In 1946, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were integral parts of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys when they recorded a series of singles that most historians of the music consider the "birth of bluegrass" as we know it, though the term "bluegrass" would not come into widespread use for another decade or so. Upon leaving to form their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys (much to Monroe's consternation), they spent most of the 1950s recording one landmark single after another. Although they were welcome at the same venues as Monroe, they never referred to themselves as a bluegrass band - Scruggs often preferred the description "American music." It was Scruggs' blazing three-finger banjo style that turbo-charged the band, but Flatt was a consummate songwriter, and his silky baritone and rock-solid guitar rhythm served as a near-perfect counterpoint. They also introduced the Dobro into bluegrass in the person of "Uncle Josh" Graves.
Growing up in the 1960s, Ohio-born Jerry Douglas found inspiration in the music of the Foggy Mountain Boys and throughout his fame of the last four decades as the world's pre-eminent Dobro player has harbored the dream of putting together a tribute album. "The Earls of Leicester" (pun fully intended) is the realization of that dream, bringing together a cast worthy of replicating (but importantly, not slavishly copying) a dozen or more (well, 14 to be exact) vintage F & S songs well enough to encourage listeners, especially younger ones with no memory or experience of them to check out the originals.
Douglas himself fills the role of Graves, of course, while veteran Nashville session banjo picker Charlie Cushman brings his extensive knowledge of the Scruggs style to the project. Tim O'Brien performs the mandolin and harmony vocal work done for many years by Curly Seckler, Barry Bales stands in on bass, and there's a direct fiddle link to the original music in Johnny Warren, son of longtime F & S fiddler Paul Warren. Finding someone to convincingly portray Lester Flatt was something of a challenge, but Douglas's choice of veteran Nashville singer and songwriter Shawn Camp was inspired. There's a fine line to walk between singing in the spirit of as individual a vocalist as Flatt was and doing an outright impersonation, but Camp sings in his own voice while working in many of the vocal mannerisms that made Flatt so distinctive. A tough job, but he carries it off well.
All 14 tracks are among the best known of the F & S catalog - "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," "I'll Go Stepping Too" and "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" to name just a few - and they've all been covered hundreds of times over the years. The charm of the Earls of Leicester is to have made them sound fresh again.