Music News & Reviews

Flatt & Scruggs legacy lives on with Earls of Leicester

The Earls of Leicester, from left, Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.
The Earls of Leicester, from left, Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.

The Earls of Leicester initially intended on a short reign. Assembled by one of bluegrass music’s most respected journeymen, Jerry Douglas, the band was organized as a performing tribute to the string-music tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Douglas had planned to return to the other multitude of artistic commitments vying for his time.

“I thought we would put out a record, everybody would be amused and we would have gotten it out of our systems,” Douglas said. “It would be, ‘OK. We’ve done it. We’ve done our part to re-educate the audience, our audience, to what Flatt & Scruggs meant to the genre. Then we’ll let it go.’ But it just caught fire. I mean, I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

To begin with, the Earls’ self-titled 2015 album won a Grammy Award, bringing Douglas’ total trophy count to 14 over 32 years. Eight have come from his role as dobroist for Alison Krauss and Union Station. But what Douglas experienced was a complete audience reawakening to the harmony singing and instrumental innovations of the Flatt & Scruggs band.

Several ties to those sounds in the Earls proved unavoidable. Fiddler Johnny Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys for 15 years. Similarly, dobro innovator Josh Graves (also a key Flatt & Scruggs collaborator) was a major formative influence and longtime friend of Douglas. But the vintage inspirations went far beyond the musicians channeling them.

“Young kids come up to me and go, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this before. What is this?’ They don’t recognize it. They don’t hear that. Even Alison. Her start with this was J.D. Crowe and the New South, and I was in that band (during the group’s storied mid-1970s residency in Lexington and the recording of its heralded, self-titled 1975 album). But Flatt & Scruggs was what I came up on.

“They kind of disappeared after that. I mean, I even got away from it just by following the path of becoming a musician and then having all these other influences come into my playing. I saw that sound leaving bluegrass music, too. That was really the reason for doing the Earls in the first place. Then everybody just loved it so much, there was such a demand for it, that there was no way we could stop. We’re still the only band out there doing just that. That’s all we do when we play. We do Flatt & Scruggs tunes as close to the way they did them as possible.”

The Earls’ newly released second album, “Rattle & Roar,” deepens the exploration into the Flatts & Scruggs catalog. There are several chestnuts, including the Scruggs banjo classic “Flint Hill Special,” but there also are obscurities, notably Roy Acuff’s “Steel Guitar Blues,” which became a major discovery for Douglas.

“Flatt & Scruggs never recorded it,” he said. “I got it off of a live show at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles. Josh played it out there — he encored with it, actually — and the crowd just went nuts. Then he had to play it again. It was like his ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ (the famed instrumental that Scruggs wrote and cut with Bill Monroe in 1949). The first time Earl played on the (Grand Ole) Opry, he had to play that song five times. But ‘Steel Guitar Blues’ was one of those songs that they never recorded. It was something they had laying around, an extra arrow in their quiver. We just listened to it, copied it and recorded it. I took it on out a little farther than Josh did and embellished it a bit. We do that. We embellish a little, but not enough to go out of character, really.

“For me, it is like an out-of-body experience to stand up there and hear what these guys do. I’ve had great, exhilarating moments with wonderful musicians, but this is something that goes way deep inside of me, to where I came from. To hear it manifest itself every night is so wonderful. There is no feeling like it.”

If you go

The Earls of Leicester

What: Featured guests on “The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour”

When: 6:45 p.m. July 25

Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Tickets: $20

Call: 859-280-2218

Online: Woodsongs.com, Lexingtonlyric.tix.com

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