The Earls Of Leicester at the Suwanee Spring Reunion Festival (3/24/17) – photo by Brian Paul Swenk
Day 2 of the Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival featured the time-machine of Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester.
It’s very rare that you get to feel the genuine sense of time travel, but Jerry Douglas and the boys have the ability to take the crowd back to the 1950s for a full 90 minutes. Their recreation of the heyday of Flatt and Scruggs is near perfect in every way. Charlie Cushman on banjo, Johnny Warren playing his father’s fiddle (the same fiddle his father played when he was with Flatt and Scruggs), Barry Bales on bass, and, of course, the dobro wizardry of Douglas recreating Uncle Josh’s iconic licks and phrasing with a joyful ease. But the man that makes all of this possible is Shawn Camp and his method-acting devotion to the crooning voice and onstage persona of Lester Flatt. The instrumentation could be switched out with a modest level of musical parity, but this unit’s success (including a Grammy win for their first album) exists because of Shawn Camp.
I was able to catch up with Charlie Cushman beside their sparkling white Prevost tour bus after the show, and asked him about what it’s like to play in a group like this.
“The guys in the band have the same teaching I do. We all trained the same way by listening to the old Flatt and Scruggs records. When we get together to do a show, I’ll use Jerry’s (Douglas) quote, ‘It makes me feel like a kid again.’” It was pleasantly surprising to hear the time-machine effect is just as strong on the band as it is the audience.
Cushman talked about how this music affected him as a kid. “Flatt and Scruggs were the first bluegrass band, even though they didn’t like to be called a bluegrass band, they were the first to play with specific organization. They created a consistent musical product. That’s what I got used to. My other favorite band was Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups, and they were the only other band to stay consistent. Everyone else was constantly changing sidemen and their sound was always changing. The people playing with the other groups didn’t have the commitment to make a specific ‘product’ like Lester and Earl did. Earl told me one time that Lester wrote songs that specifically fit his banjo style, and that meant a lot to him.”
One of the highlights of the show was Cushman playing the Scruggs’ style 3-finger guitar on the deep cuts, Road To Glory Land, and the patriotic, war-time song Pray For The Boys.
Don’t forget to often pray for the boys so far away
They have gone to fill your place out there
They’re on the battle line in defense of yours and mine
Hold ’em up to God in humble prayer
Charlie talked about Earl’s decision to pick up a guitar during their shows. “I asked Earl one time, ‘What prompted you to play the 3-finger style on guitar, and he said to me, ‘Well, we were trying every way we knew to not be like Bill Monroe.’ They had just came from his band and they didn’t want that sound attached to them, and for people to say ‘Oh that’s just Bill Monroe’s old band.’ And I think they succeeded. I knew Earl real well for 35 years and I could ask him anything, and that’s what he said.”
I asked Charlie about how important Shawn Camp is to this group. “Shawn Camp portrays these songs with everything he’s got. He acts the songs out like it means something to him, which it does.”
The experience of seeing this band is unique and singular. If you’re a fan of the classic bluegrass style of strong harmonies, driving rhythms, and the graceful onstage dance to get in and out of the single vocal mic, then you owe it to yourself to find a show near you.
“We’re honored to be standing in the shadows of that great band with that great material,” says Cushman, “and hopefully be playing it with the same spirit as they played it. We do it out of love because we love what they did.”
Earlier in the day, banjoist Jeff Mosier, along with his lifelong musical partner, fiddler David Blackmon, performed with the family band Pickled Holler. An easy blend of bluegrass and old-time, the band summed up the overall vibe of the weekend with not just blended genres, but a down home Carter Family feel.
David Blackmon, back in action after laying low a few years with medical issues, took the mic and gave the audience an entertaining story about how he was always a “very confused fiddle player.”
“I was classically trained on violin as a kid,” said Blackmon, “but my older brother brought me an Allman Brothers album, Live at the Fillmore East, he didn’t like it, but I LOVED it. Then after that I went to the old Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention and discovered bluegrass and old-time fiddle playing! So as you can imagine, I was always a very confused fiddle player, as you’ll hear.” The band then started the iconic intro to The Allman Brothers Whipping Post, before gliding into Old Joe Clark.
I spoke with the Rev Jeff Mosier about what the festival means to him. Jeff is not just known for his great banjo playing, but also for his deep and introspective philosophies on life and art.
“This festival is, to me, what music is all about. Music is not just entertainment. It’s a community building, life saving venture. It’s a medicine we created ourselves as human beings because we kind of live in a movie that we know the ending to. I think songs suspend us from our pains, and when we get together like this with the ritual and the history, it all of a sudden makes our culture really rich. It’s like the yogurt you buy with the nuts and the different ingredients that you have to mix together—that’s what festivals do. They mix various ingredients and you get to hear the sum total of the parts. And that’s what a band is. It’s people yielding their ear, one to another, in hopes they can become bigger than their individual parts as a group.”
“I’ve always gravitated towards the kindness in the music that’s played here, and played by groups like the Grateful Dead. There’s an empathic sense that you’re included if you’re in the audience. ‘We want you to dance, we want you to sing along, we want you to participate’ and there are many people in this country that don’t have families, and they come here to feel like they belong.”
Non-bluegrass highlights of the fest that should be mentioned:
Jason and Nikki Talley’s opening set Friday morning. They are a husband and wife duo that quit their jobs 5 years ago, bought a van, converted it into their traveling home and haven’t looked back yet. Nikki takes songs from the traditional and old-time world and makes them her own with a sweet tenderness, while husband Jason plays fluid guitar lines with an endless creativity.
Musical icon and genre bending master Joe Craven sat in on percussion with The Josh Daniel and Mark Schimick Project. From The Meters’ Cissy Strut, to blazingly fast traditional fiddle tunes, this group never sits still, and in my opinion is they are easily one of the best acoustic bands in North Carolina.
Traveling troubadour Jim Lauderdale played a full set with festival favorites Donna The Buffalo as his backing band. From crooning country to deep reggae rhythms, the grooves were nothing short of infectious and intoxicating. It’s unique moments like this that make music festivals so special.