When dobro master Jerry Douglas looked at the recording contract for his new band, The Earls of Leicester, he realized he had a scheduling problem: The album was due in just 100 days, but for the next three months, he'd be on tour with Alison Krauss and Union Station supporting Willie Nelson. At least he didn't have to make many decisions about the material.
"If I was going to play any of those songs, I was going to play them the way I learned them and just pay homage," he says. "I don't think they could have been played better."
As the name Earls of Leicester implies (Leicester is pronounced Lester, mind you), the six-piece recreates the music of bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. These songs were some of Douglas' first inspirations. And the father of Douglas' fiddling bandmate, Johnny Warren, was a Foggy Mountain Boy for the last 15 years of Flatt and Scruggs' run together. He went on to play with Flatt in Nashville Grass until retiring shortly before Lester's death.
"I came in off the first leg of the tour, and we were all rehearsed," Douglas says. "We went into the studio, and it happened fast."
Douglas speaks with reverence and excitement when discussing those sessions. He was particularly pleased that the Earls' takes often ended within a second of Flatt and Scruggs' originals.
"It was like being them," he says. Though the Earls have played only a few shows since forming last year, each has been a special experience for Douglas. "Every time we play it, we come off stage grinning like possums. It's like we fooled somebody again."
But Douglas isn't really content with glorified cover bands, no matter how good the personnel involved is.
One of the world's best and most prolific dobro players, he's played on several hundred albums. Douglas has backed Elvis Costello and John Fogerty, and he's sparred with Viktor Krauss and Béla Fleck. His solo records have included his takes on jazz tunes and country standards, bluegrass anthems and even rock 'n' roll. He arrives in Raleigh with two new records out—Earls of Leicester's self-titled country re-creations and a document of a supreme dobro summit, Three Bells.
"I don't want to be predictable," he says. "I'm easily bored."
Unlike the Earls album, Douglas' other recent release, Three Bells, has been a slow process. Recorded with Blue Highways' Rob Ickes and The Seldom Scene's Mike Auldridge, one of Douglas' heroes, the project began as a way for the dobro trio to capture their instruments together. Auldridge, who died a few months later, had spent the previous decade fighting prostate cancer.
"We were happy just recording it. We just thought it was going to be a keepsake of something we did with Mike," Douglas says. "The farther we got into it, the more Mike wanted it to be a record."
Douglas and Ickes will be mentioned together when the nominees for Dobro Performer of the Year are presented in Raleigh. Since IBMA established the prize in 1990, they've collectively won all but one of the 24 trophies. Phil Leadbetter, the only person to beat them both, is in the running again this year, along with Andy Hall and Randy Kohrs. Douglas appreciates the recognition, but he's eager to welcome someone else to the club.
"It's better when you win than when you lose. But after you win it a few times, it's almost embarrassing," he says. "I'd like to see somebody else win it and I know Rob would."
Regardless of the outcome, Douglas will get plenty of time in the spotlight. Alongside country star Lee Ann Womack, he'll co-host and perform at Thursday night's awards show. Apart from his Earls of Leicester set and his emcee work, Douglas will also play with a star-studded line-up at Red Hat Amphitheater Friday night for the Wide Open Jam. It's a busy schedule, he says but he's not ruling out spontaneous collaborations, too. That should come as no surprise given Douglas' consistent productivity.
"I'm at a point where I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm just trying to see where the road goes," he explains. "I just want to be interested in something and follow that path and see where it goes."
In that spirit, Douglas is also planning an ambitious duet album, where he and each partner will write a song and play as much of it themselves as possible. He says there may be a few bluegrass and country musicians involved, but his wish list stretches far outside of those comfort zones. Of course, he'll have to find time between his work with Union Station, the Earls, his own band and his session work. That can be in short supply.
"I've gotta get a rush on here," he says. "I still need to lose about 30 pounds." He jokes that he might run from his Nashville home to Raleigh to lose that weight before co-hosting the IBMA's awards ceremony. Many critics doubted that North Carolina was a suitable home for bluegrass' big weekend, but once Douglas arrived in Raleigh, he realized that the Oak City works harder for bluegrass than Music City.
"We'd never had that feeling before anywhere, and it really felt great," he says. "I don't think there's a place where it would make more sense than in North Carolina. Bill Monroe's from Kentucky and that's cool, but Earl Scruggs and most of the good banjo players are from North Carolina. I like to call it the cradle of civilization, as far as bluegrass music is concerned."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Idol hands"