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Earls Of Leicester Mix Bluegrass With Gospel And Honky-Tonk On 'Rattle & Roar'


This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the new album from The Earls of Leicester, a bluegrass band formed by some of the biggest names in that genre, including dobro player and producer Jerry Douglas and singer Shawn Camp. The band's debut album won a Grammy last year. The new album is called "Rattle And Roar."


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) I ain't going to worry who's kissing you when I'm far away 'cause I know when the tomcat's gone, all the mice will play. I ain't going to worry what's going on when you're out to paint the town. I ain't going to worry where you stay when you're out running 'round. I just ain't - just ain't. I just ain't - just ain't. I just ain't.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Earls of Leicester began its existence as a tribute band to the music of the great bluegrass act the Foggy Mountain Boys, led by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Earl, Lester - Earls of Leicester, get it? The jokey name aside, the six men who formed this band are a bluegrass supergroup that recorded this album in one room. You can hear that kind of glorious unison singing and playing on a song such as "Faded Red Ribbon."


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) A lock of your hair and a faded red ribbon is all I have left to remind me of you. A lock of your hair and a faded red ribbon is all I have left of the love we once knew - is all I have left of the love we once knew. I know I...

TUCKER: I'll be honest with you. I can usually take bluegrass music in small doses only. To my ears, it gets repetitious fast. So what I like about the Earls of Leicester, whose members include group founder Jerry Douglas on dobro, Charlie Cushman on banjo and Johnny Warren on fiddle, is the variety of the music that they make. Yes, it's always rooted in the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. But it stretches the sound in various places here, into the blues and country music as well. Take, for example, "All I Want Is You," a mournful ballad of yearning and loneliness that wouldn't sound out of place on a hardcore honky-tonk album.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) I don't need a lot of money or a mansion to be whole - don't want a ship that sails the ocean blue. I won't look for hidden treasure. I found a love that's true. That's all that really matters now 'cause all I want is you. I got a diamond ring...

TUCKER: The Earls don't avoid another influence on bluegrass, which is gospel, a music rooted in religiosity that they perform with a ringing directness, scrubbed clean of piousness or excessive solemnity. Listen to the way the band covers "Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep," a composition that could tip over into novelty song status, but The Earls keep it upright, proper and precise.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) My mother prays so loud in her sleep, she wakes all the neighbors with her sweet dreams. But no one complains. Their hearts feel at ease when they hear mother praying so loud, loud, loud - when the mother praying so loud in her sleep.

TUCKER: At the other extreme from religious music, there's a song such as "Branded Wherever I Go," in which we hear the voice of a convict writing from prison. He tells his true love not to wait for him because he'll always be a doomed man, marked with the shame of the crime he committed.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) I received your letter you wrote, dear, in which you said you'd wait for me. I'm asking you to please not wait, dear. It will only ruin your life, I see. Please don't wait for me, darling. We could never been happy, I know. I'll always be an ex-convict and branded wherever I go.

TUCKER: This album, "Rattle And Roar," lives up to its title. It rattles and roars as frequently as it howls and croons. You begin to appreciate the way The Earls have taken this music, much of it from Flatt and Scruggs recordings in the 1950s and '60s, and turned each song over - looking at it from different angles, deconstructing the essence of the melody and the lyric, and reassembling it for a new generation of listeners. The result is music that sounds as vital as any kind of popular music being made today.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Rattle And Roar" by The Earls of Leicester.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the microbes that live in and on our bodies and how they contribute to our digestion, immunity, the triggering and suppression of inflammation, body weight, general health and disease. My guest will be Ed Yong, author of the new book "I Contain Multitudes." I'll also ask him about probiotics and how effective they are. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) Now where was you when the train left town? Standing on the corner with my head hung down. Hey, the train done carried my girl from town - hey, hey, hey, hey. I wish to the lord the train would wreck - kill the engineer and break fireman's neck. Hey, the train done carried my girl from town - hey, hey, hey, hey. Her ration's on the table. Coffee's getting cold. Some dirty rounder done stole my jelly roll. Hey, the train done carried my girl from time - hey, hey, hey, hey. There goes my girl. Somebody bring her back. She's got her hand on my money sack. Hey, the train done carried my girl from town - hey, hey, hey, hey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

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