Taking a second look at the two-album deal he had recently signed with the Rounder/Concord group, and then at his busy upcoming touring schedule, Jerry Douglas suddenly realized he didn't have a lot of time to waste. The first album, "Three Bells," a collaboration with fellow resophonic guitar (aka "Dobro") titans Rob Ickes of Blue Highway and the late Mike Auldridge was pretty much ready to go, the sessions having been completed shortly before Auldridge's passing in December 2012 following a lengthy struggle with cancer.
Still to be recorded, however, was "The Earls of Leicester," a tribute to the music of Douglas' inspirations, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, with a new cast of "Foggy Mountain Boys" drawn from Douglas' Nashville peers. Working quickly, Douglas, a member of Alison Krauss' Union Station since 1998, had both albums ready by early September, with "Three Bells" slated for mid-month release, while the "Earls" would officially debut in late October.
The Earls Of Leicester -
"People ask me, 'Why did you have these records come out at the same time?' I didn't originally plan it that way. It all kind of came down to me signing my contract...I had ("Three Bells") finished, and I'd been telling everybody for months, 'the record's coming out, the record's coming out.' Well, I wanted that record out first."
On realizing the time crunch facing the "Earls" project, he says, "I had to go right into the studio at the end of May and make this record with these guys, and it just happened to be done at the same time, and that's why they came out together."
"Three Bells" was, Douglas says, a project that he and Auldridge had discussed upwards of 30 years before becoming reality after bringing Ickes, an Auldridge disciple on board. With Auldridge's illness clearly heading into its final stages, it was clearly a bittersweet and, as Douglas describes it, "cathartic" time for all three.
"(Mike and I talked) about recording something together, just having something that we recorded together. And then it got to this point, and I'm thinking, why did we wait? Why did we wait?... Let's just do this. I don't care if it ever sees the light of day, I don't care if anybody ever hears it, we'll have it.' That's a little selfish, but that's how I felt about it. So, we started making the record... and it was happening so fast, it was so good, that Mike was going, 'This has gotta be a record. I want this to be the last record I do.' "
Douglas pauses a moment and continues, "That's a little frightening, to hear that come out of somebody, but that's the way it went...his last overdub, the last time he played, was 'I'm Using My Bible For A Roadmap'."
The album's title track is familiar to American country and pop audiences from the 1959 English version by The Browns. An earlier version by French pop singer Edith Piaf with Les Compagnons was also widely known, but Douglas says it was a yet earlier version by Les Compagnons alone that inspired their instrumental version.
"Their version was beautiful, it had all these parts...a lot of (music) theory involved, and a lot of moving parts underneath the vocals, and we tried to do our version from that...I used a metal baritone guitar that was built for me by a guy named Larry Pogreba...and it's like a bass." He drops his voice an octave or so for emphasis, "Like a 'bass Dobro'. So we added up all the instruments we could use, we could do all the parts that we heard them do and – just beautiful, beautiful."
An immediately apparent aspect of "Three Bells" is the absence of a backup band throughout.
"My initial thought was to have a band...very, very early on. Then I started thinking, this will be a whole lot more special to all of us if we just do it ourselves, and don't bring anybody else in. I've done a lot of experimenting with that over the past few years, of just layering parts and using loops, and things like that...So I thought, let's keep it just the three of us. And yeah, they thought I was nuts – until they heard it. And nobody missed a thing. One of us would play low, taking up that register, and we just kind of got out of each other's way...so it wouldn't be three Dobros playing in the same register all the time."
Though the name "The Earls of Leicester" didn't come along until much later, a project to recapture the magic of listening to Flatt and Scruggs he had experienced as a boy in Ohio had long been on Douglas' "wish list."
"(Flatt and Scruggs) certainly didn't want to be called a 'bluegrass band' because, you know, there was a rivalry (with Bill Monroe) there still, in their minds. Even though they had a TV show, they had sponsors, they had radio shows...and Bill Monroe never did anything like that. As far as I'm concerned, there was no competition, but Bill Monroe did what he did, and I respect that. But to me it was Flatt and Scruggs."
The final lineup, in addition to Douglas' Dobro, included Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Charlie Cushman on banjo, Barry Bales on bass and Johnny Warren (son of longtime Foggy Mountain fiddler Paul Warren) on fiddle. It was the addition of Shawn Camp in Flatt's guitar and lead vocal role, however, that sealed the deal.
"(Shawn) sang in his own voice...(It's) so close, to me, to the combination of Lester Flatt and Hank Williams, which – they were peers. But they came out of a time when you sang the melody...with all of its ornamentations, and then you were a 'stylist'. What you did with those ornamentations was what set you apart from the other singers. And Lester Flatt sang, he was a 'crooner' just like Bing Crosby would have been...he didn't 'shortcut' the melodies, he didn't 'sing through' changes in the melodies, he sang the real melody – and it's something that's missing in today's bluegrass music."
"That's one of the big reasons that I wanted to do this record, and wanted to do this kind of music, to reintroduce this back into the bluegrass mainstream. Because there are so many things missing, and a singer like Shawn Camp doesn't come along every day and give a reading of a song like 'Some Old Day' or 'On My Mind'...He puts a lot of extra work into it that you don't hear, not many people do, and it makes him a better singer, and it gives the listener a better picture at the same time to go from."
Wrapping up a long conversation, Douglas returns to the subject of having two "dream projects" coming out simultaneously.
"I'm kinda glad they did. It's really good for Dobro, just to have people hear a sort of snapshot of where Dobro playing is right now, compared to the older Josh Graves style with the Flatt and Scruggs thing...just three Dobros out there, naked to the world, by three of the best purveyors of the instrument right now. It's good timing, and I think it's good music, and you know, those two records have already been successful in a way that they were one and two on the bluegrass pre-sales chart at one point on Amazon. And then, at the same time, 'The Earls of Leicester' was number one ahead of George Strait and Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum and all of these other people, and it was number eight overall in Pop – right between Tom Petty and 'Frozen'. "
"That kind of thing doesn't happen," he laughs, "But there it was."