I opened my first letter from Pester Flatt on a winter night in 2004, toward the end of my shift on WNKU’s bluegrass radio show Music From the Hills of Home. Wayne Clyburn, my cohost, and I were in our usual end-of-show rush to get logs signed and CDs re-filed when we noticed the envelope. I opened it and began reading—first to myself, then aloud to our listeners. The writer called himself “Pester Flatt,” a take-off on popular bluegrass singer Lester Flatt. He told me his band’s name (Pester Flatt & the Lefties) was costing them bookings at VFW and American Legion Halls, and he felt a new, fresh band name might lead to “Better Bookings By and By.”
I was intrigued. The letters kept coming and over the next few years, our curiosity at the boil, Wayne and I searched for Pester’s true identity. Our search waned, though, as soon as we realized our good fortune in having such “an excellent writer,” as E.B. White would have called him. Pester was (and still is) pure entertainment; I have no doubt he saved us from the slaughterhouse, just as Wilbur the pig was saved by Charlotte’s catchy weavings in her web. He was so popular that we learned to read his letters at 7:30 p.m., because listeners wanted to know when to tune in to hear them. That is, if there was a letter. Pester would leave us twisting on the rotisserie for weeks at a time, then the letters would pour in again with news of the band’s doings—country star Arf Starley’s latest outrage, say, or the time Pester was abducted by aliens, or the latest turn in his romance with girl singer Dessie Belle.
I was proud that Pester chose us to write to. I came to value his fine intelligence, the quality of his character, and his wonderful sense of humor. Which is why it seemed natural to share his letters with readers of this magazine. When I reached out, Pester surprised me by suggesting instead that we conduct an interview and relive some of the highlights of his lengthy correspondence. So I made the drive down to his hometown of Tepid Spring, Kentucky, a place best known for being, as the Bureau of Tepid Tourism declares, “Not Real Far North of Nashville.” We met for dinner at Pester’s favorite breakfast joint, a greasy spoon called The Broke Yolk where the owner, Ivy Gabbard, seated us in a corner booth. I didn’t waste any time getting to my questions.
Katie: What’s up with these menus?
Pester: Ivy discovered that ever’ time Apple releases another innovation, she has better sales if she puts an “i” in front of somethin’ on the menu. She started with the breakfast items when she introduced Biscuits with Red iGravy. Turnin’ her attention to lunch and dinner, she added the Rib iSteak (with Delmonico Potatoes), and the ever-popular Eight-Ounce Cod Log is now known as the iCod. She’s tryin’ to figure out a way to apply this concept to her Carrot Ambrosia, so if you have any ideas there’s a free meal in it for you.
Katie: While we’re waiting for a server, tell me, when did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
Pester: First time I saw Vivian Della Chiesa sing. I told my Daddy that I wanted to be like the lady on the TV and right quick he shipped me off to military school. That’s where I learned to pick guitar and first sang in front of an audience.
Katie: How old were you?
Pester: I was in my early 30s. After graduation, I got my first job playin’ comb and wax paper with Mad Anthony Wayne Clyburn and the Cynical Mountain Boys. It was tougher training than the academy, but I learned from the great man and ’fore long I started my own string band—The Lactose Intolerant Four. We did a morning radio show just before Farm Report. There was a contract dispute with the sponsor and we soon became The Sunny Boys of Civil Litigation.
Katie: Your manager, Wesley Fatchance, is considered the Colonel Tom Parker of bluegrass. How did you two team up?
Pester: He was the show sponsor, CEO of Fatchance Talent & Literary Agency and its subsidiary, Better Bookings By and By. He offered to drop the lawsuit if we let him manage the band. The first posters he printed had our image backwards, so it looked like me and the Boys were playin’ left-handed. Wesley—or Mr. Fatchance, as I am obliged to call him—thought this’d be a great “hook.” We liked the idea ’til we had to learn to play our instruments th’ other way ’round.
Katie: But it seems that any interest generated by an all left-handed band was offset by another marketing decision, the band’s name.
Pester: Yeah. He billed us as Pester Flatt & the Lefties and we started losing our regular gigs at Knights of Columbus and VFW halls all over Flotsam County. That’s when we settled on Pester Flatt & the Rarely Paid. Been playin’ bluegrass festivals and workin’ steady ever since, though most of that steady work is my day job over to the Restaurant Supply Warehouse. I’m Associate Sharpener in the Cutlery Division.
Katie: You mentioned Better Bookings By and By. They’re the folks behind the Better Bookings By and By Bluegrass Music Association, or the B5MA, as we say in the biz. In 1986, they honored you with the “Song of the Year” award for what they called your “gut-wrenching rendition” of “Wipin’ My Eyes with Your Tissue of Lies.”
Pester: That’s a true song. I wrote that when Larva, the first Mrs. Flatt, left me. She was my muse and, after she split, the songs stopped comin’. I s’pose I was seekin’ that same inspiration when I married four more women.
Katie: I didn’t know that was legal in Kentucky.
Pester: Not all at once. But four more divorces didn’t help, neither. I wrote “Will There Be Any Porch Ducks in Heaven?” I wrote “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Sleepin’ It Off.” I wrote some awful sad songs and I wrote some awful songs, but none as true as “Wipin’ My Eyes with Your Tissue of Lies.”
Katie: But in these last few years, you have found true love with, of all people, the girl singer in your band. Who also happens to be the only person, of any gender, to play bluegrass sousaphone.
Pester: You’re talkin’ ’bout Dessie Belle.
Katie: Well, of course I’m talking about Dessie Belle. And you know what they say: “Love is lovelier the sixth time around.” Might we hear the sound of wedding bells yet again?
Pester: I don’t think so. I’ve written enough songs.
Katie: Are you on good terms with your ex-wives?
Pester: Unless I need a scented candle, I don’t see ’em much. Laurel, Lutie, Levitra, and Beverly-Ann all went into business with Juanita Fatchance, Wesley’s sister. They relocated Juanita’s thriving craft boutique into an old, abandoned service station. They took advantage of the service bay—the one with a door at each end—to create what is purportedly the only drive-thru craft mall in the Commonwealth.
Katie: And what about Larva?
Pester: She’s the mother of my children, so I keep in touch with Larva. ’Course, I can’t call her. Have to wait for her to call me on account of that restraining order. But we’re friendly. In fact, we recently celebrated our Silver Anniversary.
Katie: I thought you were divorced.
Pester: That’s right. It was 25 years ago that Larva filed the papers. So, to commemorate the occasion, we had a little ceremony over to the Flotsam County Courthouse where we renewed our divorce vows. All our friends and family was there as we affirmed our commitment to not stay married. It was very emotional and, for a minute, I thought even Larva was cryin’. Turned out it was just that tattooed tear under her left eye.
My only regret was that my oldest boy, Bradley Kincaid Flatt, couldn’t be there. He was in final rehearsals for their fall series over to the State Route Dinner Theatre.
Katie: He’s been called “the John Doyle of Dinner Theatre” because of his modern re-staging of perennial favorites.
Pester: He ain’t afraid to tackle the most sensitive subjects. That show brung together our collective longing for immortality with the delicate topic of erectile dysfunction in a production entitled The Prescription of Dorian Gray.
Katie: There was high praise from the critics. The online edition of The Inkwire said, “This work has been infused with a new relevance, a new immediacy that hasn’t been seen in a production since somebody first combined dining and dramatics under one roof.”
Pester: That’s how come he’s been invited to direct the summer subscription series over to the Fairnuff Center for the Arts. They’re hopin’ to get one of them Regional Tony Awards.
Katie: And now father and son are working together on perhaps the biggest annual event in Tepid Spring, Kentucky. How did that come about?
Pester: Ever’ year the holiday crowds just get bigger and bigger. The Tepid Interfaith Council decided to employ more than one venue to accommodate the overflow. Festivities will begin at Our Lady of the Dixie Highway, move on to the Temple Pam and finish up at the Sheet Rock Baptist Church. That’s how come this year’s event will be billed as Tepid Spring’s First Annual Church Crawl (with horse-drawn carriage rides and regular shuttle service between the venues). They chose to end the evening at the Sheet Rock on account of their big, open plan and unobstructed views. There will be a marathon performance of a new work entitled Away in Some Manger, written and directed by my son B.K. and produced by the good folks over to the State Route Dinner Theatre.
Like I said, he’s been a-studyin’ John Doyle’s version of Sweeney Todd and Company, where the actors accompany theirselves on musical instruments. That’s how come he casted me and my band members in the thing. The Inkwire’s drama critic attended the final dress rehearsal and though she complained about the sponsorship logos on the manger and the fact that Joseph wears a feed-cap, she had nothin’ but nice things to say about the rest of the show.
Katie: Indeed! I have a copy of the review right here: “Pester Flatt, Acme Reuhlman, and Ford Maddox Ford appear as the Three Wise Men. Their journey is energized by the cheerfully haunting number ‘Oh Dem Swaddlin’ Clothes’ in a minor key. Then, upon discovering the manger, they seamlessly segue into a rapturous rendition of ‘Savior in the Straw.’ And though the Good Book says ‘thou shalt not,’ the venerable Shecky McReynolds steals the show as the curmudgeonly innkeeper who, for no apparent reason, affects an Italian accent in his only musical number, ‘The Inn, She Has No Rooms.’
“Little Max Wasserstein brings an infantile worldliness to the role of ‘The Baby’ and by accompanying himself on a large upright bass not only exudes a resonant profundity but dramatically accentuates his smallness among the rest of the players. The closing number reflects the director’s modernist musings when the ensemble performs ‘Shotgun Shells Over Galilee.’ And you’ll be ‘Breakin’ Up Christmas’ when they start breaking down the fourth wall as the barn animals descend from the stage and assume seats in the house—a moment that even the most devout will find disquieting. In short, Away in Some Manger is the feel-good hit of what used to be called ‘the Christmas Season.’ ”
Pester: Yeah, but don’t print it in your magazine. If the folks up to Cincinnati read that stuff, we won’t have enough motel rooms to hold the crowd!
Katie: I understand this year’s celebration almost didn’t happen.
Pester: That’s right. Mahatma Gaither—new owner of the Chester Arthur Motel—agreed to chair this year’s festival on account of last-year’s cochairs purchased a timeshare on the Gulf Coast and will be winterin’ in Venice, Florida. They abdicated just in time to avoid the committee meetin’ before things got ugly. There was a big to-do about the fact that the event was not inclusive or diverse enough. The Wiccans in our community complained that we was helpin’ ourselves to Pagan decorations—the wreath, the holly, mistletoe, and the tree—but not includin’ them in the namin’ rights or givin’ ’em proper credit.
Bill O’Reilly—no relation to the famous Bill O’Reilly, but an equally bitter man—declared this to be the latest battle in the “War on Christmas.” He brung a buncha folks with him to the meetin’ and refused to give up the microphone once he got started. After some 40 minutes of this, Rebecca Nurse, chair of the Wiccan subcommittee, mumbled somethin’ and turned Mr. O’Reilly into a plastic lawn ornament—a light-up snowman, to be precise—just long enough to hear from some other folks and conclude the meetin.’
You’d think that would humble a fella, but when she reversed the spell he seemed just as angry as before. Though that could be ’cause an electrical cord remained attached to the backside of his trousers. He got even more agitated when somebody tried to plug him in.
The committee briefly considered a motion to rename the event with all faiths and denominations, but there ain’t enough room on the rental sign for all them letters. And, while last year’s name—The Winter Solstice Celebration—was very big with the Wiccans, it alienated many of the Fundamentals. But “propensity is the mother of convention” and the new name revealed itself as we worked out the particulars.
Katie: On my way into town, I saw the Voluntary Fire Department out with the ladder truck hanging wreaths and bows on the streetlights. I was reminded that each year Tepid Spring recognizes the best decorated home with a Beautification Award. The whole town appears to be decorated. It’s a city of lights, like Paris.
Pester: Paris, Kentucky, maybe. But you’re right, there’s lotsa lights out there—good thing we’re in coal country. Most folks favor the white lights, although one family has wrapped the small tree out front with a million itty-bitty red ones. It is alarmingly beautiful. And for the hundredth year in a row, Old Man Latham has adorned the shrubs and the porch with those big blue bulbs that he bought during the Eisenhower administration. It is out of time and out of place and it’d be garish if it wasn’t so stirring—all that blue light in the dark night.
Katie: So did one of those folks win the award?
Pester: Well, this year’s award has been held up in committee, not because they couldn’t come to agreement but ’cause they didn’t know how to explain the decision. And it was a shocker. The honors went to Uncle Dewey Pasternak. He’s not any kin of mine, just ever’body calls him “Uncle” Dewey.
Katie: Why did that shock people?
Pester: The reason the decision was so controversial was that he didn’t hang but one bulb on his whole house and no other kinda decorations either. But you have to see it to understand how come they give him the award.
If you can imagine a little bungalow with one tiny bulb so perfectly placed that it gives you a lump in your throat and makes you smile at the same time. I mean, at other houses there’s light-up figures and animated Disney characters and chaser lights and sound effects and cars pull up and people point at stuff and laugh and hop back into their cars and they’re off to the next place. But here, folks stop talkin’ and ever’one just stares at the little bulb on the little house. Stand there for the longest time. And folks don’t say g’bye when they part. They just put a hand on a shoulder and simply smile and nod ’cause they don’t wanna break the perfect stillness. And if you go for coffee afterwards, you notice folks tryin’ to talk about it, but don’t none of ’em know how.
Katie: That’d be worthy of its own article.
Pester: The Inkwire decided to do just that under the title, “This Little Light of Mine.” Uncle Dewey told ’em if they ran it under that headline, he wasn’t gonna grant an interview. The Inkwire’s field reporter asked him if he could put into words the statement he was tryin’ to make by decoratin’ his house with just one bulb. Uncle Dewey replied that if he could say it with words, he wouldn’t have bothered to hang the bulb.
You should drive by on your way outta town. It’ll put you in right smart of the spirit. Makes ever’thing seem more special. Even the tire-chains on the big salt trucks sound like sleigh bells.
Katie: That’s a lovely note to end on. Before I head back to the “Upland South,” is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Pester: Yeah. If you’re not gonna finish that iCod, can I have a bite?
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz.Originally published in the December 2011 issue.
For more from Katie and Pester, click here.
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