Fresh off of a 2015 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, Jerry Douglas and his Earls of Leicester appeared July 11 at Hard Rock Casino’s Lake Tahoe Bluegrass Festival.
The group’s self-titled album took home the bacon in February, a testament to the job that Douglas and Co. have done in recreating the sound of one of America’s hallmark bluegrass bands: Flatt & Scruggs.
“Charlie (Cushman, banjo) and I just sort of grew up listening to Flatt & Scruggs, and actually seeing them perform once in a while,” Douglas said. “I really wanted to bring that music back. Flatt & Scruggs had such an impact on bluegrass music and all music actually; doing scores for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ that people heard all the time, and then they were gone. Bluegrass bands still played their songs in their repertoire here and there, but no one did it exactly like Flatt and Scruggs.”
The Earls of Leicester are Douglas (resonator guitar (dobro), Cushman (banjo), Johnny Warren (fiddle), Shawn Kamp (guitar), Jeff White (mandolin), Barry Bales (upright bass).
The band was first conceived after Douglas, Cushman and Warren got together to record for the latter’s solo album.
“Well I did an overdub session on Johnny Warren’s, the fiddle player’s record, and hearing my dobro and his fiddle and Charlie Cushman’s banjo together that night gave me the idea to expand that core sound,” Douglas said. “That was the sound of the Flatt and Scruggs band. The three of us have always gravitated toward that sound immediately, that we remembered when we were kids.”
The band’s intimacy with the iconic duo goes well beyond appreciation, as Warren’s father Paul played fiddle for Flatt & Scruggs, the same fiddle (and bow) that Warren plays today.
“So I took the core of the group and made some calls,” Douglas said. “I called Barry Bales, who I’m with now with Alison Krauss.”
Douglas initially wanted Del McCoury to fulfill Lester Flatt’s musical role, but the mandolin great was unavailable at the time, leading to something of a rotating cast of pickers including Ronnie McCoury and Tim O’Brien before White. Douglas’s wife suggested guitarist and songwriter Shawn Camp to round out the quintet, which Douglas thought was “perfect.”
“We got together and rehearsed and we all just sat there with cold chills, because it sounded so much like the real thing,” he said. “I knew then at that time that it was time to unleash this back on the people.”
With a bevy of excellent pickers in tow, all Douglas needed was a name.
“I came up with Earls of Leicester, which no one can pronounce,” the dobro master said with a chuckle.
In case you haven’t figured it out, the moniker isn’t some vague reference to antiquated English nobility; it could also be pronounced “Earls of Lester.” English-style pronunciations pervade fan encounters however, according to Douglas.
“We’re trying to fix that too, one word at a time,” he said. “It’s a slow process, right now we’ll just work on Leicester.”
Between the multitude of other musical commitments that the band’s members have, and Warren’s occupation as a high-end golf instructor, the Earls take things fairly easy, which is just fine by them.
“We’re really enjoying the band; it’s a fun thing, and that’s the main idea, to keep it fun. That’s why we don’t tour all the time,” Douglas said. “We don’t want the Earls to totally turn into a business. I’ve got a team, booking agents and manager. We run it all through them; they do the business, we have the fun.”
White will be leaving the group temporarily, touring with Vince Gill this summer, allowing for a guest mandolin appearance.
“It opens up a situation where we can bring in some new blood every once in a while,” Douglas said. “It’s nice to bring in a ringer every once in a while, I’m going to ask (Ricky) Skaggs to come in and do it. He can’t emcee and he only gets two mandolin solos a set, but he can sing tenor all he wants.”
The Earls of Leicester are keen on the upcoming Tahoe festival, both on the lineup and the locale.
“It’s going to be good, it’s going to be a great time,” Douglas said. “Backstage and onstage, it’s going to be nuts because everybody’s going to be showing up with everybody. I played with Grisman from the early, early days and produced a bunch of Del’s records, so I can have a long day.”
Looking back over a career spent picking dobro, Douglas is pleased with the progression of both the genre and the instrument, especially given the brief history of the resonator guitar.
“It’s an evolutionary tale, the instrument isn’t really that old,” he said. “Dobro guitars started into production in 1928, so in the grand scale of violins and guitars and basses and even banjos, it’s the baby instrument in this idiom.
“For the most part, dobro wasn’t really a fulltime instrument in the bluegrass band, but it is now. I hope I’ve had something to do with that.”
Looking ahead to new generations of pickers, Douglas sees a bright future for the instrument.
“I think bluegrass is in great shape, I really do,” he said. “Dobro playing has come a long way, and it’s in good hands. I can’t remember all these fellas’ names, but they are blistering it man, I love it.”
One of these prominent new dobro players will be performing at the Hard Rock for the festival, in Anders Beck, of Greensky Bluegrass.
“I love Anders playing, I love his whole approach,” Douglas said. “He’s taken kind of a Jimi Hendrix approach to it, lot of stuff, lot of floor pedals and stuff. I’m the same way, I played just acoustic dobro for 25 years and then I started finding out how I could make it do other things.
“I’m not beyond putting an octave pedal and a distortion pedal in there once in a while. It’s good for me, it makes me play in a different style.”
On the horizon, the Earls expect to be back in studio before long, working on a follow-up to the Grammy-winner, although there’s plenty of other work to be done.
“The record company is calling for it, so I think we’re probably going to do one here before the year, but I have another one I need to do, a solo record, so I need to get to work on that,” Douglas said. “It’s going to be a duet record with a bunch of people that are outside of my comfort zone. I’m trying to push myself a little bit, and not just sit there and look at my records.”
Basking in the glow of his career and achievements is not on the picker’s to do list, that’s for sure.
“My wife has this trophy case in the house and I’d just like to burn it down,” Douglas said. “I hate looking at that stuff, I just want to play music, and have a good time playing music.”
Beyond the Earls, Douglas is looking forward to a reunion with some old friends later in the year.
“Sam Bush and I are going to do a duet show down in Phoenix and then we’re going to rehearse a while,” he said. “And then, with Edgar Meyer, we are going to play the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic, so that’s kind of rising to the top there.”
“It’s going to be fun, Edgars a blast and Sam is completely nuts,” he said with a chuckle.
For now, the focus is on the upcoming shows with the Earls of Leicester. Douglas is enthralled with the new project and its throwback, Flatt and Scruggs sound.
“We’re just having fun; every time we play this stuff I feel like I’m 6 years old again, like it’s the first time I saw them,” he said. “I played with both of those men, but never at the same time, so this is a dream come true for me, I just love every second of it.”