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(Sugar Hill 3938 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/15/2002)
There are certain instruments that are always associated with particular styles of music -- the vibes with jazz, steel guitar with country music, the sousaphone with marching band music. Bluegrass lays claim to two instruments. More prominent is the banjo, though it has some applications in other music forms, most notably early jazz. The other bluegrass specific-instrument is the Dobro. A wooden guitar with a metal resonator, the Dobro, which was a trademark of the company that first made it in the early part of the 20th Century, has come to be played horizontally, with the strings raised high enough to be played with a slide bar on the frets, rather than like a conventional guitar, though that was not the original design. The sound of the Dobro, sometimes like a nasal guitar, and sometimes a plaintive cry, has become a staple in bluegrass, and has found its way into some acoustic country recordings.
Perhaps today's most prominent players on the Dobro are Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas. The latter has just released a new solo album called Lookout for Hope.
Jerry Douglas, who was born in Ohio, is a second generation bluegrass picker. He got his start in his father's band at an early age, after his father took him to a Flatt & Scruggs concert in 1963 while Jerry was still just a small boy. But he was smitten by the sound of the instrument as it was played by Josh Graves with Flatt & Scruggs, and the Dobro has been Douglas' passion ever since. Douglas began to achieve prominence in the early 1980s when the New Acoustic scene was just blossoming, and he was part of a vanguard of remarkable musicians who combined virtuosity with great eclecticism -- people like David Grisman, Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, and Edgar Meyer who were taking acoustic music with bluegrass instrumentation to places it had not been before. Douglas has always brought that wide range of musical interest to his playing, not being content just to play straight bluegrass. His versatility has also made him much in demand as a studio musician with, it is said, over a 1000 albums as a sideman to his credit -- as well as working as a member of such prominent bands over the years as J.D. Crowe and the New South, the Del McCoury Band, and the Country Gentlemen, and being a significant part of the Grammy winning soundtrack to O Brother Where Are Thou? Currently, he is a regular member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Over the years, "Flux" as he was often called, has released an interesting series of solo albums, with the emphasis on musical exploration, running from straight bluegrass to jazzy to traditional folk to Celtic. For his new album Lookout for Hope Douglas said he set out to combine his musical interests as much within each piece as possible, with previously disparate influences coming together in interesting, and generally quite organic ways.
The mostly instrumental recording features primarily original music, and has guest appearances by some prominent names on the acoustic scene such as mandolinist Sam Bush, founder of New Grass Revival, bassist Barry Bales and banjoist Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station, fiddler Stuart Duncan, saxophonist Jeff Coffin of Béla Fleck's Flecktones, and former Seatrain drummer Larry Atamanuik, who also plays with Alison Krauss & Union Station, as well as vocal tracks from Irish Singer Maura O'Connell and none other than James Taylor, on one of whose albums Douglas had previously played. Douglas himself is featured most prominently on his trademark Dobro, but he also plays some slide style guitar. Once again, he reminds us of why he has become the most prominent name on his instrument. His playing and musical inventiveness are quite impressive, and like Béla Fleck, Douglas uses his rather specialized instrument as just the basis to create fascinating new pieces that would be worthwhile regardless of the instrumentation.
The opening piece, though, it a cover tune, the Allman Brothers Little Martha. Douglas performs it with two Dobros by way of overdubbing. Douglas makes an impressive amount of sound with just his Dobros and Barry Bales' bass. <<>>
The first of the eclectic romps is an original piece called Patrick Meets the Brickbats. Its primary direction is a kind of high-energy bluegrass, which gives room for other soloists including Stuart Duncan. <<>>
The first of the vocals is Footsteps Fall, a tune written by English singer-songwriter Boo Hewardine. Irish vocalist Maura O'Connell, one of whose CDs Douglas produced, appears in the tasteful arrangement. <<>>
The album's title track, Lookout for Hope is a kind of acoustic jam, the 10-minute long piece written by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, with whom Douglas did an album. Making a guest appearance and giving some jam-band credibility is Trey Anastasio, the guitarist and founder of Phish. Douglas says that in creating the piece, he decided he would use string instruments to serve as the percussive elements, with the two mandolins and acoustic bass playing in a way that emulates a drum-set. As interesting as the playing can be, unfortunately, the piece falls into the kind of jam-band trap -- a bit too much instrumental noodling for a bit too long. <<>>
One of the most entertaining examples of the stylistic fusion on the CD is The Wild Rumpus. Jeff Coffin appears on a pair of overdubbed saxes. It's well-described by its title, borrowing from everything from bluegrass to rockabilly to the soul-styled horn arrangements. <<>>
Rather more laid-back in sound is Senia's Lament. It's another distinctive stylistic amalgam. <<>>
About as far from bluegrass as you'll find is the track called Cave Bop with its high-energy bebop jazz influenced freneticism. There's some outstanding playing by all, especially Douglas himself. <<>>
The CD contains two solo pieces, on which Douglas switches to an instrument listed as the Kona guitar, which Douglas plays with blues slide technique. The first is a short original piece called Monkey Let Out the Hogs which recalls the style of Leo Kottke. <<>> The other is a beautiful and plaintive version of the traditional song The Sweet By and By. <<>>
The album ends with the track featuring James Taylor's vocals. It's a poignant piece by songwriter Hugh Prestwood called The Suit, the story of an old Nebraska farmer and the elegant suit that he wore, in what turns out to be the last occasion for which he would need it. The combination of Taylor's vocals and the tasteful instrumentation by the gathered players make this a real highlight of the CD. <<>>
Like Béla Fleck and his banjo, Jerry Douglas has taken his instrument, universally associated with bluegrass, to lots of creative and unexpected musical destinations. In a more than two-decade career as one of the leading Dobro players and a first-call studio musician, Douglas attempts to distill his various music interests into a creative acoustic fusion sound that both highlights his stylistic versatility and also shows the remarkable range of emotions, from the plaintive to the playful that the Dobro can in sufficiently expert hands exhibit. It's a great example of the combination of creativity and virtuosity that mark the elite players of the New Acoustic scene.
Unfortunately, from a sonic standpoint, giving Lookout for Hope a B-minus is being a bit charitable. The instruments were recorded well enough on high-tech digital equipment, but the amount of audio compression used either in mixing or mastering is inexcusable for a mainly acoustic recording. This gives the higher-energy tracks a more rock-like quality, but the processing erases a lot of the subtlety of the softer passages, giving them an in-your-face sound, inappropriate for the music, and undermining the subtleties of playing by most of the musicians involved.
With literally hundres of albums containing his Dobro, Jerry Douglas has come forth with about his eighth solo recording that again provides great listening and a reminder of how a creative player can break a musical instrument out of its stereotypes.
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