Earls and Jerry Douglas

Earls of Leicester and an interview with Jerry Douglas
Thomas Point Bluegrass Festival, Brunswick, Maine
August 31 2018
by Kathy Hicks Murray

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I sighed as I slowed in a sea of glowing red taillights on I-95 north in Portsmouth, NH. There was a certain sense of irony that I was now stuck in the Labor Day traffic I had previously cautioned Jes, Jerry Douglas’ press contact, about.  I just kept moving northward as quickly as I could. Making a brief stop at a gas station just outside Brunswick, I sent Jes an email to let her know that I was almost there.  Thankfully, it seemed Jerry would be about ready just when I arrived. 

When I pulled through the gate, I received my yellow ‘Band’ wristband and was directed up to the entertainment area to look for the members of the Maine Guard Safe security team. After driving a complete circuit around the whole campground – really a nice set up with showers and everything, I came back around and met Matt, who motioned for me to follow him.  After talking with the coordinator, he opened up the middle parking area and had me park next to his car. I quickly grabbed my notepad, pen and purse, and went over to speak with the coordinator to see where I would meet up with Rob Stokes, the tour manager. He would direct me to my interview with Jerry Douglas.  She pointed to the tour bus that I was parked almost next to, and I smiled, thanking her, and headed back that way as she radioed him to let him know I was on my way.  I was rounding the back of the bus as Rob was walking down the other side, and I heard him say into his radio that he just found me. I smiled and introduced myself, and he said he would go inside and see if Jerry was ready.

Just as the door to the bus closed, up walked the tall, sunglass shaded Jerry, who was looking for Rob. I said that he was inside, looking for him for me.  He laughed, and invited me to follow him inside.

Mind you, I’d not even been around a tour bus since I was a very young child, when my dad would open for various different major label acts. This bus was seriously nice, and from the looks of it brand new, and I just tried to act nonchalant as I stepped up, pulling the door shut behind me.

When I walked into the main compartment, Barry Bales was sitting at the kitchen table, he looked up and nodded hello, and I turned slightly left to follow Jerry down the hall, and smiled at Jeff and Shawn, who warned me that it was dangerous back there, with a wink and a quick grin. I laughed at his joke, now feeling completely at ease. I felt like one of the group again. I both love and miss that feeling.

I followed Jerry to the back lounge, and he offered me the seat next to the table since I would need it for writing. I asked him if he minded me recording the interview, and he said not at all. So we sat comfortably, and began chatting, him asking me a few questions and talking about the Pemigewasett Festival. And then we heard a knock at the door. He said, “Yes, come in?”  But no one answered.

He opened the door, no one was there, and said ‘Hello? Did somebody knock?” Everyone at the other end of the bus said no. He looked at me and said, “Didn’t you hear it?” I nodded. He closed the door saying, “Ghosts. There are ghosts in this bus already. And it’s a new bus.” He chuckled. The punster in me just had to comment, “I thought it was a ghost in this house,” referencing the Alison Krauss and Union Station remake of the Shenandoah song.  He groaned at the bad joke and then settled back in, asking what the interview was about. I told him mainly him and The Earls of Leicester, bringing the conversation back around to my first question.

LMN&R: How did The Earls come into being? How did you go about selecting the musicians for the group?

JERRY: I’d been sort of canvassing for a long time; the thought was there to put the band together – someday. I had been thinking about this, oh gee whiz, twenty years.  But I wasn’t really in the position to do that, or to have the time to devote to getting it all together, and record and do all the things that go on with making something successful out of something like this. But I’d been just kind of keeping my eyes open for the people that I felt could fill the spots and we could sound the most authentic. Charlie (Cushman) and Johnny (Warren) were a no brainer, and so was Barry (Bales) for playing the bass. And the only pieces I didn’t have, for sure, was the lead singer, because I’ve known people who I’ve met down through the years like Alan O’Brien, (lead tenor/banjo player, Nashville Bluegrass Band).  He was like, to me, he’s the guy to do the Lester Flatt parts. But then, he kind of lost his voice about fifteen years ago, and it was tragic.  He just couldn’t project; it was a physical thing. So l had to rethink that one. And then I thought, Tim O’Brien would be great, and he is, and was. His mandolin playing wasn’t exactly like the mould we were trying to fill, but his tenor singing was definitely there, so easy it would just fall right out of him. He’s one of the most natural singers there is in the whole genre. Then I thought of Del McCoury, and I was like nah, Del is Del. He’s iconic. As iconic as Flatt and Scruggs.

So at the last minute my wife says, what about Shawn Camp? And he had not even been on my radar. And I thought, well, I’ve done records with him. I wonder if he knows ‘The Stuff‘. I wonder if he grew up listening to this as a kid. You know, it kind of has to be infused in you for you to be able to channel these people and be able to play like they play and have the same sort of impulses they had, be able to bounce off each other like that band did. And, sure enough, he (Shawn) showed up at the first rehearsal in garb, you know? With the hat, and the suit and the tie, and the attitude and everything. We did the first song, and halfway through it I just got cold chills because this is it. This is as close to that sound as I’ve ever heard. I mean, we don’t do them verbatim, but we try to be as authentic as possible and try to conjure up that image.

Even the way we dress. Which  [Flatt and Scruggs] didn’t dress that way, they wore different suit coats. The bass player, Jake, and the dobro player, Josh, were a comedy team and they wore crazy hats. But, everybody wore one of those ties. That was the sort of ‘socks alike’ mentality, was having the tie.  So long as you had the tie, and the attitude, you were in. So we got the tie, white shirt, dress pants – and we’re talking a lot about the dress code here. But it’s kind of important, as a visual for the audience. I want it to be more like a movie, more cinematic, than just be musical. And now it is that. It’s really grown to that. But Shawn showing up in it, was like ‘oh hell, he’s ready to go now.’ So, yeah, he was the catalyst of the dress code (laughs). But when we started playing and singing, it just froze me and I realized: this was it. We needed to get in the studio as soon as possible and capture this.

And also, we made a deal with each other that if it ever became like a job, that we would stop, because then it wasn’t fun. This should be fun, you should feel like you’re six, eight years old seeing Flatt and Scruggs for the first time. Playing this music should make you feel good, and it does!  It’s still happening and we still feel that way.  We’re still coming up with different things, and people are telling us stories wherever we go. People who actually saw them, tell us things we didn’t know about them. And we’re sort of unearthing a lot of hidden territory that they had. And a lot of older people are coming up to us and saying, ‘I never thought I would ever hear that again.’  And you know, that really makes you feel good, you feel like you’re doing the right thing. And then you have the younger audiences going ‘what is that?’ because, you know, they think that Alison (Krauss), Tony Rice,  Ricky Skaggs, and myself created bluegrass music, which is so totally wrong. You know, they need to find out where we came from. I get a lot of young kids come up to me saying, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before.’ And I say,  ‘Then, you need to go buy this record and this record and this record. It’s class, it’s time for class.’ You learn that, you learn how to construct and play a solo, how to write a song, how to do a show. There are so many fundamentals and building blocks there that people have forgotten. There is some etiquette involved,  like when the lead singer is singing. Earl Scruggs was always heard because he was a part of that brand, but there was also somebody accenting the vocal or backing the vocal, but not two people, never two people because if you get too many things happening, you disturb the focus – it’s like a beam of light. You don’t divide that up because then nobody knows who to look at. So we are sort of bringing that rule back into this kind of music.   Rule number one is to listen to each other, decide what’s going on, and then build from there. So there were definite rules that Flatt and Scruggs laid down, and that stuck and that’s one of the reasons why they were so successful.

We spoke a little about my growing up in a musical family, and performing with my dad, and he shared his experiences playing with his own father’s band.

JERRY: It allowed me to graduate from there to being a professional musician. It wasn’t such a leap from the ground up because you had some training, you’d been on stage and knew what to do with a microphone. You knew not to make really weird faces. It taught me so much, before I ever thought I would even use it. And that lead to producing records, knowing what to play on records, and when not to play. And all those kinds of things. And also it leads to a happy life. A musical life.

LMN&R: How long have you been out on tour this run?

JERRY: Well, we don’t go out for long periods of time. We’ll go out for two weeks at the most because everybody does something else. We are a band, but well, we’ve got Barry who’s playing shows with Alison this summer.  I’ve got my big band with horns and everything, I’ve got solo gigs, I’m going to Italy with Tommy Emmanuel, and I’m also doing this tour with Emmylou Harris called the Lantern Tour. Emmylou asked me at Telluride a long time ago, and I checked my schedule and it lines up great because I’ll end up in New York and fly from New York to Italy, so it couldn’t be any more perfect.  And I’ve played with everybody on the tour at one time or another, so, yeah. Why not? And what a great thing to do it for. It’s like, please let me do this.

LMN&R: Where were you coming from? 

JERRY: We were in Sellersville, PA two nights ago, and we got up here last night. A friend of mine invited us over to just jam around this big fire, and we ate lobster rolls and smoked cigars. (Laughing) It was like my idea of Heaven; they better have lobster rolls and cigars in Heaven. The fire, not so much. But it was so great, and it was all friends, people that, you know, I’ve got some really good friends up here that I don’t get to see very often and they were there and it was just amazing. To have a night off on the road, in a place like that, to be able to do that kind of thing, that doesn’t happen. Usually you’re stuck in some place where you know no one, and there’s nothing to do, you’re forced to rest. Which you should do. But we didn’t yesterday.

LMN&R: You said earlier you’re going on tour with Tommy Emmanuel.  Love the name of that tour, by the way. ‘The Tommy and Jerry Show’. That’s adorable.

JERRY: (Laughing) That tour starts in Tourin, Italy. I’ll fly into Milan, and I’ll just wait for them there and we’ll all go over together.

LMN&R: (chuckling wryly) That’s a heartbreak.

JERRY: (grinning widely) Yeah, it’s terrible. Just awful, and we’ll be hungry the whole time, and there’s no food in Italy.  Not like it’s on anyone’s bucket list or anything (laughing). We’re playing in all great cities too, it’s a wonderful tour. You know he (Tommy) does it all the time; he never stops touring, and he’s international. I think we’ve already booked, for November next year, I think Germany, Norway, and Russia.

LMN&R: You just got nominated for the CMA Musician of the Year again.

JERRY:  Again (laughs).  Again is the word. I have three of them. And that’s fine, that’s great, I love it. I mean you don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but it’s a little strange that they vote for the same five people every year. It kinda seems like, why are we doing this, you know?  The result will probably be the same too, and that fella, he’s a little embarrassed about it. But you accept it, you know, gracefully, and go on.  And then next year can start. Hopefully it will change, you know there’s so many great musicians in Nashville that deserve to be on that list; and why they get it down to five people. You know, awards ceremonies are, and again I don’t want to sound like I’m not grateful for these things. They’re wonderful, to be recognized by your peers. But even your peers, after five or ten years, are going, ‘Hey?’ Award shows are good to make you nervous for a week, then at the end of it, there’s the big thrill and then it’s over. And, (laughs) there’s no check. But there’s all this critical acclaim, and that’s good too.

LMN&R: Now the Grammys on the other hand, those are pretty nice, right?

JERRY:  Grammys are nice. I love Grammys, although it has become a bit of a spectacle.  I like the Grammys, that is a totally peer related award, it’s not voted on by the public. You’re voted on for your merits by your peers, and that’s the only award that is. I’ve been really lucky there, it’s been nice. I’ve got fourteen, and I produced like five or six more that we didn’t get awards for at that point – you know they keep changing the rules about who they give Grammys to.  But, they’re wonderful to get, they’re valuable in that they’re great things to be a part of your legacy, and in building your career. It’s all great. But it’s really not why we do it, and it kind of comes down to that. It’s like, to some people, it’s more important how many Grammys you have, than how happy you are doing what you’re doing. And not everybody who’s got a ton of Grammys is happy. So that sort of negates that for me a little bit. I know some very unhappy people who have waymore Grammys than me, so, yeah, I don’t measure life on how many awards I have.  If that’s what your drive is, I hope you get them, but if that’s what makes you happy, you got problems.

LMN&R: That’s where your ego is more involved in your career than your love of what you’re doing.

JERRY:  Yeah! I mean, I should be a really, really poor, penniless person, cause I love playing music so much, the money doesn’t make any difference to me. I mean, it’s been nice. I’ve been able to raise a family, have a roof over my head, and all those kinds of things, and it’s been wonderful. I’ve had a wonderful life and career. But, I’m a gypsy. I would have played for nothing. What we charge money for is the travel from A to B. But the music is totally free.

LMN&R: A good friend of mine, Jackie Venson, she’s trying to get her career of the ground. She’s a blues guitarist/singer out of Austin, TX; I actually shot her on Sunday.  But, you know, it’s the same thing, she loves what she does, she’s just trying to get her music out there, and she’s just trying to get her basic expenses paid, so that she can keep doing what she loves doing.

JERRY:  Yeah. It takes some money, you know, to grease the wheels, and it takes some money to get from A to B too. You have to have transportation, and representation – on a lot of fronts.  You have to have a record company or something in line to get that stuff out there for your music to be heard.  A booking agency, there are so many things, so many ducks to line up. And if you’ve got all those ducks lined up, and they’re all firing together, things start happening. They really do. But it’s a difficult thing to find those people and to have them all interested at the same moment in time.

LMN&R: You said that Barry is playing with Alison off and on.  Will you be going back out with her any time in the future?

JERRY:  No, not that I know of. It’s sort of like, there is no ‘Union Station’ right now. We’ve recorded, and there’s stuff in the can, stuff that’s recorded and about finished. But I don’t know. (Laughs) I don’t know what’s going on. We just kinda stopped and went five ways. And when we all get back together, if we get back together, those are the only people that can make that sound.

LMN&R: You’ve had two singles come out so far for your new album, ‘Live at the CMA Theater’ that’s due out on September 28th. Any plans for another before the full release?

JERRY:  Yeah, I think there’s another one coming out, dropping real soon. I guess we can think of them as singles, they’re videos and the records. ‘Long Journey Home’ and ‘Earls Breakdown’. I think the next one is ‘White House Blues’ maybe?  It’s blazing, just great. But the plan is, for the CD to come out at IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) at the end of September. Also, there’s a really good chance that the vinyl will drop at the same time. And…they’re not the same. The song selection is different. The DVD will have songs that neither one of those will have. So we divided it up, and I just went well this will fit on here, this will make this different, you know. And even the sequence is different. I took from the two shows, and the two shows are exactly the same, but all the dialog between changed. We just go on spur of the moment, whatever is bounced around, that’s what we go with. We had this moment where Shawn had to tune, and I just made up this fictitious company called ‘Hamway’, not Amway, but the same kind of thing – but with all meat products. So there’s a commercial for that on there. And the ‘Martha White’ commercial got way out of hand both nights, and we edited that down so there’s that. And there’s all kinds of strange little – I mean Shawn’s the straight guy, and I’m the guy who says, like in the song ‘Til the End of the World Rolls ‘Round’, I say here’s a song about space travel. Something they (Flatt and Scruggs) would have never said. And we’ve got new things coming around all the time, just our stuff between songs is weird.  It’s not what Flatt and Scruggs would have said, I’ll say that. But they did have a song called ‘When that Sputnik Dog Comes Back From Outer Space’. But that was during that time.

LMN&R: I don’t want to take up too much more of your time.  Before I go, do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

JERRY:  Oh yeah, I mean, I don’t think it ever ends – and that’s not good news (laughs). I think there are plateaus you reach, as you’re learning how to play. You get to a plateau and you think, ‘I’ll never get passed this, I’ll never learn anymore.  I’ve reached the end of my knowledge and know how.’  Well, the only way to get through that is just play. And then sooner or later, you go, ‘Wait a minute. I’m passed the plateau!  That doesn’t exist anymore, what I was worried about is behind me.’  And that’s sort of the way the whole thing evolves. But the first things, it’s like I was talking about a little while ago, about ‘The Rules,’ you know?  If you can learn how to be in tune, be in time, and how to listen to whose playing, and to everything that’s going on around you, and try to be a part of that, but not to distract from whatever is leading at that moment. If you can support it without distraction, that’s a fine art. And there are all these little perks along the way, you know?  You get your first gigs, your band starts to sound good, people are writing songs, you find your identity. You get a legion of people who follow you around from place to place, and who show up in different parts of the country, you know, as it builds. And it just grows and evolves, like any living thing. Playing music means that you have to really love it, because there’s a lot of obstacles in it, a lot of things that try to set you back. You just kind of have to keep in mind why you wanted to do it in the first place. You have to revisit that once in awhile. Keep that fire burning, and learn the business of music. It’s very important, because no matter how good you get, and how popular you get, a part of the reason you are where you are is because of the business of music. You can’t just go out and play and not keep an eye on your finances.  And keep building your band and your ideas, coming up with new ideas and keeping things fresh. I think that’s what makes people successful.

I thanked Jerry for the far more time than I could have hoped for interview, and we stepped outside where he and Rob checked for a couple EOL stickers for myself and the band Colebrook Road, who had been on the bill with them at the Pemigewasett Bluegrass Festival. I had talked with the fiddle player, Joe MacNulty, a week prior about seeing if I could get one for him.  I thanked them both again, and shook their hands and headed back to my truck to stow some of my stuff and walk around a bit. I wanted to take a second to extend my thanks to Jess, Matt and Tim from Maine GuardSafe for helping me maneuver around the festival!  They are wicked awesome people and a great security team!

At about 8:15pm I saw Tim drive the big golf cart with the Earls down to the stage, so I grabbed my gear, notepad and pen and followed. The Lonesome River Band was just going into their second encore when I got myself situated down in front of the stage. The Earls came on to roaring applause, and they went right into the blazing  ‘Earls Breakdown’, with Charlie leading, Johnny and Jerry each taking a few smoking solo breaks of their own.  The Foggy Mountain Boys always worked comedy into their show, and the Earls definitely do not hold back in that department. Jerry announced at one point in the show, that Barry owns a farm in Tennessee, where he raises animals for meat.  Apparently, Barry had come out with a hair product from the meat by-products. Jerry explained how Johnny had needed something to tame his hair before the show. So, Johnny took off his hat to reveal his gleaming bald head, and the crowd roared with laughter.

During the set, everyone but Charlie and Johnny went off stage, presumably for Jerry to have a ‘cigar break’. Charlie and Johnny had done a few solo banjo and fiddle albums together, and they played a trio of great instrumentals that had the crowd wanting more when the other guys came back up to join them.  They continued the set with the awesome ‘Big Black Train’, Shawn’s powerful tenor carrying out across the festival grounds. Keeping up with the Flatt and Scruggs routine, they played the infamous ‘Martha White Theme Song’, and another song that had me chuckling the whole time, called ‘Hot Corn, Cold Corn’ about making moonshine. What had me laughing was Jerry kept yelling “Hot!” and Charlie kept yelling “Cold!” across the stage at each other throughout the whole song, while everyone continued along.  They played through an impressive twenty-nine song setlist with and additional two encores, and probably could have kept going.  They finished up with ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ (again, one of my favorites), to a huge standing ovation, then packed up and went over to their Merchandise table and met with the fans for a good hour or two after the show.

I hung around until the crowd had died down a bit, and thanked Jerry again and asked if he would mind getting the guys together for a picture, and if they would sign my notebook for me. He did better than that, pulling a CD out of the road case, opened it up and signed it, then handed it back to me to have the rest of the guys sign it as well. Then he gathered Shawn, Jeff, and Charlie (Johnny and Barry had disappeared, I think to the bus), to take a picture. I thanked them all again, and even got a hug from Jerry (aww ☺️) before I headed out on my own Long Journey Home.

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Earls of Leicester

Jerry Douglas

Jeff White

Shawn Camp

Charlie Cushman

Barry Bales

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