Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
he parts of the Earls of Leicester are extremely solid, but so is the sum. That became quite apparent when the bluegrass superstar sextet released its debut in September 2014 along with its first live foray into Boston.
Jerry Douglas, considered by many the best Dobro player on Planet Earth, summed up the evening just right when he said, hopefully jokingly on the first part, "I don't know if you could tell, but this is a lot of fun."
Having a band with the likes of Douglas, superb lead singer Shawn Camp, ace banjo man Charlie Cushman, bassist Barry Bales of Union Station fame, mandolin play Frank Solivan (he's not on the release, but plays with his own band Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen), and Johnny Warren on fiddle can do that for you.
This is a band focused squarely on the music of Flatt & Scruggs, which hit home for many in the crowd along with one of the Earls most intimately. Their disc is comprised of songs drawn from the Flatt & Scruggs songbook, including "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke," "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Big Black Train," with the Earls doing justice to each and every song. Even the ultra commercial "Martha White" theme.
Douglas said the impetus for the group came after playing several bluegrass festivals where he didn't hear any Flatt & Scruggs songs and made it clear that had to change. For Douglas, Flagg & Scruggs Dobro ace Josh Graves was an inspiration.
For Johnny Warren, this was personal. His late father, Paul, was a member of Flatt & Scruggs, and is using the same fiddle Paul Warren used starting in 1956.
The Earls of Leicester combine bluegrass and country, just as Flatt & Scruggs did. Having Camp aboard is a blessing. Mostly known for his songwriting prowess and session work, Camp is a superb singer in either genre. His phrasing works exceedingly well with either style.
And then there is the musicianship. Douglas underscored time and again his prowess. He also proved to be a good spokesperson for the band, offering a number of comments, including some humorous barbs at Solivan's expense, saying a few mandolin solos during the night was one too many. Fact of the matter was Solivan's playing was just fine, but his singing was even better.
Solivan ably sang backing vocals and duets with Camp. Other members sometimes would gather around a single mic as well for three- or four-part harmony singing.
Cushman had a number of chances to shine on banjo, and he didn't miss a chance to show his licks either.
They also made it a fun musically going from "Ballad of Jed Clampett," the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song to "Petticoat Junction," another television show theme song, with both singles for Flatt & Scruggs more than 50 years ago.
There are a lot of moving parts for The Earls of Leicester, and they meshed extremely well together to create a most satisfying musical juggernaut. One got the sense that this was a group that enjoyed paying homage to Flatts & Scruggs, just as Douglas had indicated, without merely being copycats. Low pressure and low stakes, but high reward for an evening well done.