There's a dilapidated country barn pictured on the front cover of Jerry Christmas, with a field of barren trees gracing the back. Both are covered in snow.
The brown and white tints to the photographs add to the scenery's unblemished Old World cast. But seeing Jerry Douglas's name inscribed in the upper corner of his new holiday album insures that this winter setting is going to give way to come very cool yule indeed.
If you've lived around Lexington for any length of time, then you were hip to the wildly progressive yet traditionally conscious string music Douglas fashioned for the dobro long before luminaries like Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, John Fogerty and, of course, Alison Krauss recruited him for recordings and national tours. So knowing his country and bluegrass heritage, as well as his ability to design daring new soundscapes for the wiry, wily dobro, heightens expectations for what Douglas can do with holiday music.
Needless to say, Jerry Christmas doesn't disappoint. On the opening The First Noel, Douglas creates a hearty, fireside feel with multiple dobros and very discreet colorings of lap steel guitar. O Holy Night operates with similarly hushed reverence, although the magic this time is the string harmony Douglas creates with violinist Luke Bulla and the bowed bass support of Todd Parks.
Douglas could cut an entire album at this mood and tempo and it would still be a winner. But ever since he played Lexington haunts over 30 years ago with J.D. Crowe, Douglas has been a crafty player, an instrumentalist as stylistically cunning as he is virtuosic. As such, Jerry Christmas enjoys smacking us in the face with a snowball or two.
The biggest leap comes on Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, on which Douglas puts the dobro down and pumps up the marimba and toy piano for a feel that is altogether Tom Waits-like, right down to the wheezy grunts the band leader offers as vocals.
A bit less frightful to the little ones is New Year's Eve, a lovely tune about glancing back before reaching forward by British songsmith Boo Hewerdine. It is sung with typically regal reserve by one of Douglas' most trusted allies, Irish-born vocalist Maura O'Connell.
In its best moments, though, Jerry Christmas gives familiar holiday yarns the slightest of rhythmic spins, like the way electric guitar and brushed percussion provide a subtle sway and twang for Do You Hear What I Hear? Then there is the wintry comfort of Vince Guaraldi's Christmastime Is Here, which opens into new areas of spacious warmth with dobro and Guthrie Trapp's concisely orchestrated guitar support. It does A Charlie Brown Christmas proud.
In the end, Jerry Christmas is every bit the country Christmas card its cover suggests. But much like Douglas' inventive playing, it expounds upon the familiar in ways that are endearing, engrossing and quite often unexpected.