Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the grand opening ceremony of the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, NC, where it was wall to wall banjos and bluegrass. The various events and the museum itself celebrate a musician whose career should be taught in every school because he’s an icon of American ingenuity, like Henry Ford or Mark Twain. I mean don’t even get me started on Earl. So much more than the world’s greatest banjo player, he was an innovator who sought change and challenge. He helped invent bluegrass with Bill Monroe, refined and popularized it with Lester Flatt and then ushered in a newgrass revolution with his sons in the Earl Scruggs Revue. He’s most museum-worthy.
I invoke Earl because this week Roots is welcoming a group that honors what many see as Earl Scruggs’ most fruitful and galvanizing period – his 22-year run with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Contemporary bluegrass star Jerry Douglas is the name on our poster, but the band he’s bringing is called The Earls of Leicester, an all-star six-piece that faithfully recreates the rich and historic repertoire of what many regard as the greatest band in the history of bluegrass – the very essence of the genre. Back then it was Flatt and Scruggs on guitar and banjo respectively, plus fiddler Paul Warren, mando man Curly Seckler, bass player Jake Tullock and Jerry Douglas’s dobro hero, Josh Graves. The Earls band features MCR regulars Shawn Camp and Tim O’Brien, plus Charlie Cushman on banjo and Barry Bales on bass. They sport string ties from back in the day and they cover seminal tunes like “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and “Some Old Day.” I don’t suppose we have to tell you about Jerry Douglas’s stature as the dobro player who transformed his instrument nearly as profoundly as Earl did the banjo. He’s been on the cutting edge of acoustic music for decades now, whether with visionary string ensembles like the Skip, Hop and Wobble band, the Telluride House Band or Alison Krauss & Union Station. Jerry’s latest solo album is a diverse project called Traveler, and the elite guests on there like Paul Simon and Eric Clapton show how far his influence and seductive sound has reached. It’s been a while since we had Jerry at the Loveless, and for me, there’s not a more vital and creative instrumentalist out there.
Besides the ghost of Earl we’ll welcome a King to the stage in the person of Ray Benson. It might not be right to call him the King of Western Swing, since the late great Bob Wills will always hold that title, but Ray’s his rightful heir to the throne. Forty years leading Asleep At The Wheel, the great Austin swing and country band, earned him that honor, at least in my eyes. While around 90 musicians passed through Asleep At The Wheel, long, tall Ray remained the constant as the group won nine Grammy Awards. His autograph is etched into the top of Willie Nelson’s weathered guitar Trigger, like a roots music version of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. And we are lucky to be welcoming Ray on the eve of the release of A Little Piece, only the second solo album he’s ever made. He proudly declares its eclecticism in its liner notes, and it only takes a few songs to realize we’re not in Asleep At The Wheel territory. Co-produced with Austin music guru Lloyd Maines, it’s sonically gorgeous. There are killer country and pop songs, jazz balladry and others with a bluegrass beat. The songwriting, he says, is “introspective and personal.” Helping with the acoustic sounds is the awesome Milk Drive, who backed Ray in the sessions and who will be Ray’s band on this album tour. But what am I looking forward to most? Ray’s astonishing booming voice, which rides the line between bass and baritone. It’s a sound as big as Texas, but as he shows on A Little Piece, there’s a lot of tenderness and nuance in it as well.
We’re continuing on with a stretch of particularly strong lineups (we must be doing something right) and so the rest of our night could make its own show. We open with Seryn, the Denton, TX sextet that blew our minds last winter. Their final song that night, called “Paths,” was so magisterial that we decided to end the last episode of our first public television series with it. We’re welcoming The Deadly Gentlemen, a band I’ve been fascinated with as they’ve emerged from the Boston music conservatory scene and evolved in their sound. They feature innovative banjo player and humorist Greg Liszt, mandolin prodigy Dominick Leslie and guitar master Stash Wyslouch, a heavy metal dude who got bluegrass religion. And our MCR buddy Adam Chaffins recently became their bass player! Their wonderful new album Roll Me, Tumble Me is on Rounder Records, and let’s just say if you’re into the Punch Brothers, you have to check out these brothers as well.
The Loveless Barn is a popular locale for weddings, but nobody’s getting hitched when Matrimony takes the stage. This is a quartet on the make with origins in Charlotte, NC. I first hear about them via the Americana festival a couple of years ago, and they’re now a great music trivia answer to the question: who was recording at Jay Joyce’s Nashville studio when it almost burned down from a lighting strike? They make lush and comforting folk rock and I’m looking forward so much to seeing them for the first time.
There’s much to look forward to no? Come join our royal retinue on Wednesday night.