By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
Fresh off a positively amazing Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival in mid-June, FolkWest is pleased to begin sharing the biographies of the 14 performing artists at this year’s 24th annual Four Corners Folk Festival. The event — Pagosa Springs’ traditional end to the summer — will take place over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 1, on Reservoir Hill.
The 2019 lineup includes Billy Strings, Amy Helm, Darrell Scott, Molly Tuttle, The Mammals, The East Pointers, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, JigJam, Lindsay Lou, Mile Twelve, Wild Rivers, Maybe April, The Arcadian Wild and this week’s featured band, the Earls of Leicester.
When bluegrass supergroup the Earls of Leicester formed in 2013, their mission was ambitious but exact: To preserve and promote the legacy of bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, in hopes of reviving the duo’s music for longtime admirers and introducing a new generation to their genre-defining sound.
Within a year of releasing their self-titled debut, the Nashville-based six-piece far surpassed their own expectations, winning a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album and earning six awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Now, with their first live album, the Earls of Leicester offer up a selection of songs that fully capture the pure joy and supreme musicianship that propel their every performance.
Recorded over two nights at Nashville’s CMA Theater, The Earls of Leicester bears a boundless vitality that makes songs from over a half-century ago feel irresistibly fresh. Throughout the recording, the band wholeheartedly channels the spirit of Flatt and Scruggs while allowing each member’s distinct charm and singular musicality to shine through. And though their unbridled passion instantly stirs up a freewheeling energy, a closer listen reveals the profound mastery of skill infused into each performance.
“This is the result of years and years of trying out different instruments, different string gauges, different techniques to try to create these sounds,” Jerry Douglas noted.
In that process, he added, the Earls of Leicester eventually dug up decades-old instruments in order to achieve the ideal texture and tone they were seeking.
“Everybody in the band plays something old,” said Douglas. “This music just sounds so much more true to form when it’s played on old instruments.”
For Douglas — a 14-time Grammy Award-winner who founded the Earls of Leicester and produces all their material — that approach builds on a lifelong dedication to studying the music of Flatt and Scruggs. Soon after hearing the Foggy Mountain Boys at age 7, he devoted himself to deconstructing their recordings, paying particular attention to the captivating dobro work of Josh Graves.
“I remember sitting by the record player and trying to figure out what Josh Graves was doing,” he said. “There was no one to teach me, so I just had to listen.”
Douglas attended a number of Flatt and Scruggs concerts as a kid and later played with each musician on separate occasions. Although his own prolific career as a musician and producer has kept him more than occupied over the years —including appearing on more than 1,600 albums, recording with the likes of Ray Charles, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello — Douglas was unable to shake his vision of one day revisiting the music of Flatt and Scruggs.
“I probably could have stayed focused on everything else I’ve got going on, but this just haunted me,” he said.
As Douglas points out, the most crucial factor in forming the Earls of Leicester was replicating the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry that long-fueled Flatt and Scruggs.
“I looked for years to find the group I needed for the alchemy to work,” he said.
In the end, Douglas landed on the lineup of Shawn Camp (Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton), Jeff White (Vince Gill, Loretta Lynn), Charlie Cushman (Jimmy Martin, Mel Tillis), Johnny Warren (son of Foggy Mountain Boys’ Paul Warren), and Barry Bales (Alison Krauss and Union Station) — and found himself beyond floored by their immediate synergy.
“I had to stop the band in the middle of the first song, because I was scared to keep going — it felt like Flatt and Scruggs were going to jump right out of the wall,” he said in reflecting on their first meeting. “I’d hoped it was going to be even half that good and it ended up just taking my breath away.”
With The Earls of Leicester arriving on New Year’s Day in 2014 — and later amassing its many accolades, including Album of the Year at the 2015 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards — the band released their acclaimed sophomore album, “Rattle and Roar,” in July 2016 and, at the 2017 IBMA Awards, took home the Entertainer of the Year prize for the third year in a row.
But for Douglas, the most rewarding aspect of the Earls of Leicester lies in playing for a live audience and witnessing their reaction firsthand.
“One of the biggest payoffs for me is playing this music for younger people and watching them fall in love with it,” he said. “And even better than that is having the older folks come up to me and tell me, ‘I never thought I’d get to hear that music again.’ That’s when I know when we’ve really done our job.”
On “Earls of Leicester Live,” that generation-spanning appeal is undeniable, with the band’s sheer delight and wonder as infectious as each indelible melody. And as the Earls of Leicester transport the audience into a much simpler era, the album ultimately fosters a tender connection with the past, a sense of promise for the future and a newfound solace in the present moment.
“This music conjures up my childhood —it drops me off into a kinder, gentler place and I think it should do that for everybody,” said Douglas. “When people come to see us, we want them to forget about the outside world and all the stress or strife that goes along with it and hopefully hold onto that feeling for a while even after the show’s over.”
The Earls of Leicester will close out this year’s festival with a 7:30 p.m. headline set on Sept. 1.
Tickets and additional information about the festival, including the main stage schedule and information on all of the artists, can be found online at www.folkwest.com. Volunteer applications will be available on the website soon.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part with matching funds from Colorado Creative Industries.
The Earls of Leicester to close out 24th annual Four Corners Folk Festival
By Crista Munro