From the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KENNY BERKOWITZ
At seven years old, Jerry Douglas saw Flatt and Scruggs for the first time. He never forgot that night, and 50 years later, after cutting a tribute album with Charlie Cushman (banjo) and Johnny Warren (fiddle), he formed the Earls of Leicester, dedicated to the music of bluegrass greats Lester Flatt (1914–79) and Earl Scruggs (1924–2012). Douglas invited Shawn Camp (guitar, lead vocals), Union Station bandmate Barry Bales (bass), and Tim O’Brien (mandolin) to complete the sextet, produced their self-titled debut, and brought home the 2015 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
The Earls of Leicester was as perfect as bluegrass gets, played with all the passion, all the joy, all the exuberance of the Earls’ boyhood heroes. It’s hard to believe but the follow-up, 2016’s Rattle & Roar, is at least as good, even after O’Brien’s departure for Hot Rize. After a string of replacements, Jeff White is now playing mandolin and singing tenor harmony, while Camp is becoming the focus of the band, juggling gigs as a solo act and as one-fifth of the World Famous Headliners to settle into this role as bluegrass royalty.
Covering a range of standards (“Flint Hill Special” and “The Train that Carried My Girl from Town”) and rarities (“Pray for the Boys” and “Steel Guitar Blues”), these 17 new tracks find the Earls at the top of their game, playing for the pure, time-warped pleasure of being a latter-day Foggy Mountain Boys, string ties and all. For Douglas, it’s the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. In the middle of their other projects, the Earls have recast themselves as standard bearers for old-school bluegrass, making the classic sound come alive for a new generation of listeners.
How did you come to join the Earls of Leicester?
About three years ago, Jerry Douglas called and said, “We’re doing this Flatt and Scruggs band, and we want to know if you’d like to be Lester.” I said [swooping in imitation of Flatt’s voice], “Whyyyyyyy, yes, I suuuuuure would.” That was it. I remember the first rehearsal, we were a couple of bars in, and it was so overwhelming, I had to stop the band. I just could not believe it was happening, that I was standing in the middle of Flatt and Scruggs.
What does it mean to be Lester?
I don’t know how to answer that. I knew Lester was great, but I didn’t understand how great until I stepped into his shoes. These songs demand the lead vocalist to sing the way he did, with the whole band riding on that vocal line. It’s not an easy task.
We’re playing on Stringbean’s back porch and there’s a huge bonfire silhouetting Earl Scruggs. In my mind, that was as good as you could get.
And as a guitarist?
I tried a time or two to play with a thumbpick and fingerpick, like Lester did, and it’s amazing to hear the power you get in a strum. I’m playing as close as I can with a flatpick, and I hope to sound a little more like Lester as time goes on, but I’m not about to stick on a thumbpick and a fingerpick and pretend I’m Lester Flatt. I can’t stand alongside people who are playing at this level if I’m not giving my best. In all honesty, I really don’t sound anything like Lester Flatt. I sound like me, but . . . in the flavor of Lester Flatt, which is the best I can do. I stick that Lester Flatt G-run in every chance I get, and the rest of the time, I’m just hanging on tight, hoping I don’t fall off this wagon
What’s your role in this band?
Just holding down my little corner of the pie. I try to keep the feel of the songs and keep the crowd moving. The job of acoustic guitar is to keep the rhythm going, keep the power of the band at a high level. If I were to step up there to do solos, the whole band would have to drop down, sonically and dynamically. We’d lose our drive, and if that happened, we’d lose everything we’ve been shooting for from the beginning—to honor Flatt and Scruggs. It’s totally out of respect, out of love for their music, to do it as close to the original as anybody ever has.
Do you remember the first time you heard Flatt and Scruggs?
Nah, they’ve been there since before I was born. Growing up in Arkansas, I would hear them on the local radio stations, and my folks had their records. Plus, watching The Beverly Hillbillies television show, they were frequent guests. I started playing guitar when I was five, drug one around from the time I could walk.
What were you playing at five years old?
I had a little Sears and Roebuck guitar that I got for Christmas. My daddy taught me some straight chords, and every evening after supper, we would play a few songs. Then, one day when I was seven, my mom and dad went shopping, and left me at the house with my guitar and my Mamaw, my daddy’s mother. She played Carter-style guitar with her thumb and fingers, and by the time they came back from shopping, I was able to play “The Wildwood Flower” for them. That was the first time I picked a melody, and from that time on, I’d go to sleep at night, dream about songs I’d never played, wake up the next morning, pick up my guitar, and play them. It was moving quick for me. I just loved it so much. We would go to different folks’ houses and have picking parties, even then. You never knew what style of music you’d be playing, but it was always fun, and I couldn’t wait for the next picking party to happen. At eight, I started playing mandolin, and at 15 I got a fiddle. Within six months of that, I was working as a fiddle player at VFWs, American Legions. I’m sure I sounded awful, but fiddle players were hard to find.
Did you know Earl?
Oh yeah. Picked with him a few times, actually.
Tell me about that.
The one that really stands out is when we were on the back porch of Stringbean’s old house. [David “Stringbean” Akeman played in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from 1942–45, when he was replaced by Scruggs. Akeman remained a star of the Grand Ole Opry until he was murdered in 1973.] This lady had bought the shack that Stringbean lived in, remodeled it, and this was the first time there had been music at that house since the day he died. I’m on the back porch, Earl Scruggs is sitting to my left. We’re facing the old shack and we’re playing “Pike County Breakdown.” There was a pile of old tongue-and-groove wall boards in the yard. In the middle of the song, somebody struck a match and lit that pile, and that flame jumped out 20 feet in the air, made the hair on my head stand up. We’re playing on Stringbean’s back porch and there’s a huge bonfire silhouetting Earl Scruggs. In my mind, that was as good as you could get.
What was Earl like?
Just a nice, down-to-earth guy, an old boy from North Carolina who knew how to play the banjo. A friendly guy, I felt like we were friends. The last time I saw him was at Cracker Barrel by the Opry, he’s sitting at a two-topper table by himself. And I walked up and said, “Mr. Scruggs, how are you doing?” And he said, “Sit down,” and we visited for, I don’t know, ten minutes. He’d ordered a bowl of pinto beans, a slice of onion, corn bread, and a big glass of milk. That’s a high-level country-boy lunch right there. I visited while he ate his beans and I got to pick up the tab. That was the last time I saw him. I wish I’d known I was going to be doing this band, but that was before it all started.
What do you love about this music?
It just feels right, you know? There’s nothing phony about it, no way to fake this. It’s either there or not there, you either got it or you ain’t. There’s no luck. I mean, we record live, there’s nothing fixed or anything. What you hear on our records, that’s what we played. It’s not like country radio, where everybody is recording in isolation booths, punching in stuff here and there. There’s none of that allowed in this music.
What can you do with the Earls that you can’t do anywhere else?
This is the only place I can wear a Colonel Sanders tie. Everywhere else, it wouldn’t look as cool.
I get a rush out of playing this old, driving bluegrass. When you look at the audience, 80 percent of these people weren’t even alive when Earl and Lester started out, so it’s an amazing thing to see them vibrate to this music. That gives us a reason for doing it, seeing people light up for the first time.
The job of acoustic guitar is to keep the rhythm going, keep the power of the band at a high level.
How do you describe the current state of bluegrass?
I started going to bluegrass festivals at a young age, traveling to Oklahoma or Texas or wherever. But I was out of touch with the bluegrass world until about three years ago, when I started working with the Earls. Coming back after all these years, I can see the musicianship is a lot better than it used to be. Musicianship-wise, the younger generation always takes it to a new level—our high-water mark was their starting point. Plus, they have a means of slowing stuff down on YouTube, zeroing in on exactly what’s going on. But as part of getting back into this world, I realized that most of the true bluegrass legends of the first generation are gone. They’ve all died off, which is one of the reasons we put this band together. Somebody needed to hit the reset button, and I think that’s what we’re doing.
What would you like that younger generation to know?
That they need to go back to Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe, listen to the founding fathers of this style. That’s the foundation. Because it was right, and if that foundation wasn’t as solid, the music wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. Whatever music I’m into at any given time, I try to get as close to the source as possible. And in this music, that source is Flatt and Scruggs.
What Shawn Camp Plays
In the months since recording Rattle & Roar, Shawn Camp has changed guitars. “For the album, I played a 1936 Martin D-18 that I bought from my buddy, [songwriter] Phillip Lammonds, which was supposedly Gram Parsons’ in the early ’60s,” says Camp, who adds a heavier G string to his set of standard D’Addario phosphor bronze EJ17s. “I just bought a ’39 Martin D-28 Herringbone from Bryan Sutton, and that’s what I’m loving right now. It’s the first pre-war D-28 I’ve ever owned, and as far as tone, it is just head and shoulders above the others. Bill Monroe had a 1939 Herringbone, so that’s what Lester played in the band. The D-18 is a great guitar, but the D-28 has a richer Brazilian rosewood tone. If I’m going to do this gig, I’ve got to play a D-28.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.