Bill Monroe when Earl Scruggs joined the band in 1945. This was the core of the group that took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry in December 1945 and lit the spark for the genre that came to be known as bluegrass music.
According to Lester’s close friend and GRAMMY-winning musician Robert “Tut” Taylor Sr., Flatt didn’t own a pro-grade guitar suitable for stage use when he joined Monroe’s band, so Monroe loaned Flatt his Martin D-28 to use for a few shows. Lester’s strumming style left a few marks on Monroe’s guitar, so Bill soon told Lester “you need your own guitar. Go buy yourself a Martin!” Flatt went searching in pawn and second-hand shops until he located a suitable Martin D-18, which he purchased.
In April 2023, shortly before the annual Bluegrass Heritage Festival, the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation was contacted by Scott Pilgrim, a close friend of the owner of the D-18 that Flatt bought that day. Pilgrim explained that the owner lived in San Antonio, had received the guitar from his father about ten years ago, and wanted to bring it to the Bluegrass Heritage Festival so that bluegrass fans could see and hear the guitar again after its decades-long absence from public view. He said the owner had a file of documents and authentication on the guitar, including appraisals from George Gruhn dating back to 1978. Since part of the mission of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation is to preserve and promote the heritage of bluegrass music, we couldn’t resist the opportunity!
Flatt’s 1942 Martin D-18 #81197 is one of the most widely-heard instruments in bluegrass music because of its use on most recordings made by Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys throughout the 1950s. While many might assume that Lester used his (later-acquired) famous 1950 Martin “L-5” D-28 (which was donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame by Marty Stuart in 2008), Taylor reported that Lester preferred the sound of the D-18 for recording. Lester used the D-18 in early episodes of The Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ole Opry Show but was asked by the producers to use a “nicer shinier” guitar when taping the shows. This led to his more frequent use of the “L-5” D-28, although the D-18 was still seen in several episodes of the Flatt & Scruggs show (see Vol. 7, 31:00, You Can Feel It In Your Soul). This D-18 is also seen in a wide assortment of Flatt & Scruggs promotional materials.
Part of the authentication for the guitar that was displayed at the Bluegrass Heritage Festival was a letter from Tut Taylor, who was also one of the founders of the GTR guitar shop in Nashville (a predecessor to the current Gruhn Guitar Shop). Pilgrim and the D-18’s current owner met with Taylor in 2012 to record his recollections about the history of this guitar. Taylor told them all the stories about Lester’s purchase and use of the guitar and even wrote a letter documenting its history (a copy is in the photo gallery below).
Taylor explained that he became a great fan of Flatt & Scruggs in the late 1940s. He lost track of them after they split with Monroe but later located them in Roanoke, Virginia where they were playing radio shows on WDVJ. Taylor became friends with the men and helped out frequently as a stagehand on their shows. Taylor said that that he often told Lester that he really wanted to have a guitar as good as his, and eventually Lester grew tired of hearing about it. Taylor wrote that “one night at one of their shows we were backstage and I commented . . . that I wished I had a guitar like his. Lester surprised me by saying ‘I’ll just give you this one but you’re gonna give me $25 for the case!” Taylor gladly paid and became the owner of the guitar (and case!), and Lester even threw in the hand-tooled strap bearing his name. Taylor kept the guitar until he fell on hard times in 1969 and sold the guitar “for a mere pittance.”
The buyer was Dan Jones, a Texas musician who kept the guitar for about a decade until he sold it to another Texas guitarist in 1979. That buyer was the father of the current owner, who now lives in San Antonio. The owner said his father bought the guitar, brought it home, and put it in a closet – rarely taking it out – where it remained for nearly 40 years. Fortunately, the current owner’s son is a respected Texas guitar luthier who helps maintain the guitar and keep it in excellent playing condition.
The display at the 2023 Bluegrass Heritage Festival included the guitar (sporting the well-placed wood putty that Lester used to repair the pick wear in the top) and its original ($25) case (with functional leather-string locking system!). Copies of the authentication and appraisal write-ups from George Gruhn, prepared in 1978 and 2012, are in our photo gallery below.
The response to this guitar from the Bluegrass Heritage Festival crowd can best be described as jaw-dropping. Dozens lined up throughout the day to see and photograph the guitar and strap up close, and several notable musicians (including C. J. Lewandowski, Rick Faris, and Greg Cahill) got the opportunity to hold, inspect, and strum the guitar. The sound was as amazing as you would expect from a beautifully designed, aged, and heavily-played vintage Martin, and smiles grew wide when players struck that famous G-run!
We sincerely appreciate the generosity and the effort made by the guitar’s owner, his son, and Scott Pilgrim to allow bluegrass music fans of all ages to spend a few minutes with this historic guitar, which could arguably claim the title of the “First Guitar of Bluegrass Music”!
PLEASE NOTE: As you might expect, we must include the appropriate disclaimers. Neither the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation nor the authors have done an independent investigation regarding the history of this guitar and cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information presented above. However, we inspected the guitar and its the supporting documentation, and we have no reason to doubt the that the guitar is the instrument described above.
at the Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum
featuring live bluegrass music by
Saturday June 10 2023
Join us for an afternoon of family fun, jamming, and live bluegrass music on stage by Bobby Giles & Texas Gales and Riley Gilbreath & Lone Star Blue! Bring your lawn chairs and your instruments – there are lots of nice places (inside and outside) to jam all day!
There is so much to do and enjoy – we’ll have kids crafts, horse rides, wild west gunfights, food trucks on site, and much more! Admission is $12/adult and $8/child at the gate (additional charge for horse rides).
The Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum is located on the Chisholm Trail – a trail used in the late 19th century to drive cattle overland. The museum includes life-size cattle drive silhouettes, Johnson County’s original courthouse, a working blacksmith shop, a one-room school house, a stagecoach station, a general store, teepees, and more. The Big Bear Native American Museum features a collection of Native American artifacts donated by Leonard “Big Bear” Beal and additional artifacts to provide an overview of Native Americans in North America.
10:00a Gates Open
12:00p Wild West Gunfight
1:00p Riley Gilbreath & Lone Star Blue
2:00p Bobby Giles & Texas Gales
3:00p Wild West Gunfight
4:00p Riley Gilbreath & Lone Star Blue
5:00p Bobby Giles & Texas Gales
Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum
101 Chisholm Trail, Cleburne Texas 76033
January 28, 2023
Alan Tompkins, President of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, today presented Dean Osborne of the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music with additional introductory-level instruments, including a banjo and guitar, for students to use while learning to play bluegrass music. The Kentucky School became a licensed affiliate of the Foundation’s Play It Forward!® Instrument Lending Program in 2022.
Last year, the eastern Kentucky area around the Kentucky School experienced devastating flooding, and ten mountain dulcimers used in a Kentucky School high school music program were lost. The Foundation, with help from the folks at the Banjo Ben Clark General Store, provided the school with a pair of high-quality mountain dulcimers and plans to provide more when they become available. “We are so thankful that our Foundation donors, friends, and volunteers have made it possible for the Foundation to continue providing assistance to young people who love this music and want to play at a higher level,” noted Tompkins.
KSBTM offers a full range of musical education courses, history and background courses in bluegrass music, as well as individualized instruction in banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, harmony vocal singing, and songwriting. The school’s faculty includes the legendary Bobby Osborne, Dean Osborne, Scott Napier, and Virgil Bowlin.
March 1, 2022
The award recognizes parks and recreation agencies that provide exemplary sponsorship and creativity in park and recreation events and programs. We think our friends at the City deserve this award for their incredible 13-year (and counting!) run of support of the Bloomin’ Bluegrass Festival!
Accepting the award for the City were (L-R) Varsha Sareen, Sandy Carter, Meagan Bernard, Geoff Fairchild, and Mayor Robert C. Dye, with Alan Tompkins (back) representing the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation. Congratulations and thanks to the City of Farmers Branch!
Friday March 18, 2022 at 7:15p
University Park United Methodist Church
Fellowship Hall (across from Smith Park)
4024 Caruth Boulevard, Dallas, Texas 75225
North Carolina-based Nu-Blu established themselves as one of the top roots-music acts in the industry, delivering a set of songs that range from the melancholy to the exuberant. They are working to bring bluegrass music to the masses, serving as the permanent host of nationally-syndicated TV show “Bluegrass Ridge,” which airs in 160 million homes worldwide.
Hailing from Siler City North Carolina, Nu-Blu’s heart and soul is husband-and-wife duo Daniel and Carolyn Routh. Carolyn’s soprano is one of the band’s defining traits. Daniel is the group’s backbone, a multi-instrumentalist and backing vocalist who also handles band management. Austin Hefflefinger on banjo and Justin Harrison on mandolin round out the quartet’s warm, layered, Appalachian sound.
January 29, 2022
The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation today announced that the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music, a part of the Hazard Community & Technical College and the University of Kentucky Community College system, became a licensed affiliate of the Foundation’s Play It Forward!® Instrument Lending Program. The arrangement allows the school to use the trademarked “Play It Forward!” program name in connection with its musical instrument lending activities and to receive donations of instruments from the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation to support young people who want to learn more about bluegrass and traditional music.
The affiliation agreement was signed in Nashville, where both KSBTM Program Director Dean Osborne and Foundation President Alan Tompkins were in attendance at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music’s annual convention. Tompkins presented Dean Osborne with a number of introductory-level instruments, including a fiddle, banjo, and guitar, that students can use to begin their study of bluegrass music.
The KSBTM Professional Studio Artist program offers a full range of musical education courses, history and background courses in bluegrass music, as well as individualized instruction in banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, harmony vocal singing, and songwriting. The school’s faculty includes Bobby Osborne of the world-famous Osborne Brothers, Dean Osborne, Scott Napier, and Virgil Bowlin. Alan Tompkins commented that “we’re excited to join forces with Dean Osborne and his faculty at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music to help make music education a reality for more young people who want to learn and play.”
October 16, 2021
GRAMMY-winning bluegrass music veteran Dan Tyminski was honored with the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation’s Bluegrass Star Award® on Saturday, October 16, 2021 at the Bloomin’ Bluegrass Festival in the Farmers Branch Historical Park in Farmers Branch, Texas. Tyminski was joined on stage by Del McCoury, who received the Bluegrass Star Award in 2015.
Alan Tompkins, founder of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, began the presentation by explaining that the Foundation had created the Bluegrass Star Award in 2010 as a way to honor artists who respected the traditions of bluegrass music and preserved its character while doing an exemplary job of bringing the music to new audiences. Previous Bluegrass Star Awards have been presented to Rhonda Vincent, J. D. Crowe, Peter Rowan, Sierra Hull, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Osborne.
Tompkins noted that Dan Tyminski has had a highly successful career as a bluegrass musician, singer, and songwriter that included time as an early member of the popular Lonesome River Band, a run spanning two decades with supergroup Alison Krauss & Union Station, a solo career that featured the release of the award-winning album Wheels, and his voiceover work on the song Man of Constant Sorrow in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, released by the Coen Brothers in 2000. Dan’s interpretation of Man of Constant Sorrow won him both a GRAMMY award and a CMA Award for Best Single in 2001 and served as the anthem for the superstar Soggy Bottom Boys touring band. Dan has won 14 GRAMMY Awards and numerous other honors for his solo work and his collaborations with other musicians.
“Dan’s talents have brought bluegrass music to many thousands of new listeners over the course of his career, and he is a worthy recipient of the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation Bluegrass Star Award®.” For information about Dan Tyminski, visit his website or the Dan Tyminski page on Wikipedia.com. Video of the award presentation courtesy of David Seay Productions. Photos courtesy of Nate Dalzell.