Artist: Jerry Douglas Band
Album: What If
Label: Rounder Records
Release Date: 8/08/2017
What if indeed. With Douglas a circular, rhetorical question for sure. This is a guy who has carved his way to the top and beyond with an iron will, hand and simply astonishing mastery of lapsteel/Dobro guitar. Without doubt one of the most important pickers on the planet, he’s generally associated, with good cause, as a bluegrass player. For seemingly countless years now, Douglas has been the go-to guy in Music City when tasteful and driving, fun and power fuelled sideman slidework is needed. With What If, however, he steps aside at times to allow his sidekicks here to blast through and over and above his own picking.
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that much of the initial impetus, the interest that drove Douglas to take up the instrument in the first place came not from Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt or Bill Monroe but instead from some decidedly more sedate but no less complex musicians, mostly from the world of jazz, with Weather Report and Chick Corea turning his head and catching his ear 40 years ago.
What If pulls in influences from a surprising range of backgrounds: blues, rock and jazz all feature together with his main moneymaker, bluegrass and modern country/Americana. Douglas has never been afraid of pushing labels aside in his search for arresting sounds and musical adventure. Like banjo-bashing Bella Fleck and mando-wizard Dave Grisman, he can and does turn his hand to almost anything that catches his fancy.
With What If, he has again pushed the boat way out, far beyond the comfort zone of many, to deliver an album that has horns where banjo or mando might be expected, and at times his own gravel-strewn voice to produce an unexpectedly confident stab at the blues; one track, Tom Waits’ 2.19, is clearly a straightforward, powerfully produced traditional, twelve-bar blues number where his picking and singing both combine to remarkable effect, and his take on the old rock-blues standard “Hey Joe” (his second recording of the track) is an up-tempo, driving tour de force. Add a few Celtic traditional sounding instrumental tracks to the mix and you have a release that is truly surprising, inspired, unexpected but beautifully done.