Lance LeRoy is a living repository of bluegrass lore and traditions. He has known and worked alongside legends, and spent the second half of his life totally immersed in bluegrass music. Today he is a highly visible spokesman for the industry, generous to all comers with his time and knowledge.
LeRoy started life in upper Georgia in the town of Tignall (2000 population: 653). Wilkes County is an area steeped in Revolutionary and Civil War history. His father, a mail carrier by profession, had a strong interest in country music and radio. The family owned the first receiver in the community. Neighbors would gather by the score on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry from the LeRoys’ open window.
It was a fortunate location for someone interested in early bluegrass and the music which preceded it — central to Atlanta, Augusta, and the South Carolina cities of Columbia, Spartanburg, and Greenville. (The Lewis Family’ base in Lincolnton, Georgia, is only 12 miles away.) Regular country shows were held at the Wilkes County High School gym, and Lance was always there. He remembers hearing Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys several times. On one occasion, Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts played, in their uniform of riding boots and jodhpurs. That band, together from 1945 to 1948, is considered the template for all subsequent bluegrass music.
Lance wanted to play fiddle like his country music heroes, and began violin lessons in the eighth grade. Formal training soon gave way to learning by ear. He played well enough to appear with Buster and Lawrence Simmons & the Georgia Mountain Boys for square dances and on three 1,000-watt radio stations (1959-1962). Although he hasn’t played since, LeRoy developed a deep appreciation for music and especially the fiddle.
Lance studied accounting in college and worked in financial positions in Asheville, North Carolina (1952-1966) and Nashville, Tennessee. In both locations, the self-described “Flatt & Scruggs groupie” was able to take in many of his favorite group’s performances and come to know all of its members personally. Shortly after arriving in Tennessee in 1966 to work as an internal auditor with a finance company he began to moonlight for Lester Flatt, doing his accounting and taxes. In that role, LeRoy came to appreciate the business skills of Earl Scruggs’ wife Louise, who was agent and manager for the Flatt & Scruggs enterprise.
The legendary partnership of two decades ended in early 1969 over artistic and business differences. Lance LeRoy, involved in the sensitive task of dividing the partners’ joint assets, was appreciated by both for his acumen and diplomacy. When Lester Flatt decided to continue on his own with a band – which was eventually dubbed the Nashville Grass – he asked LeRoy to serve as agent and manager. Notably disinterested in business details, Flatt was glad to have a trusted associate along on the road. Lance’s duties included the 4:00 a.m. stretch “riding shotgun” – keeping the bus driver awake – a challenge for even such a loquacious communicator.
During Lance LeRoy’s decade with the Flatt association, he was involved in label contracts with RCA and CMH, several bluegrass festivals, and a booking agency. Flatt and LeRoy founded Allied Artists with Bob and Sonny Osborne in 1975. After the Osbornes bought their shares in 1977, Lance and Lester combined their names to form the Lancer Agency, which LeRoy continues to operate.
Lester Flatt’s health and spirits declined as the 1970s wore on. Despite a bypass operation and several hospitalizations, he continued to tour and record almost to the end, leaning ever more on Lance for key decisions and leadership. Shortly after a much-appreciated visit from his estranged former partner Earl Scruggs, Lester died May 11, 1979. LeRoy was named co-executor with a Nashville bank and continues to protect Flatt’s legacy and the family’s business interests.
Lance LeRoy was impressed by a young bluegrass group which had moved from the Los Angeles area to Virginia in 1976: the Bluegrass Cardinals. He used them on Lester Flatt’s festivals and agreed to become their booking agent at the beginning of the 1978 season. With his virtually full-time support, the Cardinals became headliners for almost two decades before disbanding in 1997.
LeRoy credits the Bluegrass Cardinals for the growth and success of the Lancer Agency in the years following Lester Flatt’s death. Other acts previously represented by the organization include Jimmy Martin, the Johnson Mountain Boys, the New Coon Creek Girls, Lonesome Standard Time, the (Vincent family’s) Sally Mountain Show, and Del McCoury. In the close-knit and financially constrained bluegrass community, LeRoy found his roles expanding from agent to personal manager, business advisor, publicist, advertising coordinator, photographer, and record producer.
Over many years, Lance developed thousands of contacts in all corners of the nation and the music industry. At bluegrass events, he is constantly engaged in conversation, and the telephone lines in his home-based office support an amazing network of business connections. As of 2009, LeRoy and Lancer have yet to transition to the internet.
Perhaps inevitable for someone reared in an area rich with history, and for someone whose listening career dated back to the very dawn of bluegrass, Lance became a reputable historian of the music and its related forms. A facile writer and dogged researcher (drawing upon his skills as an auditor), he was in demand as a writer of album notes and magazine articles. LeRoy amassed a huge collection of recordings, which he generously shares with musicians both learning and searching for repertoire.
Discussions about creating a trade organization for bluegrass music began to circulate in the 1970s, but factionalism, regional pride, and mistrust seemed to thwart every initiative. In the summer of 1985, Lance LeRoy used his stature and positive relationships to call a meeting at BMI in Nashville, at which the International Bluegrass Music Association was established. Others present included Bill and James Monroe, Peter Kuykendall, Allen Mills, Sonny Osborne, Milton Harkey, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, Doyle Lawson, Randall Hylton, Larry Jones, Ray Hicks, John Hartin, Joe Carr, Len Holsclaw, and the organization’s first executive, Art Menius (Bill Monroe bought lunch)
In 2009, Lance LeRoy and the Lancer Agency continues to represent great artists like Bobby Osborne, Jimmy C. Newman, Everett Lilly & The Lilly Mountaineers, Steve Helton & The Flint River Boys, Mike Snider, Paul Williams & The Victory Trio, The Tennessee Gentleman, The Overall Brothers, Fast Forward, Norman Wright & The Travelers, and the Churchmen.
– Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian and journalist.