The last time Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas, and Rob Ickes appeared together on an album was 1994’s Grammy Award-winning The Great Dobro Sessions, where they were joined by seven other esteemed players of the distinctive instrument. When you gather a group of the best pickers working, it’s inevitable, and indeed hoped for, that there will be a little good-natured competition and one-upsmanship as the younger players demonstrate why they belong in the group while the oldsters show the kids what they still have to learn. That was certainly the case with The Great Dobro Sessions, and it added a charge to all the players involved. In the case of this album of three veterans of that project, the charge comes from a different inspiration. Eighteen years on from the Sessions album, Douglas, Ickes, and Auldridge have nothing left to prove to themselves or each other. This is, rather, a celebration of a different, and weightier, kind of opportunity: the last chance to play with one of the masters of the instrument.
Mike Auldridge spent the last 10 years of his life fighting prostate cancer. Never fond of the rigors of touring (there’s a reason the legendary band he co-founded was called The Seldom Scene), he remained active in recording projects during that time. But as Jerry Douglas explains in the liner notes, by 2011 everyone was aware that if they didn’t make time to sit down together and get this long talked about collaboration on tape, it wasn’t going to happen. So, they made the time and gathered at Auldridge’s Maryland home, where Douglas and Ickes let their elder pick the program and lead the proceedings.
Longtime fans of country and bluegrass will, no doubt, snatch up this collection upon its release, but those unfamiliar with the dobro, or resonator guitar, will find this an excellent introduction to the instrument’s distinctive sound and to three of its most talented players. Auldridge, who passed away in 2012 just after these recordings were completed, was — as already noted — a founder of the Seldom Scene and has been credited with bringing jazz and pop inflections to bluegrass music. He shares, with Douglas, the honor of being named an NEA fellow. Douglas has accumulated over 1,600 album credits, playing on 13 Grammy-winning projects, and has been a member of Union Station since 1998. Rob Ickes is a founding member of Blue Highway and a 13-time recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association Dobro Player of the Year Award.
The album, fittingly, leads off with Auldridge performing a solo medly of “Till There Was You” and “Moon River.” The tone is wistful but it is played with such matter-of-fact precision, such offhand confidence, that the dominant impression evoked is not melancholy, but contentment. Douglas and Ickes offer solo pieces as well, each spaced carefully within the sequence of the album to offer a rest from the aural complexity presented by the trio’s interweaving textures throughout the rest of the cuts. Douglas’ galloping “The Perils of Private Mulvaney” evokes the martial themes and tenor of Richard Thompson’s playing with Fairport Convention, while Icke’s more ponderous “The Message” employs an airiness resonant of Will Ackerman’s guitar work. Each piece is, of course, the player’s own, the comparisons serving to amplify the variety of technique and tenor heard.
When all hands are on deck for the eight other tracks, the players present a master class in collaboration. Its resonant, ringing tone makes the dobro a more complicated instrument to work in a trio setting than the standard acoustic guitar. There is a strong potential for the tonal similarities of the instrument to create a muddy or cacophonous mix when multiple instruments are layered together, but “we knew how to stay out of each other’s way”, as Douglas puts it in the liner notes. And they do, often by following the same melodic pattern before breaking off to provide counterpoint and color to the lead player. “Dobro Heaven” is a particularly strong example of this, starting off fairly simple but building layers of complexity and nuance as it progresses into a masterful weaving of instruments by its end. Sentimental ballads “The Three Bells” and “Silver Threads Among the Gold” benefit from the multiple “voices” of the instruments, while the jittery “Panhandle Rag” dances along with its multiple partners without missing a step. Their treatment of “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” conveys the soulful depth of the song without need for its lyrics.
Instrumental albums are often treated as background music, but this is one that will consistently jump to the foreground of a listener’s attention. It is a highlight among the many works of each of these three performers and a fitting tribute to the memory and talent of Mike Auldridge. Fans of the great guitar players of any genre will find much to enjoy here.
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Above photo: JERRY DOUGLAS by Eric Frommer via Wikipedia.