in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

One of the most revealing traits of any musical pioneer is the ability to not only recognize the right time to acknowledge artistic roots, but when to embrace them wholeheartedly. During a nine song set earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, dobro great (and one-time Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas did just that by reviving the crystalline bluegrass tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with the all-star tribute troupe The Earls of Leicester. The band might be cheekily titled, but its musical command of a string music sound that has largely evaporated from today’s bluegrass landscape was executed with scholarly vigor, authority and taste.

The band boasted a repertoire devoted exclusively to the groundbreaking grass Flatt & Scruggs explored for nearly two decades with their Foggy Mountain Boys before splitting in 1969. Flatt’s congenial and conversational vocal style was taken up by veteran Nashville songwriter Shawn Camp, who tempered the high tenor leads of songs like “Big Black Train” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (the first two tunes on the Earls’ Grammy-winning, self-titled 2014 album) with a sense of gospel-esque cool. Several other members, most notably mandolinist Jeff White, joined in to create three and sometimes four part harmonies during the set. But Camp’s affable singing was the easygoing catalyst that ignited much of the performance.

Douglas, banjoist Charlie Cushman and fiddler Johnny Warren (son of Foggy Mountain stringman Paul Warren), dispatched brisk, intricate solos that rang through “Down the Road” (one of the three tunes pulled from the new Earls album “Rattle & Roar”) and the set opening “Earl’s Breakdown.” But none of their breaks lingered. The Earls were all about economy and clarity, which underscored the band’s overall efficiency.

There was an undeniable sense of history to the program (Douglas, Cushman and Warren were all playing the very instruments that had clocked time with Flatt & Scruggs) as well as subtle pageantry (JD Crowe was an unannounced guest for an interview segment, but did not perform while Steve Earle, in town for a Tuesday concert with Shawn Colvin at the Opera House, was part of the audience). But as the encore strains of “Old Salty Dog Blues” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” closed the show, it was the quiet sense of revival that was most arresting. Douglas and the Earls didn’t treat the Flatt & Scruggs legacy as a museum piece. They made the music sing with a regal vitality that was authoritative, animated and appealingly immediate.

 



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