Jerry Douglas’ next project is something of a departure for him. Typically a decidedly forward-loooking artist focused on new music, the Dobro master is turning his gaze back to the 1950s for The Earls of Leicester, a Flatt & Scruggs tribute project he has organized with a group of Nashville grassers.
This superstar collaboration, which features Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Shawn Camp on guitar, Johnny Warren on fiddle, Charlie Cushman on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, and Jerry on reso-guitar, has done only a few select live appearances since they started working on this project last year. These are established bluegrass artists who have studied the music and the mannerisms of both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and the various side musicians who were an important part of the Flatt & Scruggs sound.
When he was learning to play as a child, Douglas was deeply and personally influenced by the slide work of Josh Graves, who had himself devised a picking style that both emulated and supported that of Earl Scruggs on the banjo. Cushman is a recognized expert on the Scruggs style, and Camp is not only a solid guitar player and singer, but also a pretty fair Lester Flatt mimic as well.
Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs from 1954 until they broke up in ’69, after which time he worked with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass until his retirement in 1977. Add O’Brien to play mandolin and sing the Curly Seckler parts, and the always reliable Bales, who had made his own study of the early bass players in bluegrass, and you’ve got a rhythm section fit to tackle a Flatt & Scruggs tribute.
For Jerry, who also produced the Earls of Leicester album, Lester and Earl were what made him want to play bluegrass.
“Flatt and Scruggs were the major influence on me when I was growing up. I was around seven years old when I first saw them, and there were two or three more times after that. It had a huge impact on me. I remember the warmth of the auditorium, I remember the smell of the popcorn, I remember the outfits they were wearing. It’s still all very vivid to me, and it’s still influencing me 50 years later.”
The idea of a tribute, which had been on his bucket list, occurred to him again after working a session with Warren and Cushman.
“The banjo, the fiddle and the Dobro came together in a way that sounded exactly like what I’d heard so many years ago, the first time I saw Flatt and Scruggs. Right then, it dawned on me that this was my chance to complete that dream, and I didn’t want to let it go by. So I called Tim O’Brien and Barry Bales. The hardest part for me was finding the right lead singer, but then my wife suggested Shawn Camp. We got everyone together one night and had a rehearsal, and I realized that we had to do this.”
The 14 songs chosen for the record are all drawn from the Flatt & Scruggs songbook, including familiar titles like Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, Dig A Hole, Shuckin’ The Corn, and Big Black Train in the mix.
Douglas says he created this for the sake of bluegrass music’s new audience, who never had the chance to see Lester and Earl live.
“I’m hoping people will hear it and ask ‘What’s that?’, then do some investigating and discover where this stuff came from. We have a younger audience for this kind of music now, and it is important to me that the listeners understand the origins of what they are hearing.”
Look for The Earls of Leicester September 16 on Rounder.
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