Review: The Earls of Leicester – Rattle & Roar

When Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs parted company in 1969, they left a vibrant legacy of recorded bluegrass. Both came to prominence in the mid-1940s as members of the most famous edition of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and Earl’s fancy five-string banjo style became a defining element of the bluegrass sound. In 1948, they broke away from Monroe, forming Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Initially southeastern regional favorites, they joined the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-50s, and later, in the 1960’s, they rode the folk revival, television and movies to become the most famous bluegrass band in the world. Throughout their 21 years together, Lester and Earl played with many talented musicians, but their most enduring band, with most of whom they played from the mid-fifties until the end, consisted of Lester on guitar and lead vocals, Earl on banjo, Burkett “Uncle Josh” Graves on resonator guitar (dobro), Paul Warren on fiddle, Curley Seckler on mandolin (rarely featured) and tenor vocal (much more often featured), and “Cousin Jake” Tullock on bass fiddle. With this group of musicians, Flatt & Scruggs made iconic recordings that remain an essential part of the bluegrass repertoire.

In the nearly half century since the band split, their songs have been recorded by bluegrass musicians of all stripes. In the 1980s, the Bluegrass Album Band, featuring leading performers of the day, including (from volume 3 on) Jerry Douglas on resonator guitar, recorded a number of Lester and Earl’s songs, updating them for a new generation that may not have had ready access to out of print LPs. More recently, Karl Shiflett revived the gang singing vocal style that became a hallmark of the Flatt & Scruggs sound beginning in the late 1950s.

Now, a decade and a half into the 21st century, we have the Earls of Leicester, made up of present day bluegrass nobility who capture the sound and spirit of Flatt & Scruggs as well as anyone ever has. The band consists of Shawn Camp on guitar and lead vocals, Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitar, Johnny Warren (Paul’s son) on fiddle, Barry Bales on bass, Jeff White on mandolin and tenor vocals, and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Douglas brought these fine musicians together. Although he was as responsible as anyone for the contemporary bluegrass and new acoustic sounds of the 1980s, he cut his teeth on the classic bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs and their contemporaries, and particularly on the dobro style of Uncle Josh Graves. In 2014, he organized the Earls of Leicester to pay homage to his musical heroes and to show today’s audiences that this venerable music remains exciting and vital. It worked; the band and its first recording were honored by the Grammy Awards and the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Rattle & Roar is the group’s second recording, and it carries on their work in fine style. With a few exceptions, they have chosen to highlight songs that are associated with the later edition of the Foggy Mountain Boys mentioned above. Uptempo numbers like “The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind,” “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town,” and “Will You Be Lonesome Too?” are just plain fun to listen to. A barnburner, “Why Did You Wander?” shows the band’s mastery of the early Flatt & Scruggs sound.

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“Why Did You Wander”

Instrumentally, the group follows the styles of the members of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Earl’s banjo was the instrumental core of that band, and here, Charlie Cushman captures Earl’s extraordinarily clear and even banjo sound, giving every note its due. Cushman takes the spotlight on an early classic Earl banjo tune, the “Flint Hill Special,” one of the first pieces to feature Earl’s special tuners that allowed him to re-tune the banjo in the middle of a song. And he also plays the hot syncopated finger-style guitar that Earl featured starting with the very first recordings of the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Dobroist Jerry Douglas showcases his debt to (and mastery of the style of) Uncle Josh Graves. On “Steel Guitar Blues,” a dobro tour de force found on an old concert recording, Jerry recreates Josh’s bluesy note choices and bright cutting tone. Fiddler Johnny Warren sounds like his dad here, especially on the fiddle and banjo duet, “Buck Creek Gal,” that Paul Warren and Earl featured on many concerts. This and similar fiddle tunes gave the two of them a chance to acknowledge the music’s old-timey roots, back in the days when a fiddle and a banjo were the whole band. On this tune, also known as “Stony Point” or “Wild Horse,” the fiddle is the lead voice, but the banjo’s lines weave in and out of the fiddle melody, always adding, never detracting or stealing the limelight.

The Earls’ musical homage extends to their singing. On many of these songs, Shawn Camp channels Lester’s deceptively casual singing style. But there is nothing casual about “All I Want Is You,” Camp’s stunning rendition of this lovely ballad, or his pleading vocal on “Branded Wherever I Go,” in which the singer asks his love not to wait for him, because as an ex-convict, he will always be a marked man. On the Earls’ live shows, Camp also recreates Lester’s relaxed MC style.

And the band gets the gang singing style just right, all their voices blending in powerful harmony, with Jeff White’s on top. Although Flatt & Scruggs used this technique on both secular and sacred material, it was especially powerful on their sacred songs. Here, the Earls treat us to moving renditions of four gospel classics: “You Can Feel It In Your Soul,” “Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep,” “I’m Working On A Road (To Gloryland)” and “Pray For the Boys.” And the voices blend especially nicely on a secular number, “ A Faded Red Ribbon,” from the mid-60s.

The Earls are not just a “tribute” band. While they recreate the sprit, sound, feel and much of the technique of Flatt & Scruggs, it’s not 1962 anymore. That is so even for those who, like the Earls, are steeped in the bluegrass of a much earlier time. Especially instrumentally, techniques have moved on, and these pickers are at least partially responsible. Jerry Douglas in particular here and there sounds more like “Flux” (his nickname from the late 70s on) than “Josh.” This is a good thing. The best way to honor musical innovators is to innovate. And here it can’t be helped—the CD was recorded live, and some of the Earl’s individual sound was bound to creep in. But the Earls are doing the music world a big favor by reminding us what it was like when we first heard Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and all the Foggy Mountain Boys. Enjoy Rattle & Roar by these modern masters and then go back to see if your old 78 of “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” will still track.

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