Near the middle of “What If,” the fascinating new album by the Jerry Douglas Band, is a tune called “Butcher Boy.” It opens with nocturnal creeks and some swirling notes of muted trumpet from Vance Thompson that sound like Miles Davis playing in a dark alley. The work slowly coalesces before that distinctive dobro sound that Douglas made his own decades ago emerges. When he chooses, the instrument’s wiry slide lead can seem as inviting as a back-porch conversation or as dramatically plaintive as the darkest of folk tales. “What If” runs to both extremes, but on “Butcher Boy,” Douglas’ playing falls somewhere between the two. It slides and swings with jazzy candor, but the overall picture it creates is country-esque. A visual equivalent would be an open field where the natural pageantry and beauty is accented by a few storm clouds.
That is just one snapshot from Douglas’s first album with his fusion group since a pair of hardcore bluegrass records fronting the Earls of Leicester. Where the Earls are devout torchbearers of Flatt & Scruggs tradition, the band that bears Douglas’ name uses the newgrass inspirations he helped pioneer beginning in the 1970s as springboards for adventures that escape the bluegrass atmosphere completely.
The album opening “Cavebop” bows heavily to jazz, not just in its brass-accented colors and solos but in the tune’s dizzy sense of swing. But once the dobro enters, sounding vastly cheerier than on “Butcher Boy,” the country feel is unavoidable. Then guitar, sax and acoustic bass take solos over a groove that’s heavily bebop in design. That’s the kind of fusion mix that has always fascinated Douglas and its sense of invention is proudly on exhibit throughout “What If.”
Douglas’ cover of the 1960s tune “Hey Joe” might raise eyebrows with an animated pace and a rugged shuffle that gives the tune’s murderous story line a curiously homey feel. But the fun comes in the central melody, which is transformed from a rockish blues into an acoustic car chase that highlights the band’s bright, agile instrumental command.
There are a few intriguing revisits on “What If,” too. An update of “Unfolding,” a gem of an Edgar Meyer composition that Douglas first played on in 1986, is updated with an arrangement that highlights the complementary combination of dobro and horns. Later, “Freemantle,” co-written with Bela Fleck originally cut for Douglas’ 1987 album, “Changing Channels,” becomes a playful mix of grassy accessibility and jazzy ingenuity.
It should be noted that there was another great album titled “What If” that was released by the Dixie Dregs in 1978. It, too, used dashes of cordial country inspiration (in the Dregs’ case, though, it was more Southern rock-rooted) as the means for a new brand of fusion music.
The biggest sentiments both records share, however, are the extraordinary musical possibilities they present in answering the question that their projects’ joint title poses.