The Earls of Leicester
Rattle & Roar
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
The eponymous debut album from the Earls of Leicester was, I wrote, an “effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication.” Two years on, this homage to the studio sound and stage show of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys is as popular and potent as ever.
Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas once again produces, with returning band members Shawn Camp (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) Charlie Cushman (Scruggs-style banjo and guitar), Johnny Warren (fiddle) and Barry Bales (bass and vocals). Tim O’Brien is no longer on mandolin and high harmonies, but Jeff White’s work here makes the change hard to notice.
The familiar elements of a Flatt & Scruggs setlist are all represented in this 16-song, 45-minute album, but Camp’s lead singing is once again the ingredient that makes this much more than a tribute act. He shows enough skill and heart on “All I Want is You,” “Faded Red Ribbon,” and “Branded Wherever I Go” to be ranked with Mac Wiseman and Lester Flatt himself as one of the finest bluegrass “crooners,” to use a classification Fred Bartenstein makes in his excellent article, “Bluegrass Vocals.”
With the others join Camp on harmonies for the gospel numbers—especially “You Can Feel it in Your Soul”—you know what it feels like to attend Sunday service at a little county church somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee.
Along with Douglas’ steely Dobro lines that recall Uncle Josh Graves, Cushman’s banjo and Warren’s fiddle get all the details right—this commitment really pays off on the three instrumentals and on the half-dozen tunes drawn from the hard-driving, honky-tonk side of bluegrass music (i.e. “The Train that Carried My Girl from Town,” “What’s Good for You (Should Be Alright for Me),” and “Why Did You Wander?”).
This record was recorded live in the studio (listen to “Flint Hill Special” on a good pair of headphones if you don’t believe me), and the more you listen to it, the more you realize how deeply these musicians have absorbed the carefully crafted sound that made Lester and Earl the most successful band in the history of bluegrass music.