Jerry Douglas, who stands center stage before you now in the form of this new, masterful, and wide-ranging album, started his professional career when he was sixteen, the son of a steelworker, living in Warren, Ohio, and playing his instrument of choice, the Dobro, in bars. He’s absorbed the sights and sounds around him and transmuted them into his own unique art by developing an eclectic style of playing and composing for the Dobro and other subspecies of resonator and slide guitars. His most clearly audible source is bluegrass - the genre in which he started and over which, if you ask me, he now presides. He has also conscripted and deployed: jazz, with its imperative to improvise; the raw emotion and twang of country music; the plaintive ragas of Indian sitars; Native American modal melodies; the sonata-allegro structures of classical music; Hawaiian music, with its sunny harmonies and marine swells; the note-packed virtuosities of Celtic tunes; woebegone New Orleans funeral marches; Dixieland’s brassiness; gospel; and the blues. In other words, just about everything. You will also find folded into Douglas’s music a great many other ingredients, among them rain, children’s games, rivers, and a large amount of weeping - to say nothing of hogs, the war in Iraq, locomotives, confetti, bourbon, machine guns, and the entire cosmos.
For all this variegation of influences and interests, two constants pervade Douglas’s performances and compositions, and they are, as he has said in a recent conversation, “in some tension.” These creatively conflicting constants underlie all of the arts; one is discipline and the other is playfulness. “I always try to stay loose when I perform and when I record,” he says, “but I always worry that if I get too far away from the main idea, the whole thing will fall apart.” He wants his audience to embrace this paradox as well. “I want the music I play to be challenging, but I don’t want it to sound that way.” We start “messing around” randomly when we’re young children, and in many ways to grow up is to become more orderly, but in the course of that process we often tend to lose the delight of messing around. Successful art - and, in particular, music of any real texture - picks up what’s lying around, musically and otherwise, and creates designs from it and then leads us back through and by means of formal design to a kind of exalted play, in which order is at once questioned and maintained. It’s no accident that the same simple verb applies to musical instruments and to games.
You can think of Jerry Douglas’s artistic development, from his earliest, pure-bluegrass days to this newest CD as a continuing maturation - an ever-increasing instrumental mastery, a broadening of scope, a wider range of emotion, an expanding openness and generosity. He just keeps growing up. The origins of the pieces on “Glide” show all these qualities. In his own composition “Sway,” for example, you can hear the bereft sound of a Bourbon Street funeral procession interrupted by an upbeat Dixieland interlude - as those marches often are. “I wanted the slow section to sound as if it was about to fall apart,” he says with a laugh – “to be on the edge of breaking down. Katrina is in there somewhere. Then the faster section is defiant and joyful.” Douglas wrote “Trouble On Alum” - a Scottish-sounding jig bookended by a more serene melody, to illustrate the river painting of William Matthews, the American artist of nature and the West. (Alum is the name of a creek in West Virginia.) When asked about the whirlwind-fast, downward-spiraling Dobro licks in the up-tempo part, Douglas says, laughing again, “They’re like signatures. They’re like signing my name with some flourishes.”
The laughter interspersing these quotes is perhaps more nearly the point of citing them than the quotes themselves. For Douglas has great fun with his music. He says, “I enjoy what I’m doing so much that after performing I sometimes say to myself, ‘I’m getting paid for that?’” The people who join in this fun with Douglas are similarly playful and accomplished - Douglas’s talented band and guests like his friend Edgar Meyer, the great bass player; Sam Bush, mandolinista supreme; Travis Tritt, the rough-and-tumble, truck-driver-voiced country singer with a surprisingly pretty falsetto; banjo pioneer/giant Earl Scruggs, about whom, simply, the more said the better; and Rodney Crowell, one of our best singer/songwriters. The whole recording at first seems like a cross between a jam session and something stricter - a recital. But if you consider the sense of play and the musical authority that, with a tributary of social consciousness, run beneath the songs here like powerful underground watercourses, you’ll understand that it’s not only wonderfully complex but also clearly of a piece.
Oh yes - and not only global but also profoundly American.