Jerry Douglas is no decaying relic. He is a respectable country gentleman whose flawless dobro playing is venerated by many, yet he’s seldom recognized outside of the bluegrass community. His contributions run deep, from his ongoing gig with Alison Krauss and Union Station, to his groundbreaking work on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. He has played with countless other legends, tucked thirteen Grammys into his belt, and played on over two thousand records. Jerry Douglas is to roots music instrumentalists what T- Bone Burnett is to producers. Such is the formidable mountain of accomplishments to proceed his latest solo album Traveler, a collection conceived by Douglas as a way to stretch his playing and honor musical friendship.
The title sets the listener up for a legendary attempt at world music fusion. However, the bulk of his musical travels are still within the confines of the Southern United States, often bouncing between Nashville and New Orleans, with a few trips across the pond thrown in for variety’s sake. Given the possibilities of his instrument, one might expect him to experiment with a few non-Western melodies to authenticate his traveler status, but it only makes sense that Douglas prefers to pitch his tent around the pentatonic scale. The arrangement of instrumental and vocal tunes between one another make the forward progression of Traveler feel like a journey. It is a dazzling, yet understated, showcase of the influence of Douglas’ legacy among a cross section of fabled songsters including Eric Clapton, Marc Cohn, Keb’ Mo’, Alison Krauss, Mumford & Sons and Paul Simon. Other notable backups include Sam Bush, Dr. John, Béla Fleck, Omar Hakim, and Del McCoury.
With friends like these Jerry Douglas has no need to prove himself, and his playing reflects that attitude. As a guitarist, it is all about the purity of his tone and nuance of his phrasing. The seeming effortlessness of it all is compelling. As always, he continues to exhibit flawless technique and taste, but Traveler seems to lack some of the adventure he has exhibited live and on previous solo albums. A solid selection of cover tunes shine the brightest among a “hit and miss” selection of original instrumentals. All of the stand-out tracks feature Douglas as a support player, which is perhaps what we should expect. The exception is the success of his first lead vocal outing on the first track “On A Monday”, which is a free playing take on a Leadbelly classic that is as playful and laid back as his guitar playing. But it is his collaboration with Mumford and Sons on an unpretentious cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” that serves as the album’s highlight. This track and “Frozen Fields” (featuring his bandmates from Alison Krauss and Union Station) have a pulse that lend themselves to Jerry Douglas as an artist. His playing and collaborations are best the closer he sticks to Nashville. Conversely, the instrumentals and New Orleans-inspired tunes often lack the kind of soul needed to move them forward and out of the realm of mediocrity. This is not a criticism aimed at Douglas as a guitar player, it is merely an observation about the risks that a flawless support player takes when he is willing to stretch his boundaries and take the lead. Of the instrumentals, “Duke and Cookie”, “American Tune/Spain”, and “King Silkie” work the best. But the southern rock inspired “So Here We Are” and the vaguely Irish “Gone to Fortingall” suffer from sweeping melodies that never quite develop.
With these things in mind, Traveler may not be fully satisfying, but it is obviously a labor of love. There is a consistent flame of craftsmanship and friendship that burns underneath. This record sounds like it was made among, and for, friends. One can’t help but compare Traveler to the kinds of collaborative projects that greats like Herbie Hancock have so brilliantly put together over the last few years. Like jazz, bluegrass has never been a solitary endeavour, and the communal aspects of these genres generally play out beautifully as collaborations, even though not everything works on this collaboration.
Jerry Douglas’ track record as a supporting actor attests to the fact that he has always been after beauty and not just self expression. This album bears the weight of this impulse within the Americana tradition. These virtues are heard in this album and will continue to mark Douglas as a musicians’ musician. Traveler furthers his reputation as a player that understands music’s ability to break down barriers and cultivate relationships. It is only appropriate that this release falls upon the heels of the death of Earl Scruggs (whom Douglas played with on his 2008 album Glide) and Doc Watson. A collection like this from an instrumentalist like Jerry Douglas is a fitting tribute to the influence of roots music and human friendships.