Jerry Douglas talks Earl Scruggs and the Earls of Leicester

The late James Brown aside, Jerry Douglas could be considered the hardest working man in show business. Considered the foremost practitioner of dobro and lap steel guitar, he’s a producer, constant sideman and collaborator (working with everyone from Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, James Taylor, and Eric Clapton, to Keb Mo, the Del McCourty Band, Elvis Costello, Phish, and Mumford & Sons), not to mention the leader of two durable combos, The Jerry Douglas Band and the Grammy-winning archival outfit, the Earls of Leicester. By his own estimate, he’s appeared on approximately 2,000 albums and shows no signs of stopping yet.

That’s in addition to serving as Music Director of the popular BBC Television series, Transatlantic Sessions and, as of last year, the talent coordinator for the newly inaugurated Earl Scruggs Music Festival, now in its second year.

Of course, any festival keeps him busy, but in the case of the latter, there’s not a single set that doesn’t find him guesting with the main stage line-up.

“I’ve been in the right place the right time,” Douglas maintains. “It’s been a good run, and it doesn’t show any signs of letting up. I was in the studio this morning with Tony Trischka, Alison Krauss, Jason Carter, Sam Bush, and Todd Phillips. We were working on something for Tony. Tony was doing something, but I don’t know what it is. I didn’t ask.”

Not that he has to. Being so ingrained in bluegrass and Americana circles, he’s always on call. It’s a task that he clearly seems to relish. His role at the Earl Scruggs Festival is merely one of many examples.

“It’s like going to a family picnic,” he suggests. “What we all had in common is our appreciation for Earl Scruggs. We wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Earl. That’s just the truth. I don’t think I would be a musician if it weren’t for. him. I had heard him when I was a kid, but it was just when I got to know him and hang with him and talk with him, that my appreciation grew even more. We’d get him cranked up on the bus and start telling stories and he wouldn’t stop. It was just the greatest to have been a little kid and hear that sound, and then be sitting there across from the guy as a grown man, and listen to this guy tell you stories about what he had done. I’d always wondered what he’d be like, and then there he is. It just blows my mind to think about it.”  

In a sense then, as curator of the Earl Scruggs Festival, Douglas finds himself in the position of passing a legacy along. 

“They called me and asked me to do it,” Douglas recalls. “I had been talking with Earl’s son, Gary, and it was just so terrible because he passed away shortly before it was scheduled to take place. We had all these plans, and Gary was way into it. It had his blessing, the Scruggs’ blessing. J.T., Earl’s cousin, is a big part of it too. He’s sort of like the Scruggs’ representative. I met J.T. and we hit it off. Claire Brewster, who does a lot of the communications for everybody at the festival, and I are good friends. And she knew that I was buddies with her all clients and that I was a connection.”

Of course, being a the helm of a namesake outfit like the Earls of Leicester didn’t hurt either.

“It’s not an easy image to maintain,” Douglas insists. “Imagine standing up there in 95 degree heat wearing those suits and ties and hats they used to wear. You’re completely closed off and nothing in or on your body can breathe except for your face.  And that’s what they had to do. They did it every day. Every day, they’d pile off that bus and do that show, no matter what. And so I thought, we’ll play this part. You’ve got to earn your stripes in this bluegrass business.”

Of course, Douglas earned his stripes a long time ago, but he still maintains a decided reverence for his forebears. “I never intended to be a slave to fashion like the Grateful Dead,” he muses. “Nevertheless, Flatt & Scruggs had a certain look that was all their own. I remember seeing them when I was about five or six years old, and they looked so good. They had all this choreography and they played like… well, I’d never heard anything like it. So I wanted that to be part of what we did with our band. We all hesitated for a second and wondered can we do this? Can we play like that? Well, here we are.”

Indeed. The fact that the Earls won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2015 for their eponymous debut album offers a testament to their tenacity.

“Just to try to carry that forth as an auspicious undertaking,” Douglas reckons. “I recognize that we do sound like them, and and it can be scary. Terry Gross at NPR did a thing on her show, Fresh Air, where they started out by playing Flatt and Scruggs playing, and then they segued into our record and it scared me. It was too much for me. I mean, I would make fun of somebody who said that, but I’m telling you, we really sounded like them. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Well, I guess we’ve made our point.'”

And at the same time, they’re carrying the music forward into the future.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Douglas admits. “We put out out first record, it gets a Grammy and we get all this great recognition from the IBMA and stuff. The band is on a roll. The world needed another shot of Flatt & Scruggs, so we were able to put them back on the map. I feel like we’ve scratched an itch.”

Not surprisingly then, Douglas takes a longer view as far as music in general, and bluegrass in particular. “It’s still the music that they played on the back porch, but now you’ve got to factor in buses, airplanes, business managers, managers, and a giant loan to get things done,” he insists. “It’s not just back porch music anymore. It could possibly be — you can still do that — but it’s become an industry. It’s a music genre. It’s an industry now. It’s not just the music that was played on the back porch anymore, at least not since that first Will the Circle Be Unbroken album and the film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? People like it because it’s honest music. It’s just outgrown any thing we could have imagined.”

In the meantime, Douglas said he’s content to do what he does, and do a lot of it. “I do a lot of time on stage and I love it,” he said. “I live for that. There are certain places where I go that I’m on stage a few times a day. Plus I like hanging with the young folks. Because now I’m an elder statesman of sorts.”

In that regard, he continues to foster young talent. He mentions a new young artist named Chris Jacobs out of Baltimore that he’s producing and very excited about. 

“He’s getting around,” Douglas said. “And we made this great record. I can’t wait for people to hear it. It’s a bluegrass record. There’s some good stuff on it, and he plays a lot of cigar box and slide guitar. It’s really cool.”

Douglas also notes that bluegrass has become an international phenomenon. 

“One thing about bluegrass music, and that kind of music — bluegrass or string band music or whatever you want to call it — is that it’s no longer geographical,” he points out. “There are people that come from different parts of the country that play that music, and they usually go to the source at some point, and usually end up in North Carolina. They learn from somebody and watch somebody and then drink the water. They follow all these great musicians that came out of that area where it just became a boiling pot for the English and the Irish and Scottish, and all of that stuff got all mixed up. And then there’s the African American part of it too, where the gospel thing comes into it. So you’ve got all these influences. There’s something about it that’s so wonderful, and it’s expanded to all the corners of the world. For example, Prague has become one of the biggest bluegrass capitals of the world. The only thing that outsold Bibles there was probably copies of the Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.