The IBMA Award and Grammy Award-winning Earls of Leicester are one of the most exciting bands in bluegrass. They’ll perform Feb. 15 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
As a child, Johnny Warren often sat in the dressing room of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium listening to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys bring fans to their feet with their distinctively spirited bluegrass.
Warren’s father, Paul, played fiddle in that storied band from 1954 until 1969. Today, Johnny Warren reprises his father’s role as fiddler with the Earls of Leicester, the bluegrass super group that brings to life the music, sound and style of his father’s famous band.
“When I was about 13, my dad was on the road and I picked the fiddle up,” recalls Warren, who will pull the bow Feb. 15 with the Earls at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
“He and I spent a lot of time together. It was really good father-son time,” Warren said. “We bonded in the music, and it’s been there ever since. I feel he still lives through his music. When we’re on stage, it’s like my dad’s there with me.”
The Earls of Leicester (named for banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt) was the brainchild of Jerry Douglas, multiple Grammy-winning Dobroist and Alison Krauss band mate. The Earls, one of the most exciting bands in bluegrass, have earned three Entertainer of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including last year. Their 2014 self-titled debut CD was named Album of the Year and also won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2015.
Douglas was inspired to learn Dobro by seeing the Foggy Mountain Boys perform when he was a child. Smitten by the sound of Dobroist “Uncle” Josh Graves, Douglas took up Dobro. Today, he is regarded as its foremost instrumentalist.
Flatt and Scruggs were among the most popular of all pioneering bluegrass bands. Multimedia darlings, they drew fans from farms of the South, thanks to appearances on the “Beverly Hillbillies” television show and their chart-topping recording of the theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” and counterculture enclaves such as San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom.
For years, Douglas had toyed with the idea of forming a band that would play Flatt and Scruggs songs and present a modern version of the Foggy Mountain Boys. His idea began taking shape when Warren and his friend, Charlie Cushman, a Scruggs-style banjoist, conspired to make a recording of Paul Warren’s long-lost fiddle tunes.
“I’d been wanting to do a tribute album to my dad,” Warren says. “He had reel-to-reel tapes in the closet upstairs. Charlie and I learned some of the tunes off those tapes that my dad did. Some were obscure fiddle tunes. We went in the studio and cut those.
“I called Jerry and asked him to come over and do some overdubs. He came over, and I said, ‘Would you mind throwing a little Uncle Josh on this?’ Charlie (played) Scruggs-style banjo and I’d been listening to my dad play. When Jerry heard that, he said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this. This will work.’ That’s where it all began.”
Douglas rounded out the sextet with Tim O’Brien on mandolin and tenor vocals, Barry Bales on bass, and Shawn Camp on guitar and lead vocals. The first time they played together, they knew they had tapped into the magic of Flatt and Scruggs.
“I remember the first night we hooked up,” Warren says. “We were sitting in Jerry’s living room talking about it. Shawn had his Lester Flatt hat on and his string tie. It was a real light moment.
“We went into the studio and started playing. We weren’t halfway through the first song, and we just quit. It was crazy how it was coming together. It sounded eerily how Flatt and Scruggs sounded in that era.”
Johnny Warren’s fiddling is a big part of the Earls’ sound. With his father as mentor, and the Foggy Mountain Boys part of the soundtrack of his formative years, it was natural that he’d learn to play in the style associated with his father’s storied band.
“I didn’t get to hear a lot of the other fiddle players, so I guess I was just programed to hear it that way,” he says. “So when I started playing, it wasn’t hard to play like my dad.”
As a bonus, Johnny plays the same fiddle his famous father played on the Flatt and Scruggs recordings and television shows from 1954 until the band dissolved in ’69.
“It’s special,” he says. “Very special. To me, it’s like the Holy Grail.”
One of the band’s goals is to allow young bluegrass fans to see and hear how bluegrass came together during the golden age of Flatt and Scruggs.
“This is not a tribute band,” Warren insists. “We’re just trying to reeducate people with the spirit of the music, bringing back what we listened to. It made you happy, made you smile and want to tap your foot. If you had a bad day, you could listen to that music and it became a better day.
“Hopefully, some young people will pick up on this and do what we did, and we can keep the music alive. That’s what we’re after.”
The Earls of Leicester
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Tickets: $35 and $45
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org