Six men are clustered center stage at the Ryman Auditorium, their pearl-grey felt hats shining in the spotlight, ribbon ties fluttering like tiny flags as they bob and weave around the single microphone. The Mother Church of Country music rings with the songs—and the sound—that make up the DNA of every classic bluegrass lover: “Shuckin’ The Corn,” “Salty Dog Blues,” “I’ll Go Stepping Too,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Get In Line Brother.” Heck, if you’re a regular Bluegrass Unlimited reader, you could probably write the setlist yourself. Outside the Ryman, it’s the modern-day Nashville of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum. Inside, the sellout crowd has been transported back fifty years by the musical time machine that is the Earls of Leicester.
This is no mere Flatt & Scruggs tribute band. The all-star group features some of the biggest names in bluegrass—musicians and songwriters who have been established for decades with their own distinctive sounds and styles. But all have surrendered their egos, put their regular careers on hold and given it all up to become the most painstaking and nitpicking of Foggy Mountain Boys reenactors.
The Earls of Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) are almost as much a movie as a band. Each man is cast as a particular character. Jerry Douglas, creator of the modern resonator style, is playing his idol and earliest musical role model, Uncle Josh Graves. Charlie Cushman, a master of both Earl Scruggs and Don Reno styles, has turned off the Reno side of his brain to become the Earls’ Earl. Tim O’Brien, who, along with a successful solo career as a performer and songwriter, is reuniting with Hot Rize for a major album and tour, is happily chopping mandolin and singing Curly Seckler’s soaring tenor. Shawn Camp, who has written such popular bluegrass songs as the Del McCoury Band’s “My Love Will Not Change” (and major country hits like Garth Brooks’ “Two Pina Coladas”), is using his warm baritone and solid rhythm guitar to emulate Lester Flatt. Douglas’ Union Station bandmate, bassist Barry Bales, is playing the role of Cousin Jake Tullock. And on fiddle, it’s the one Earl of truly noble lineage—Johnny Warren, son of Foggy Mountain Boy Paul Warren, who proudly wields his father’s Excalibur, the vintage Stainer fiddle that can be heard on classic Flatt & Scruggs records from the mid-‘50s to the band’s breakup in 1969. With their prodigious chops and obsessive attention to detail, The Earls of Leicester are winning high praise from even the most discerning fans of the original Foggy Mountain Boys.
Sam Bush saw Flatt & Scruggs in concert at Caneyville High School in Caneyville, Ky., when he was around 14. “It was majestic. They were so great,” he says, still awed at the half century-old memory, able to recite much of the setlist in order. “The tribute that Jerry and the guys are paying to that band, having seen (the original band), it sounds so much like it. I was a large fan of Paul Warren’s fiddle playing, and Johnny Warren is marvelous. He embodies all the neat things that his dad did. Any other fiddler wouldn’t sound right to me in that group.”
For Gary Tullock, it was even more important that The Earls get it right. The son of Foggy Mountain Boys bassist Cousin Jake, the younger Tullock grew up seeing the original band literally hundreds of times. “I was just blown away by it,” says Tullock of The Earls’ show, adding that his father joined “The Foggys” sixty years ago this year. “The first time I heard them was out at Music City Roots, and I was really surprised at how close they got. Jerry Douglas, his style is just so different than Josh, but man, he channels Josh Graves. And Shawn Camp—without doing a Lester Flatt imitation—nailed him.”
Like most Earls fans, Tullock is hoping this is one all-star project that will last.”I love the fact that they sing around one mic. I think if they were a touring band and did it literally every day, they would really get the choreography down the way Lester and Earl and The Foggys did.”
The Earls of Leicester are scheduled to perform at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, N.C., this year before heading out for a West Coast tour that starts at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. At the same time, their self-titled debut album on Rounder Records is being released. Given their individual schedules, it’s amazing they’ve been able to do that much, but band founder and “casting director” Douglas envisions a long-term, if part-time, project.
“I see The Earls as an event,” he explains. “It’s not, ‘Hey boys, let’s hit the road for six months.’ I want it to be special. Earl and Lester already did that; they went on the road and they rode it hard. I don’t want to do that. We all have our own personalities and that’s not something we want to neglect, but this is so much fun and it’s so good and it’s so real. We’re not aping it. We’re not trying to make a parody of it. We just want to relive it and introduce it back into the system. A lot of young players, people who are just starting out, don’t know who Flatt & Scruggs are.”
Like many musicians—and regular folks—in their fifties, Douglas has been thinking a lot about how he got here, and he’s giving thanks to a couple of those who helped, his two resonator guitar mentors Josh Graves and Mike Auldridge. His tribute album to and with Auldridge, The Three Bells (also featuring Rob Ickes), just came out as part of Douglas’ new contract with Rounder/Concord Music Group.
While Auldridge brought a sweeter, more sophisticated sound to the instrument, it was Graves who made Douglas want to play resonator in the first place. He was just a kid growing up in the Northeast Ohio Rust Belt town of Warren when his dad, John Douglas, a steel worker and part-time bluegrass musician, gave him his musical home-schooling. “I woke up every morning growing up hearing Flatt & Scruggs, either on the radio or on record. My dad would be going to work and it was Flatt & Scruggs for breakfast.”
When his father took little Jerry to see Flatt & Scruggs live, that sealed the deal. When not in school, Douglas was hovering over his record player, trying to figure out what Graves was doing and spending a lot of time tuning his guitar up to get in pitch with the Foggy Mountain Boys, whose trademark was their sharp tuning. “It used to drive me crazy,” Douglas laughs. “If I was trying to play along so I could learn a solo from Josh, I had to tune sharp, cause my dad taught me to tune to a pitchfork. I was always in tune with that fork, but when I got with a Flatt & Scruggs record, I was as flat as a duck’s [tail]. I had to tune up.”
The Earls of Leicester have copied that vital part of the Foggy Mountain formula. “We did the same with this record. [Our tuning] is up there and it stretches the instruments. And the banjo sounds better; everything sounds better. It’s a little tighter. It is a little harder on the tenor singers. Earl said they just about wore Seck (Curly Seckler) out, and a whole lot of other tenor singers. They thought they were playing in ‘A,’ but they were actually singing in ‘B Flat.’ That’s why the New South always played so many things in ‘B Flat.’ The banjo sounded better there.”
So chalk up one more requirement for the members of his dream band. Douglas had to enlist musicians dedicated enough to not only lose themselves in their characters, but to tune up—and sing—almost a half-step sharp.
Casting the Band
In concert, when the Foggy Mountain Boys broke the music down to its basics, they went back to just fiddle and banjo. Fittingly, that’s what gave Douglas the inspiration for The Earls.
“I was doing an overdub on Johnny Warren’s record (A Tribute To Fiddlin’ Paul Warren, Vol. 2). He and I had been friends for a long, long time. And Charlie (Cushman) was playing banjo on it. So I’m doing this overdub with Johnny, and Charlie’s playing banjo, and I start playing. And man, that was the core of that era, of that sound. And we were making it. We were doing it. And that just made cold chills go up my spine, you know? And I thought right then, I thought, ‘If I’m ever going to do this.’”
Douglas had explored that classic repertoire in another all-star group, the Bluegrass Album Band, which combined the top players of the ‘80s doing first-generation classics by Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and others. The songs were evergreens, but the sound was updated by Tony Rice’s lead guitar and Douglas’ progressive Dobro playing. Those Bluegrass Album Band records were massively popular and hundreds of groups painstakingly copied those arrangements and solos. But that wasn’t what Douglas was thinking in that studio with Warren and Cushman.
“I didn’t want to do the Bluegrass Album Band. I’d done that. But that didn’t really do it for me. That didn’t connect all the dots for me, as far as how deep my love of Flatt & Scruggs went. So I just thought, ‘I’m going to put a band together that can reproduce that sound as closely as possible.’ I’m one of the last guys who’s out here playing now that remembers how to play like Josh Graves. You have to do it on an old Dobro. (For The Earls, Douglas is fielding the mid-1930s Model 37 Dobro that he played in the ’70s with J.D. Crowe & the New South). You can’t do it on a new resophonic guitar. It doesn’t sound right. There are a lot of factors involved, and Charlie and Johnny had it nailed down already.”
With the core in place, Douglas began casting the rest of the band. “My first lineup was to get Del McCoury (who’d played rhythm guitar on the all-instrumental Paul Warren tribute CD) to be the lead singer and Tim (O’Brien) to be the tenor singer. But, Del couldn’t do it because he had all these other projects going on. And I was thinking, ‘Well, who am I gonna get?’ And my wife said, ‘What about Shawn Camp?’”
Camp, who won a Grammy earlier this year for producing Guy Clark’s My Favorite Picture Of You, has a wide-ranging resume that includes headlining singer-songwriter events all over the world, as well a membership in The Fabulous Headliners, an electric band with roots-rock masters Al Anderson and Pat McLaughlin. Camp grew up in Perry County, Arkansas, playing bluegrass with his family and came to Nashville to fiddle with the Osborne Brothers. Numerous bluegrass bands have recorded his songs and the bluegrass influence shines through some of his mainstream country hits (e.g., Josh Turner’s “Would You Go With Me”). Camp even does the occasional bluegrass show around Nashville, putting a band together for the Station Inn or Music City Roots.
Still, Douglas admits, “I had not even thought of Shawn Camp.” A wise husband as well as bandleader, he took Jill’s advice. “And we got together, and from the first song it was, ‘Oh my God, it’s all here! We’ve got it!’ He and Tim sounded like Lester and Seck all over again. That’s what tied the whole thing together for me. I knew I had the band. We did a couple shows down at the Station Inn just to solidify the whole idea, and that’s when I started making plans to record it.”
As Camp recalls, “Jerry saw me one day and just said out of the blue that he was working with Charlie and Johnny and thinking about putting together a Flatt & Scruggs type band. And he wanted to know if I wanted to be Lester and I said, ‘Well, yeah! Of course!’ So it just happened pretty easily. And the first time I rehearsed with ’em, it was just really a shock to stand there in the middle of them. Just a few bars into the first tune, I just had to stop, ’cause it was just so shocking how close we were to those guys and that band. It felt instantaneously identical. Man, it was weird.”
Camp doesn’t mind the higher pitch. “I love it up there,” he says with a big laugh. “We first tuned at 450 (standard A is 440), and Johnny had got his daddy’s fiddle worked on and he was afraid it was gonna come apart at that pitch, so when we went to record, we went down to 448.” Like his fellow faux Foggys, Camp has a special instrument for his role. He says he’s still looking for a 1950 Martin D-28 like Flatt’s, but for now, he’s playing a 1960 D-28 purchased from longtime friend and lifelong bluegrasser, the late Harley Allen.
Tim O’Brien has both the toughest and easiest Earl role. Tough in that replicating Curly Seckler high tenor (when the band is tuned almost half a step sharp) is extremely demanding. But while O’Brien is famed as a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist whose mandolin work, from the Acoustic All-Stars to his longtime frontman role in Hot Rize, places him among bluegrass’ all-time best, Seckler always admitted he was never really a mandolin player, joking that he used one in the band because “Lester always said he liked the way I looked when I held it.”
You might think that a mandolinist of O’Brien’s stature would feel limited playing one or two short solos a night. You’d be wrong. But he had his doubts. “I’ve never been in a cover band—never really wanted to be,” says O’Brien. “I keep asking myself about this band, why it’s just somehow a really good idea. We’re like Flatt & Scruggs’ children. Charlie Cushman is about as expert as anybody on Earl Scruggs lore, Flatt & Scruggs lore. Jerry, of course, was inspired so much by Josh Graves and seeing Flatt & Scruggs as a child. That turned the switch on for him, seeing Josh Graves walk in with a Dobro in one hand and a P.A. in the other hand. And Johnny could be in a lot of bands, but he’s just mostly interested in playing his dad’s music. So this was just sitting there waiting to come together.”
For O’Brien, being in The Earls is all about that high tenor. “I loved Curly Seckler like crazy,” he says. “That was my favorite. When Hot Rize was traveling around, Pete (Wernick), he’s Dr. Banjo, he’s teaching us all as we go along, giving us lectures as we drive across the country and listening to them sing. I loved Monroe stuff and the Stanley stuff, but Curly just had this wonderful, breezy, light [tenor]. It just sounded right—always. And with Shawn, it’s the right range for singing. It’s not too high for me. It’s a blast to do this.”
Tim will be back fronting the long-awaited reunion of Hot Rize (with Bryan Sutton handling guitar duties in place of the late Charles Sawtelle) soon after The Earls finish their first tour. But for now, he’s enjoying being a couple steps back from the spotlight in what looks to be 2014’s other biggest bluegrass event. “Being a sideman is a great thing,” O’Brien explains. “I love singing that stuff.” When his Hot Rize duties take him away from The Earls, the Seckler role is being understudied by Ronnie McCoury and Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane.
But O’Brien plans to miss as few dates as possible. Like the rest of the band, he wants to be part of this bluegrass seance as often as possible.
“It’s not that we remove our personalities, but they’re kind of beside the point. We all have reputations that are based on our own creative endeavors, so this is a payback on our influences. We have reputations in our own rights, so everybody knows this is different, and it’s cool.”
Plus, if you’re going to pretend to be another bluegrass band, why not the best one? There have been many, many great bluegrass musicians, but not many truly great bands, at least not with longevity. In a genre where even top artists can struggle to keep a group on the road and eating, finances and fate (car wrecks, illnesses, inter-band acrimony) have been known to break up many great groups. But the Foggy Mountain Boys lineup remained intact from 1954 to their 1969 breakup. And with razor-sharp businesswoman Louise Scruggs keeping them on the road everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Caneyville High, they worked constantly, those countless hours onstage and on the road forging a band and a sound that became bluegrass music’s state-of-the-art. So much so that you didn’t have to be a bluegrass fan to be a Foggy fan.
“That’s the thing,” O’Brien says. “Flatt & Scruggs was the band that people who didn’t necessarily like bluegrass would love. They were so entertaining. They were streamlined, they were hip, they were funny, they looked great. The hard edges were a little bit softened. There were reasons they were really sailing away when a lot of bluegrass groups were having a tough time.” But, though Lester Flatt’s mellow baritone may have been easier on non-bluegrass ears than the high lonesome sound of Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley, O’Brien notes there was still plenty of edge in their music, right down to that sharper tuning. “Everything was pumped up in those days,” he says. “Those guys were wired on the road, stopping for hamburgers at drive-ins, then head back on the road. And just more coffee and more coffee, and play a show and get back on the road and sleep in their clothes and then just do it all again. And tuning up just seems to be a part of that vibe, that edgy vibe.”
O’Brien hasn’t gotten into his role to the extent of finding a mandolin like Seckler’s 1914 Gibson F-2, now owned by David Grisman. Instead, he’s playing his trademark A-model Nugget. “We tune up and that’s good, because my mandolin can handle it.”
Bales on Bass
When Douglas wanted someone to stand in for Foggy Mountain Boy Jack Tullock, he didn’t have to look far. Barry Bales had been riding the Alison Krauss + Union Station bus almost nine years before Douglas came on board in 1998. If anything, that should have disqualified Bales, since musicians usually want new faces in their side projects. But after countless late-night discussions on the AKUS bus of what both men loved about classic bluegrass, Douglas says it was a very easy decision.
“Cousin Jake was a great bass player,” Douglas explains. “And he was always loud on the Flatt & Scruggs records. You listen to it, you always hear the bass. It’s not like Bill Monroe or any other band from that era: ‘Where’s the bass?’ You never heard ’em. But with Flatt & Scruggs, one of their approaches was, ‘We always want to hear the bass.’ And you always did. And Barry’s studied that and he plays that. He even reverses the 1 and the 5 (notes of the chord) at the right places, just like Jake did. He’ll walk into your solo with you and then leave you alone and just support you. He’s solid as a rock.” Although best known for his AKUS work, Bales has a pretty wide resume. Along with a busy session schedule, he spent several months playing Monday nights with the Time Jumpers, Nashville’s premier, all-star Western Swing band, and is planning a musically adventurous tour with innovative banjo player Noam Pikelny, Crooked Still singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan, and award-winning fiddler Shad Cobb.
Like Douglas, Bales, who grew up on the East Tennessee farm he still calls home, had a part-time picker father who brought his son up on bluegrass’ Greatest Generation. “I consider myself a purist at heart,” Bales explains. “Golly, I’d been playing for years before I ever heard of Tony Rice. It was all strictly first-generation stuff for me. Dad was very much first-generation. And I remember when I finally got into that world of stuff other than Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and started diggin’ some other things, I was scared to bring a New Grass Revival record into the house. I didn’t know how he was gonna react.”
His father, now deceased, would have loved The Earls though, Bales adds. And fathers—musical, biological, or both—loom large for every Earl. “We talked about that amongst the group, especially me and Johnny, about the various dads and the ones that are no longer with us,” says Bales. “It’s definitely something that I owe to him, the foundation in the music that I have—Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman. I definitely feel I have about as good a foundational education in the music as I can.”
If that was Bales’ undergraduate work, preparing for the role of Cousin Jake Tullock was his bluegrass doctorate. “A lot of people think of Jake, if you see those old videos, as the comedian of the group. But if you listen to Jake based strictly on his bass playing, he was great. If you look at their whole recorded career and look at all the bass players they had—even studio guys Bob Moore, Ernie Newton, all those guys—Jake was one of the best bass players they had. He played some really interesting lines. He played with great timing. He played with great tone. The bass wasn’t just a prop for him. He was super legit.
“It’s been a challenge for me. Jake played different from me in that he played with a lot more sustain. He let the notes ring between the 1 and the 5, where I chop ’em off and make ’em more definite. The technique is you have to play even a little more ahead to make up for the overtones, to get the point of the note in there where it needs to be. It’s been an adjustment playing the way I play for twenty-plus years and then to try to change and try to be really true to what’s going on. Most people sitting in the audience would never hear the difference. But all the ingredients factor into the overall sound and into how everybody else plays, so it’s worth it for what we’re doing, to try to pay attention to those details.” Tullock was known for playing a plywood Kay bass, and Bales has hauled out his plywood American Standard bass, set up with gut strings to recreate Tullocks’ sonic boom.
Fiddle & Banjo
While Douglas and the rest are visiting Foggy Mountain, Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman have permanent homes there. Cushman is widely known as the keeper of the flame for Earl Scruggs, replicating the tone, touch, and drive of the master. When Nashville’s biggest names, including Vince Gill, need a serious dose of Scruggs, they call on Cushman. He also has a side business, setting up banjos for players trying for that same sound. It’s not just the banjo that unleashes his inner Scruggs. A highlight of an Earls of Leicester show comes when Cushman picks up his vintage Gibson J-45 and plays three-finger Scruggs guitar on sacred numbers like “Paul & Silas.”
In the studio, when the rhythm needed more punch, Cushman added the final Foggy touch. “ I went in and put on an archtop rhythm guitar. I’ve got an old ’37 (Gibson) L-5, a hell of a great instrument. I told Jerry if we’re going to recreate these songs, we have to find out which ones had the old archtop acoustic on it and we wound up putting it on just about everything. You could really feel the presence of that guitar, especially on ‘I’ll Go Stepping Too.’ You’ll hear it chunkin’ back there.”
Back when drums were not yet part of most country music, let alone bluegrass, many artists featured the closed-chord punch of archtop rhythm guitar, often played by legendary session woman Velma Smith, who passed away this year. Flatt & Scruggs’ Columbia recordings were often boosted with an archtop. “They were on a major label shooting for chart action just like any other act in Nashville at that time, and the archtop guitar was being heard on everybody’s records—Carl Smith, Roy Acuff, Don Gibson. Just name it.”
As to what banjo he uses for The Earls, Cushman laughs and says that was never even a question. “Is there any other kind except a prewar flathead Mastertone? I wouldn’t dare take anything onstage with these guys that wasn’t. I would probably be struck by lightning.”
Even among these purists, Johnny Warren stands out. He’s played with such top contemporary bands as the Nashville Bluegrass Band, but all he ever wanted to do was play old-time fiddle like his dad. That’s the first music he remembers hearing.
“It was always there,” he explains. “I’m 58, so I was born in ’56. He was already with Flatt & Scruggs when I was born, so my earliest recollection was Flatt & Scruggs, until I was 13 or 14 when Lester and Earl split up. I didn’t see my dad except when he was in off the road and we’d go to radio shows when they were in town or when they’d do TV tapings, we’d go with them. And when they’d play the Opry, most of the time, he’d take me with him. I never really heard any other fiddle players. I just kind of learned from listening to him play. His idol was Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and my idol’s my dad.”
His father strung up a fiddle for him when he could barely hold one and, by age 6, Johnny was playing for PTA meetings. Then in February 1964, he watched TV one Sunday night and his life changed…for a while. “I remember when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, and I quit playing (fiddle) for about six years or so, and me and some guys started a little rock band. And when I was 14, I realized I enjoy this music that I’m playing now, but I really want to play the fiddle, and I didn’t care what anybody thought. So I picked it back up. And my dad was delighted when he came off the road and saw I really wanted to play. We really had a great relationship all through the years, but especially then. We played together and we sat down and he showed me a lot of things. I just wanted to play the old-time fiddle just the way he played it. And that’s basically all I am, just an old-time fiddler, playing like he did.”
The reason Warren was able to retain the purity of that sound was simple. He didn’t have to do it for a living, forced to play whatever various bandleaders or record producers wanted. Instead, he was able to stick to playing like his dad because of his other marketable skill, clubbing tiny dimpled balls into 18 little holes. “By trade, I’m a PGA teaching pro,” says Warren. “I’ve been teaching golf for like 35 years.” He has his own indoor facility, the Johnny Warren Golf Academy, at Fairvue Plantation country club in Gallatin, Tenn., north of Nashville. He’s a former PGA Teacher Of The Year and regularly makes the list of Tennessee’s best golf instructors.
After touring with the Nashville Bluegrass Band in the ’80s, Warren realized he loved his father’s fiddling, but not his lifestyle. “I got to the point where I wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to be out on the road all the time like my dad.” So he stayed around Nashville playing the occasional show and, in recent years, started playing out more, usually in company with the like-minded Cushman. In September, along with The Earls’ debut album, Warren and Cushman released their third CD, a tribute to Doc Watson’s collaboration with Flatt & Scruggs that became the 1966 Columbia album, Strictly Instrumental. Bryan Sutton is doing the flatpicking.
Warren’s still teaching golf, but says, “I’m just kind of at the point of my life where I want to play fiddle more, and all this kind of just fell in my lap.” He’d been to the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman hundreds of times with his dad, but Warren had never played the Ryman until July, when the Earls of Leicester did its annual bluegrass summer series. For his feature, Warren played his father’s showpiece, a blazing “Black Eyed Susie” that earned him two uproarious standing ovations. Even five days later, he could barely talk about that experience. “I don’t know what to say. I’m still speechless.” But he easily finds words to express how much he wants to keep doing this. “We’re having a blast. Everybody’s having so much fun. Every time we get together and play together and especially when we cut this album, that three days in the studio was really kind of a bonding time.”
Like everyone else in The Earls, Warren has wanted to play in Flatt & Scruggs since the first time he heard them. Except, he heard them before he could walk. So while every Earl gets emotional about this music and what it means, for Johnny Warren, it goes so much deeper. “I’ve wanted to do this my whole life, no question about it,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do Flatt & Scruggs stuff with a group of people that loved it as much as I did. And this bunch of guys, they’re each in their own right all incredible musicians, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Warren carries the most important instrument in The Earls, his father’s Stainer violin. To get it road-ready, he had two luthiers work on it. “Brian Christianson did some very good structural work on it and Dave Harvey (who oversees Gibson’s mandolin division) got it back sounding like its old self,” says Warren. But he’s not trying to simply get the notes right. He wants to capture the pure joy of his father’s fiddling. “When Dad played, he just loved doing it and his style of fiddling was that, if you were down in the doldrums, you get through listening to him. It just lifted you up.
“I just respected each and every one of those guys. Uncle Josh was really like an uncle to me. His son, Billy, and I were about the same age and we loved the same things, sports and stuff. And I stayed at Josh’s house half the time, and Billy was at our house the other half of the time. And the Scruggs boys, especially Randy and Stevie…Steve and I even played some music together back in the ’80s. It wasn’t just people that my dad worked for or with, they were just part of our extended family and I just grew up with ’em.”
Although they actually didn’t, Douglas says he and the other Earls sort of feel the same way. “We studied that stuff our whole lives, but we were never going to be in that band. So it really was of no use to us other than just going to school on those guys and trying to make that a part of our own styles of playing. We’re a modern bunch of guys, but we just have this ingrained in us and we recall it from somewhere way down deep inside and we can bring it back up.”
This doesn’t mean that Douglas, who has taken the Dobro places that neither Uncle Josh or Mike Auldridge ever dreamed, is planning to finish his career as a hard-core traditionalist. “Going from the bluegrass world into the Alison (Krauss) world, but playing on all these different records—Bill Frisell records and Phish—then fronting my own band and doing these tunes that are more jazz-oriented and more rock-oriented and things getting louder, and drums and all this stuff, it’s all still evolving for me,” Douglas explains. “But I’m glad that I can still go back to this Josh Graves/Mike Auldridge world. Whenever I’ve felt myself in a slump of some kind, I’ve gone to the ground and just simplified everything as much as I can. And I go right back to playing simple Josh Graves stuff, and it kind of heals me up. And then I can move on with it, get past the block. And it’s worked every time for me.” It’s nice to take a vacation from himself, he adds with a laugh. “I’m sick of hearing me. It’s so nice to hear somebody else come out of me.”
Douglas’ famous sense of humor can also be seen in the punning band name. If “Earls of Leicester” makes you groan, consider two of Douglas’ rejects for the band name: “Flags & Studs” and “Left Her Flat & Oiled Shrubs.” “I was wracking my brain for a name and ‘Earls of Leicester’ came into my head—Leicester spelled like the English city—and that was that. ‘We’re done.’”
One thing that Douglas and The Earls are dead serious about is bringing back the sound of the Foggy Mountain Boys for generations who never experienced the live band. Playing so many different kinds of music seems to have taken Douglas full circle, making him realize more than ever just how great—and rare—traditional bluegrass can be. It’s a feeling—and a sound—he and the Earls of Leicester want to share and maybe, just maybe, start a brand-new tradition. “I’m tired of people thinking that Nickel Creek invented bluegrass…or Alison…or me…or Tony (Rice),” Douglas says. “We know where we got it. I think it’ll be good for people to hear this stuff and start doing it again and doing it this way.”