With the Earles of Newtown, there’s a legend with a guitar, a banging new rhythm section and ju-ju in a derby. The nonet from Nevada City plays what it calls “Swingin’ Dixie.” Listeners might confuse the sound with hot jazz or swing and mistake the name for an entirely different band of Earls, such as The Earls of Leicester.
Let’s try to explain.
First, there’s only one Earle, band leader Earle Ford. The band grew out of a jam about six years ago on Earle’s front porch on Newtown Road. After the musicians were hired for a show, they came up with the name The Earles of Newtown.
Earle Ford wanted to start a Texas swing band after he and banjo player “Texas Dave” Wilcox had traveled through the Lone Star state. Ford said he couldn’t get Bob Wills, “The King of Western Swing,” out of his head. However, his trumpet didn’t fit well with Texas swing, and the Earles of Newtown became a horn-heavy band that plays old-timey, downhome New Orleans jazz with contemporary lyrics.
“It’s nice that people can associate it with something they’ve heard before and liked, but I am hoping they say, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before,’ ” Ford said. “It’s nice when you hear ‘New Orleans.’
“We’re not swing because with swing the first thing that comes to mind is the Cherry Poppin’ Daddys and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and that’s a completely different avenue from where were going. Then when they think hot jazz, they think Django Reinhardt in a quartet. It’s tough. That’s why we went with the Swing Dixie thing.”
Ford shares lead vocals with Chad Conner Crow.
“Earle calls me General Madness because that’s what I’m in charge of,” Crow said. “It’s a little bit of a nod to Frank Zappa and to Captain Beefheart because we’re kind of that strong duo that somehow gets along up front as vocalists.”
“You could say we are the feral rebels of this jazz culture attempting to bring the folklore and style to a new generation with swift and elaborate solos, modern subject matter and great dance appeal.”
When he’s not engineering the Skunk Train from Willits to Fort Bragg, California, Bob Woods plays electric, acoustic, lap and pedal steel guitars with the Earles of Newtown. An inductee to the Western Swing Hall of Fame, Woods collaborated with “The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest” Utah Phillips, a train-hopping folk singer and labor organizer who lived in Nevada City the last 21 years of his life.
“He’s a pretty legendary guy,” Ford said.
“We call him ‘Dizzy Fingers’ because he’s an elaborate, amazing guitarist,” Crow said. “We’ve been giving him some more room to open up. That new rhythm section has pushed us to a new level.”
Bassist Adam Metroka and drummer Reid Alan Kurks are so new to the band that they don’t yet have nicknames.
Crow said he wears a different hat, each with its own persona, for each band in which he has played. He also currently fronts a blues band, Great Grit and Grime.
“I’ve been born a ham. Kind of a born performer who had to learn how to sing,” he said. “Most recently, I’ve kind of developed into that derby hat guy. People say I remind them of this other guy in a blues band. More recently, I’ve been trying to morph myself into one person. That was kind of my initiation into the band, Earle giving me that hat.”
“I’m convinced the hat’s got some ju-ju in it,” Ford said. “Surprisingly enough, I have a matching one. The hat is 110 or 120 years old. It was a little too big for me and not quite right, but when Chad put it on, it was him. It’s become his signature thing. Someone at a show told me, ‘Every time I think of the Earles of Newtown, I think of the guy in the derby hat.’ ”
The derby, or bowler hat, reportedly was designed in 1849 to protect horseback riders from low-hanging branches on the estate of Thomas William Coke, who also had a nickname: The Coke of Norfolk. Coincidentally, Coke was the 1st Earl of Leicester and was a parliamentarian in Derby. After he died, his constituency was abolished, kind of like when Paul McCartney left The Beatles and the band broke up.
And the Earls of Leicester? That’s a bluegrass band that plays the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Struggs, and has nothing to do with the Earles of Newtown.
The bee’s knees
The Earles of Newtown debuted at the Crystal Bay Casino on Dec. 28, 2017. The group has a strong fan base in Reno, where it has performed in The Saint several times.