Q&A: Jerry Douglas on Flatt and Scruggs, Poppy Bluegrass & The Earls of Leicester’s NYC Show Tonight at BB King Blues

Tonight, The Earls of Leicester, the bluegrass supergroup assembled, organized and produced by veteran Dobro master Jerry Douglas, will perform at BB Kings in Manhattan. Coming off of their Grammy win for the Best Bluegrass Album, the band will perform songs off of their self-title debut (iTunes, Amazon, Spotify) comprising of 14 tunes lifted from the sacred Flatt and Scruggs songbook.

While the core Earls – Shawn Camp on lead vocals and guitar, renowned Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitars, fiddler Johnny Warren, the son Fiddlin’ Paul Warren of Flat and Scruggs, and Barry Bales, Douglas’ longtime bandmate in Alison Krauss and Union Station, on vocals and bass – are playing songs that pop up at all kinds of bluegrass gatherings, Douglas says that he’s wanted to organize a project with this material his whole life.

He witnessed the awe of Flatt and Scruggs, in concert for the first time at the age of seven. Fifty years later – with 14 Grammys to his name and a reputation of the most in-demand Dobroist in the world – Douglas says that vivid memory is still with him and he wants the younger generation of bluegrass fans – those fans that were converted by the skilled yet progressive acts like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Old Crow Medicine Show or even poppy bands lacking instrumental greatness – to experience this music first hand.

I caught up with Jerry this week and asked him about that.

You’ve said that you’ve wanted to pursue a project like this for a long time. Did you always have these guys in mind? How did you go about assembling this all-star crew?

I didn’t have this particular crew in mind when I began assembling the idea for such a band as the “Earls”. This all happened over a matter of years. Every time I played with either Johnny Warren or Charlie Cushman though, the idea would float back to the top though. Those instruments are, I believe, the core of this group.

Any magic you can share about the production of this album? How’d you walk the line to maintain that classic feel while adding a bit of freshness?

We tried to use a combination of recording techniques for this project. For instance, a microphone setup known as the Decca Tree was used. Three microphones in a triangle, one in the front, and two in the rear create an audio image with depth that was a common to the era when Flatt and Scruggs made their landmark recordings. All these microphones were of a matched type. In this case, Neumann M50’s, a very rare microphone, were used along with several other old RCA 77 Ribbon mics. This type of recording requires the player or singer to walk into an area instead of staying next to one microphone to capture their performance. You can literally hear/see the choreography of the band this way.

A good portion of younger bluegrass fans today were drawn into the genre by more progressive bluegrass acts – even some that you’ve been a part of – and don’t know these legendary songs. What’s it been like for you to put a throwback album out in an environment like this?

That is exactly the reason I wanted to put this group together and record it. Part of the mission of this group is to re-establish the impact The Foggy Mountain Boys had on this genre. Their songs are played often, but not with the spirit of their original form, and so often I hear them performed with their corners worn off. Lester Flatt was a singer in the league of the big band singers of the 40’s and 50’s who sang the entire melody, not leaving out important nuances that were important to the song. I believe Shawn Camp is also in this league and can rehabilitate some of the habits that have been taken up by young singers.  So often we have phenomenal young instrumentalists, but less time put into singing, which is so important in furthering the music we all love.

Do you worry about the future of bluegrass or get frustrated when you see poppy bluegrass and less skilled instrumentalists winning a lot of attention? Do you think it’s a fad or has it always been this way?

I have no problem with anyone getting attention with an individual prowess on instruments, or adopting influences from other genres. That is an important way for any music to grow. There is room for everyone and they will find out what works for them or not. It’s very flattering to hear someone use my techniques, especially when I see promise in the journey of a young player. What I want is for them to use whatever they need to find their own voice.

Bluegrass was happened upon after a long list of trials and errors. Some probably were hoping we were a fad too.

What can we expect to see tonight at BB King’s in Manhattan? Will you perform the album straight up or will you mix in other songs? Who is performing for the show? While Tim O’Brien joined the band for the album, I know he’s had some conflicts with tour dates. 

When the Earls of Leicester plays BB’s in Manhattan we will attack the songs on the record like the first time we played them, and we will add many songs that are not on the record. We are all having a blast reconnecting with these songs and presenting a musical and entertaining show. Frank Solivan, who has a huge buzz going with his band Dirty Kitchen, from the DC area, is singing tenor and playing the mandolin with us on this leg of the tour.

Tim opening that slot with the Earls has given us an added bonus of bringing in some ringers like Frank, Shawn Lane from Blue Highway, and Jeff White, who has been playing  with the Chieftains, Alison Krauss’ early Union Station, and singing tenor vocals with Vince Gill for years. We have enjoyed working with each of them and showing our audiences different views of these guys. The connecting thread with all of them is the love of being raised listening to the same music each of us was brought up with and exploring it all over again.

Tickets for tonight’s show are still available. You can also catch the band at MerleFest, Bonnaroo, Telluride and Rockygrass the spring/summer festival circuit.