critic’s picks 242: mike auldridge, jerry douglas and rob ickes, ‘three bells’ ; the earls of leicester, ‘the earls of leicester’
But within a band or collaborative context, the one-time Lexingtonian has favored the instrument’s most familiar setting – bluegrass. Of course, it helps that two of his most visible affiliations – a groundbreaking ‘70s stay with JD Crowe and the New South and his current tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station – have approached bluegrass with the same expansive thinking in terms of style and direction that Douglas has brought to the dobro.
Two simultaneously released new Douglas-led recordings explore such stylistic extremes. Three Bells is a summit with two other dobro journeymen, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes. The self-titled debut of The Earls of Leicester, as the title perhaps doesn’t immediately imply, embraces the bluegrass legacy of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
Three Bells is something of a destiny record, one with an urgency underscored by the fact that Auldridge was battling cancer during the 2012 recording sessions. He died three months after their conclusion.
There is no rhythm section or additional accompaniment of any kind on the record’s 11 tracks. On paper, that might seem like a static game plan, but Three Bells exudes all kinds of rich, acoustic color.
The opening cover of Silver Threads Among the Gold is beautifully conversational in its casual tradeoff of lead melodies and subtle, percussive rhythms while The Three Bells, a 1959 country hit for The Browns with roots that stem to Edith Piaf and the Andrews Sisters, possesses pining instrumental harmony full of light, efficient expression.
The Earls of Leicester, on the other hand, stands as one of the most traditionally minded adventures of Douglas’ largely progressive career. A cross-generational band made up of Douglas contemporaries (mandolinist Tim O’Brien, Union Station bandmate/bassist Barry Bales, fiddler Johnny Warren), a distinguished elder (veteran Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman) and a youthful frontman (guitarist/vocalist Shawn Camp), the Earls freshen 14 staples from the Flatt & Scruggs canon, from the robust dobro/vocal holler of Big Black Train that opens out into banjo-led merriment to the gorgeous gospel eulogy of the album-closing Who Will Sing For Me.
Two dobro spirits pervade these records. Auldridge obviously guides Three Bells with a quiet desire for widening the instrument’s stylistic scope, a skill long mirrored in the solo recordings of Douglas and Ickes. What an outstanding victory lap this album is for such a mammoth career.
On The Earls of Leicester, the silent pilot is the late Josh Graves, the dobro giant that drove Flatt & Scruggs’ greatest records and served as Douglas’ foremost formative influence. How epic it is to hear Graves’ royal inspiration edging on such dutiful subjects.