Something old is new again. The Earls of Leicester, fresh from their first release in late 2014 and the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award for 2015, have followed that remarkable success with a second release, Rattle and Roar, on Rounder Records
The Earls of Leicester play the songs popularized by, and in the musical style of , Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs were one of the first generation bluegrass bands (along with Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys and The Stanley Brothers) that worked the local circuits in the Southeastern U.S. in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, touring relentlessly from the base of their radio station of the time, and formed the foundation of traditional bluegrass music as it is known today. While Monroe is credited with popularizing, some say inventing, the genre, Flatt and Scruggs added their own songs and instrumentalization to carve out a unique corner of the bluegrass sound.
But, nearly seventy years on, they are a distant memory to most bluegrass fans. The sole surviving member of the Flatt and Scruggs band, Curly Seckler, has retired his tenor voice and mandolin chops.
Enter Jerry Douglas, the prolific Dobro master, record producer, sideman for Alison Krauss, and member of bands, starting with JD Crowe and The New South (along with Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs), Boone Creek, and Strength In Numbers. Not to mention receiving fourteen Grammy awards and countless IBMA and CMA awards to date.
Rattle and Roar followed The Earls of Leicester to the top of the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart, and the band has played festivals from Maine to California and back in the last two years. Country Standard Time caught up with Jerry Douglas to discuss the phenomenon that he, along with his bandmates, has created.
“A lot of people had forgotten about Flatt and Scruggs…about how that music sounded. There are tools that they used that are really missing these days.”, says Douglas. “The thing that Flatt and Scruggs did that was so great was, they didn’t all play at once. You didn’t hear too many things happening at one time that was a focus.” “They’d focus on the lead singer and one backup instrument that was behind him and not a lot of people crowding. In short, just people listening to each other.”
Douglas, through his body of work, extending from traditional to newgrass, has a unique perspective on bands of today:” I think that bands benefit from listening to each other play.” “It’s sort of like somebody’s soloing and they aren’t playing too loud, and somebody is putting in too much information, and the focus on gone from whoever is in the spotlight at that point and really needs to be heard.” “Let it breathe a little bit”, he advises.
In Flatt and Scruggs, according to Douglas, “There’s so much choreography in it that you can hear in the music that Flatt and Scruggs played” .“You don’t need to hear everybody all the time. That’s sort of something that’s become a rule, that you’d need to hear everybody all the time. But, you don’t. You need to have a focus in order to get a point across to the listener. We’re playing music for the listener. We’re not playing music to hear each other play and impress each other all the time when you’re on stage. So, it’s really just a different way of looking at it, and I really missed it. It just became noise to me a lot of times and I know that it can be better than that. I’ve been in bands and I know there are great players and I’d just like to hear them better.” Speaking specifically of the Earls of Leicester project, “That was the prerequisite for making the record: for us to get back to that music a little bit. In our careers we’d all left it somewhere behind. We started playing it and we realized how difficult it really was. ” Douglas says sometimes the lyrics may be a little archaic (“Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep”), but “it’s the way it’s stacked” that’s important.
The commercial and critical success of the first Earls record was a bit of a surprise for Douglas, since the motivation in recording it was as much for the players and the bluegrass form as it was for the audience. Tim O’Brien (mandolin, tenor vocals) was on the first recording, now replaced by Jeff White. On Rattle and Roar. , “Jeff White fits us like a glove”; says Douglas. “He blends great, he sounds great. He’s there to sing and he does a great job at that.” Hot Rize, another of O’Brien’s iconic bands, had booked a string of festival reunion shows in 2015 and the Earls of Leicester caught the wave of their first release with substitute mandolin players (Russell Moore, Frank Solivan and others) sitting in on festival shows, sometimes on the same bill as Hot Rize. Douglas reflects, with a bit of wonder: “They folded and we kept going”. “It actually set up a cool situation for us”. “We had Frank Solivan sit in. And Russell Moore, who really knocked it out of the park.” Vince Gill wants to do it. Ricky Skaggs wants to do it. It would be fun to have those guys even though you only get like two mandolin solos in the whole show [since] what we really need you to do is sing.”
The Earls are riding a wave of acceptance and popularity. But, Douglas, who has spent a life in the music business, is realistic about the project as a long-term form. When asked to look forward to future Earls of Leicester projects, he offers: “I don’t really want to keep rehashing Flatt and Scruggs songs. I think we can do it for a little while, but when we started this band we said that ‘When this becomes work to us, we won’t do it any more ’”.”We know that it has a shelf life and we may have used a lot of it up already. But, while we’ve been here, we’ve made an impact and the reception’s just been great. And, we did what we set out to do, which was to put [Flatt and Scruggs] back in the big picture”
Even the choice of the clever band name is in spirit with Flatt and Scruggs stage presence. When asked if there’s a space for a Monroe tribute band (“Blue Boys of Grass”?) or a Stanley Brothers tribute band, Douglas says, probably not: “Monroe wasn’t funny. The Stanley Brothers weren’t funny. Flatt and Scruggs was kind of funny. “ But Flatt and Scruggs had respect among all their first generation peers. As Douglas says, “They weren’t just a musical group, they were a brand. They were one of the first brands in country music. They had sponsorships, they had TV shows and radio shows. They had some many things that were different from other bands. They had a woman manger (Louise Scruggs). They had a Dobro, which put them in a different genre, which allowed them to play more modern music of the time and give them another avenue, which gave them another way to go, which was closer to modern country music or even rock and roll.”
Douglas says he was inspired to be a musician by Josh Graves’ Dobro playing, notably (among other collaborations) as part of Flatt and Scruggs. There’s no doubt that The Earls ‘respect for the band, its music and versatility continues. Before the first Earls CD was released, the band went to play for Curly Seckler, then 96, a mainstay of Flatt and Scruggs for many years in their heyday. “We played for Seck that day and I was watching him on choruses. When we got to the chorus, he mouthed every word of the chorus. He remembers everything”
Country Standard Time caught up with Douglas on the road, taking a break from the Earls of Leicester, where he was on tour with a three-piece Jerry Douglas Band. Although reflective on the past contributions of Flatt and Scruggs, after more than 40 years in the music business, he’s still looking for fresh challenges. In The Jerry Douglas Band, “I’m singing and playing and playing lap steel and it gets loud and rockin”. “ It’s a great distance from The Earls of Leicester, but it gives me a fresh start when I get back to that. I try to keep things diversified this way in order to keep that freshness and stay inspired.”