In a certain sense, Jerry Douglas straddles two worlds — those of past and the present. Known as one of the world’s foremost musicians on dobro, resonator guitar and lap steel, he also divides his time between two bands, the one that bears his name and the other, The Earls of Leicester, an ensemble dedicated to honoring the legacy of seminal bluegrass pioneers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
The band has released three albums since its start in 2013 — two studio sets (“Battle and Roar” and their eponymous debut) as well as a concert collection (“Live at the CMA in the Country Music Hall of Fame”). It’s a modest amount, but given the fact that Douglas rarely stops working and consistently loans his talents to others — Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss and Elvis Costello among them — it’s rather remarkable that he has any time at all to devote to a project all his own, especially the Earls.
Fortunately he doesn’t have to further it on his own. In addition to Douglas, the group includes singer and guitarist Shawn Camp, banjo player and guitarist Charlie Cushman, fiddler and singer Johnny Warren, Jeff White on mandolin and vocals, and Knoxville homeboy Daniel Kimbro holding down bass and backing vocals.
Indeed, the Earls’ efforts paid off early, courtesy of the 2015 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album accorded for their debut. It’s an achievement Douglas doesn’t take lightly.
“The Grammy was the beginning of a year full of surprises,” he said. “The Earls’ success was a pleasant surprise. We set out on a different journey than most bands. Our work had been done before by Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. We just happened to bring it back at the right time when it seemed old was new. So many younger audiences had not heard Flatt and Scruggs, while many of the older folks thought they would never get to hear this music again. The bar started very high and made us work hard from the start ... it’s been a journey like no other.”
In fact, it’s been a journey from past to present and back again courtesy of the legacy Flatt and Scruggs shared along the way.
“The Earls are a band where we channel as much from what we know about them, their time period, and the instruments they used,” Douglas explained. “They lived in a different era, one that was simpler. Even the song substance, chords, harmonic structure and instrumentation was less complex than bluegrass is now. All the while though, they were writing the book on how a band works, even down to groundbreaking business practices. They were ahead of their peers and the times they appeared in.”
Indeed, Douglas’ inspiration grew from the influence the duo had on him from early on. He said that he grew up on their music, and unlike some of today’s bluegrass practitioners, he was never particularly drawn to that other influential pioneer, Bill Monroe.
“My father was a Flatt and Scruggs fan, hence so was I,” he mused. “He would be going to work at the mill as I was getting ready to go to school, and he commanded the radio or record player in the morning. We listened to music instead of the news — a good practice we should all revive.”
Not surprisingly then, as Douglas started making music on his own, he drew from those initial encounters.
“When I reached a place in my own career to create something different, I went back to my love of the early music that formed my base,” he said. “No one was giving their music such an exact treatment, and I thought it should be reinserted into the bluegrass psyche. The basic rules of focus in bluegrass music had been thrown aside. People were playing over top of each other regardless of what was happening in the song, whether the singer was trying to sing the song, or someone was soloing. The focus was lost. This was one of Flatt & Scruggs’ basic rules. Focus! One vocal with one backing instrument along with the banjo as a free agent, not everyone practicing their next solo. It was off the rails.”
Those lessons haven’t been lost on the Earls. Even with the awesome array of musical royalty assembled with the band, none of the musicians lord it over the others.
“No one brings an extra heavy ego into the band,” Douglas insists. “We are trying to reintroduce a genre, not just a band. Of course, every musician has an ego. Otherwise you couldn’t have such pride in your work. But we don’t force them on each other in this sort of setting. We are one ego, a band ego, and a travel-sized one at that. Everyone is an intricate moving piece of a puzzle, so it must be a democracy.”
Fortunately, the combination continues to gel, one reason Douglas doesn’t seem shy about freely complimenting his fellow players.
“The Earls of Leicester are an uncommonly talented group of singers and instrumentalists,” he said. “I picked each of them on their own merits as people who could either sing or play in different situations. Of course Johnny Warren is the only guy for the job just through his DNA. His father Paul was the fiddle player for Flatt and Scruggs, and just through genetics and a lot of practice and his own love of his father’s playing, Johnny is a great fiddler in his own right, and as close to a clone as I think possible.
”Shawn Camp is a natural singer with the same love of melody as Lester Flatt, who could have excelled in any genre because of his excellent pitch and uncannily true representation of every song he sang. Everyone in the band — Charlie Cushman Jeff White, Daniel Kimbro — takes as much care and has that natural ability to come as close to what I like to think of as ‘Flatt and Scruggs the next day.’”
And likely for the present and future as well.