Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the greatest Dobro player of all?
Faced with that query, most magic mirrors would probably respond by saying that Jerry Douglas has been, and is, the premier Dobro player of our time.
And who could argue?
As the featured soloist for the multi-Platinum, multi-Grammy, multi-(pick an award) Allison Krauss and Union Station, Jerry Douglas has been raising the bar for what passes as virtuosity on that instrument for decades now. From time to time, Douglas has also ventured from his “Allison Wonderland” to record and tour with a deep and stunning Who’s Who of élite musical acts. His personal list of awards from the music industry could make the much decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps blush from feelings of inadequacy.
On his new CD, “Traveler,” Jerry Douglas appears to be calling in favors by enlisting the help of some of the great artists he has worked with over the years, as well as some new acquaintances from the “A” list of the music world. The roster of heavyweights that contributed to this project is impressive; Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, Mumford and Sons, Marc Cohn, Paul Simon, Dr. John, Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and more! Now add the genius of Douglas and, on paper this would appear to be a blockbuster recording simply by default.
Make no mistake, some great music has been poured into the 11 tracks on this album, but the project is not without flaws.
Track one, “On A Monday, “is an old blues tune written by Huddie Ledbetter, aka “Leadbelly”. Jerry Douglas takes the lead vocal on the song and does an admirable job. Immediately we sense a shift in focus away from the bluegrass music that Douglas is so closely identified with to more of a blues oriented direction. On the Leadbelly tune, Jerry is playing what sounds like a biscuit bridge Dobro, which has more of a nasally, Delta Blues sound to it than his usual glassy sounding spider bridge Dobro. Dr. John adds a signature piano part, Del McCoury sings the harmony, and the album is off to a fine start.
The second song, “Something You Got,” features a lead vocal and guitar solo by Eric Clapton, and another blues bent. Jerry plays the electric lap steel on this one, which, in parts, sounds as if he is impersonating the great blues bottleneck guitarist Derek Trucks. One begins to get the notion that Jerry Douglas was bitten by the blues bug during his recent collaborations with both Trucks and Clapton. The song, as good as it is, sounds as if the musicians were a bit disconnected during it’s creation, and they probably were! You see, in today’s digital age, the musicians don’t all have to be in the same place at the same time to record a song. You can record a drum track in one studio, digitally transfer it to another studio where a bass guitar track might be added, then send it to another studio to add a piano, and so on, until the featured artist gets an almost finished song to add his or her parts to. With the myriad of schedules undoubtedly possessed by musicians of the caliber we find on this CD, it’s a safe bet that they probably had to record at least some of the songs on “Traveler” in this fashion.
So now we come to one of the problems I find with the production of this CD. This piecemeal approach to recording is real convenient for everybody working on a project like this, but it doesn’t always lend itself to the best recorded performance. Why? Because there is no direct interaction between the musicians and singers and no consistent input from production people that allow a musical piece to blossom, develop a soul and pass over from the realm of a bunch of sounds to the world of art. A quick glance at the liner notes reveals a long list of recording studios and engineers located all over the world where parts of this album were recorded, pretty much confirming what I had suspected.
In contrast, the third song, “So Here We Are,” sounds as if there was some eye-to-eye during the recording. It is a jazz-rock flavored instrumental co-written by Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss, and Omar Hakim, who just happen to be the musicians who played on the song. This composition may have been a studio-write. Jerry plays an effortless sounding overdriven lap steel on the cut. It is powerful, modern sounding, and gives the impression that they had fun doing it.
We’re three tsongs in now and we’ve already got a lot going on here, but we’ve only just begun our trip. Still to come are guest appearances by the remaining cavalcade of aforementioned superstars, a beautiful Celtic piece on acoustic Dobro, a Paul Simon song done instrumentally that segues into the Chick Corea composition “Spain,” an amazing banjo solo by Bela Fleck, real hot bluegrass, and a whole lot of other pleasant surprises. I would have to say that my favorite cut on the album is “Right On Time,” which features a laid back soulful vocal from Mark Cohn. The biggest disappointment of the CD to me is the cut featuring Allison Krauss and Union Station. The song they perform, “Frozen Fields,” is repetitious and just kind of lays there. It’s saving grace is that Ms. Krauss could probably sing the owner’s manual for a 1978 Datsun B210 and it would still sound sweet.
This CD contains a lot of great performances by a lot of great musicians. It is diverse in its musical makeup both in genre and dynamic. The scary thing about Jerry Douglas is that, as fabulous a player as he is, he is still learning, still growing, still branching out and stepping into other musical realms. Not only does Jerry Douglas seem to be absorbing and analyzing the musical world around him, but on “Traveler, “he actually takes the listener on little excursions to some of its far off lands, leaving his own indelible mark at every stop along the way. This is a great CD, one that could have been a landmark recording with a little more face time between the musicians, and a bit heavier production. Mirror, mirror indeed! In all his musical adventures on this disc, one would be hard pressed to find anyone along the way who could face themselves in the looking glass and deny that Jerry Douglas is still the greatest Dobro player of our time.
“Traveler” earns my Four and a Half Banjo String Rating, out of a possible five.
Written by Dan King