Growing up in a small suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, music leaked out of every nook and cranny and sprawled across every available surface like a bunch of sun-warmed cats. The news ran with stories about who in the music industry was in town and who was recording a new album with whom, but mostly the stories were about which music star was in trouble with the law or the IRS, who was getting married, who was getting divorced, who had opened up a new barbeque joint and who was going off to rehab – again. Then there were the personal stories, not the ones about who you saw in concert or playing at the Grand Ole Opry, but about seeing Tammy Wynette at the grocery store or catching a glimpse of Johnny Cash rolling out of the local gas station. I saw Bill Monroe up close once. I’m pretty sure it was at the airport. Honestly, he just looked like somebody’s grandpa.
Let’s just say that Nashville and its surrounding suburbs were never far away from a song, a singer or somebody desperate to get into the business. It infused the air. I would guess the word divorce was the least misspelled word on spelling tests across several counties while I was growing up thanks to Tammy Wynette.
While the airwaves of my youth were filled with Johnny Cash, Ronnie Milsap, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, radio disc jockeys had a little more latitude to play songs outside the top forty. Patsy Cline, who had died in 1963, was still a standard that got play time as did Hank Williams. Other tracks got play too, rawer tracks, wilder tracks, born of the earth tracks like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Mountain Dew,” “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in other words bluegrass. Those were the days where even the most staunch country music disc jockey paid homage to the likes of Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.
With the music business held in the tight grips of program managers and focus group consultants, I can’t imagine that many of the bluegrass standards make the playlist of country music stations today, where much of the music sounds like it was rolled off a factory floor instead of a barroom floor. But that music lives on and fans are in luck with Rounder Records’ The Earls of Leicester.
Playing on the names of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, The Earls of Leicester round-up is who’s who list of the best of bluegrass, country and Americana music with dobroist and the album’s producer Jerry Douglas, guitarist and vocalist Shawn Camp, banjo player and rhythm guitarist Charlie Cushman, mandolin player and vocalist Tim O’Brien, fiddler and vocalist Johnny Warren and bassist and vocalist Barry Bales.
Steeped in riches left behind by Mr. Scruggs and Mr. Flatt, The Earls of Leicester revel in that rawer, wilder, born of the earth sound that is the bedrock of bluegrass. Romping through such treats as “Big Black Train,” “”Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” “The Wandering Boy,” these extraordinary musicians find those razor edged vocals and delicious banjo and mandolin runs that shiver up the spine and make bluegrass a treat.
Who could honestly resist lyrics like “I’ll lock the door, put out the cat and I’ll go stepping too…” from “I’ll Go Stepping Too?” Fans get the downright delightful instrumental “Shuckin’ the Corn,” the contagiously cheerful “Till the End of the World Rolls ‘Round” and the sweetly old timey “Some Old Day.” There’s also “I Won’t Be Hanging Around,” “I Don’t Care Anymore,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and perhaps my favorite “Who Will Sing for Me” to close out the album.
I suppose the lists of albums, accolades and awards that these musicians have garnered over the years should impress like Grammys, International Bluegrass Music Association awards, American Music Awards but what impressed me was the list of instruments in the liner notes used on this recording, instruments like a 1930 Gibson banjo, a 1934 dobro, a 1942 Gibson guitar and a Stainer violin originally played by Paul Warren, Johnny’s father, on the original Flatt and Scruggs recordings, proving their roots in the bluegrass tradition.
The Earls of Leicester is a stunning listen into the very heart of bluegrass style and tradition and surely a treat to old hands and new found fans.