Bluegrass fans everywhere can rejoice because Jerry Douglas did something for purely selfish reasons.
He wanted to hear more Flatt & Scruggs music. He couldn’t find it on the radio. He didn’t hear it at festivals. And he couldn’t find musicians to play it with. So he put together his own band – the Earls of Leicester – and watched in amazement as the idea took off.
“When I went to IBMA and SPBGMA, I didn’t really hear Flatt & Scurggs anymore,” Douglas said in an interview before the Earls closed the two-day DC Bluegrass Union Festival before a packed house Saturday night in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. “When I played with J.D. (Crowe), we talked about Flatt & Scruggs all the time. That wasn’t happening anymore. I just noticed a lack of the real thing, and that’s what I wanted to hear.”
So he set out to make it happen. “I guess I was selfish,” he said with a grin and a shrug of his shoulders. “I was hoping there’d be some interest in it.” The idea was to form a band to make a recording and play at a few big festivals before the musicians got back to their regular gigs. He was hoping to educate some people about a band he revered, not create a franchise.
Boy, did that plan backfire.
After the early response to the record and to a couple of high-profile shows was so strong, Douglas said he decided, “We should just go ahead and finish the statement.”
That might take a while.
“I’d like to do another record,” he said. “There’s so much material, plenty of good songs left to make another one.” And then maybe a third Earls’ CD, of new music written and performed in the Flatt & Scruggs style.
In the early stages, Douglas had one big idea for the band, and that idea had a name: Del McCoury. But Del bowed out early on, saying he was planning to scale back his work. Eventually, Douglas assembled a supergroup that featured Shawn Camp on guitar and lead vocals, Charlie Cushman on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Johnny Warren on fiddle, Tim O’Brien on mandolin and vocals and, of course, Douglas on resonator guitar.
But O’Brien’s stay with the Earls was short-lived. He had a role in another major project – a new record and reunion tour of sorts for Hot Rize. When both bands became magnets for promoters looking to put butts in seats, as they say, he was stretched too thin and had to honor his Hot Rize commitment.
“Tim caught me by surprise,” Douglas acknowledged. “He said when I approached him that he may have some conflicts. I knew that Hot Rize was doing a record. I didn’t know that Hot Rize was going to tour. I think he was trying to tell me all along, but he never really told me.”
Miffed as he was, Douglas said there was no animosity. “Tim is my friend,” he noted. “That won’t change.” Indeed, O’Brien was at the DC festival, playing a solo set Saturday night. And one of two folks wearing Groucho Marx masks to try to crack up the Earls, was either O’Brien or someone who stole his plaid shirt.
Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane took O’Brien’s place for a couple of shows. Now Frank Solivan is on the bus for ten or so shows.
And after that?
Let’s just say there’s no shortage of guys eager to fill the role. After Douglas let slip that Vince Gill had even inquired about coming aboard and I asked if that could happen, Douglas gave another grin and shrug. “Might happen,” he said.
Solivan had a blast in front of his hometown fans, bobbing and weaving at some points, bending his knees in time with the music at others. The smile rarely left his face.
Then again, the smiles rarely left the faces of the five other musicians or the estimated 1,000 fans. I’ve been to plenty of shows where the crowd is happy, but it is unusual to see every band member having a blast, from the opening note to the end of the encore. It was a special evening.
Here’s hoping Jerry Douglas feels selfish more often.