Tomorrow (Saturday, October 12, 2019) the good citizens of Sparta, Tennessee, will celebrate the life and music of one of their own, International Bluegrass Music Hall of Famer, Lester Flatt.
Sparta’s Liberty Square Celebration includes a special Lester Flatt Memorial Bluegrass Day that over the years has featured some of bluegrass music’s biggest stars.
Flatt was born in the rural Duncan’s Chapel area about 25 miles north of Sparta, the place that he called home.
One of the most important driving forces in the development of the Lester Flatt Celebration is Blake Williams, a Sparta native, who played with Flatt, starting as a 21-year-old, from 1978 through to Flatt’s death in May 1979.
Blake’s wife, Kimberly Williams (owner of East Public Relations) volunteers her efforts to assist the City of Sparta in producing these celebrations.
Bluegrass Today approached Kimberly about the origins for these events and she shared this summary of her involvement in the event……
“The City of Sparta re-modeled its town square in the late 1990s, and named it Liberty Square.
When Blake and I moved back to Sparta in 2000, the town had a very small annual event downtown at the amphitheater. Naming it the Liberty Square Celebration, it was an effort to celebrate the new courthouse square.
In 2002, when we started our band (The Williams and Clark Expedition), we were hired by the City to perform as the one and only bluegrass act. The next year, I worked with the City’s administration on ways to increase tourism for Sparta, and make the event into something larger.
Each year our band performed for the event, and we also would bring in one headline artist. In 2007/2008, several counties, including White County (Sparta is the county seat) participated in a study to pinpoint the strengths of each county.
The study revealed, not surprisingly to us, that White County’s biggest strength in terms of growing tourism, was the fact that Lester Flatt called Sparta his home, and its rich bluegrass heritage with Benny Martin, Blake Williams, John Henry Demps, and Bill Jones calling it home also.
So, in 2009 the City officially named the event, Liberty Square: A Lester Flatt Celebration. Also, they rebranded themselves as ‘Bluegrass U.S.A.’
We unveiled new City Limits signs at the event that year, and we moved the event from the amphitheater, and brought in a larger stage that sits right in front of Oldham Theatre. This allowed us to grow from 300 attendees (the capacity of the amphitheater) to several thousand, and to book more headline bluegrass artists.
In 2014, the 100th anniversary of Lester Flatt’s birth, we unveiled an historical marker that has been placed at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens in his honor. In 2015 the event won IBMA’s Event of the Year award, and we’ve been going strong ever since, drawing in around 5,000 attendees.
The event remains completely free and is sponsored by the City of Sparta and local businesses.”
The bluegrass bands performing this year (2019) are The Isaacs; Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper; Carolina Blue; and Blake Williams & Friends (Blake Williams – banjo; Wayne Southards – guitar; Steve Thomas – fiddle/mandolin; Justin Moses – Dobro; and Beth Lawrence – bass).
Each band plays twice during the day with the first set at 12:00 noon, and festivities end with a Fireworks Finale, just after 7:00pm.
- Billboard magazine mentions an apparently unrelated celebration taking place on June 8, 1963.
- Located across Liberty Square from the White County Courthouse the Oldham Theater was built in the 1930s. In 2005 it was converted into the Sparta Visitors Center.
- Lester Flatt was laid to rest beneath a grove of oak trees at Oaklawn Memorial Cemetery, Sparta.
- The Williams and Clark Expedition became The Expedition Show in 2009 when Bobby Clark left the band.
- That same year Blake Williams, otherwise known as “The Sparta Flash,” was inducted into the Sparta Tennessee Bluegrass Hall of Fame.