Put together by dobro veteran Jerry Douglas and featuring Shawn Camp on suitably timbred lead vocals and guitar, Charlie Cushman on banjo, Tim O’Brien on vocals and mandolin and fiddler Johnny Warren with Douglas’ fellow Union Station bandmate, Barry Bales, on bass and vocals, the punningly named sextet readily acknowledge the overriding influence of bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs.
Of course, given that The Earls of Leicester’s eponymous debut actually comprises of 14 numbers from the duo’s songbook, roughly spanning 1954 to 1965, recorded on vintage instruments replicating the original methods and using many of the same unconventional tunings, it would be hard to do otherwise. On top of which, Warren is the son of Paul Warren, a longtime member of Flatt and Scruggs’ band.
So, what’s the point, you may ask. Isn’t this just some tribute album by a bunch of star session players? Well, yes, to an extent. But, as Douglas points out, the album is aimed at a generation who have got into bluegrass through contemporary practitioners, but who may be unfamiliar with the pioneers of the genre and who would never have had the chance to see Flatt and Scruggs perform live. As such, this is both a pretty useful primer to lead them back to the source and a damn fine collection in its own right.
Familiar with Earl and Lester or not, any fan of the genre should certainly recognise several of the numbers here, most specifically Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, the blues Big Black Train, Till The End of the World Rolls Round, Some Old Day, the gospel Who Will Sing For Me and, most of all, Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, a number revived and popularised by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen a few decades back.
Mixed in alongside perhaps lesser known tunes such as the instrumental Shuckin’ The Corn, the sprightly hayride waltzing I Don’t Care and You’re Not A Drop In The Bucket, they have a vibrant and virtuoso spirit that captures the sheer joy of musicians playing the music they love, sounding as fresh and alive as when Flatt and Scruggs first recorded them and never once displaying the clinical nature to which such faithful tributes can sometimes fall prey. Short of a time machine, this is the closest thing to having actually been there that you’ll hear.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Decca
Order via Amazon