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One of the all-time highlights of the Festival of the Bluegrass occurred on a Friday afternoon roughly 15 summers ago. After a brownout shut down electricity throughout the Kentucky Horse Park in the midst of Jerry Douglas' set, the dobroist wandered out into the audience, found a large patch of shade and played unaccompanied and, in the truest meaning of the term, unplugged for 45 minutes.
But then, Douglas has been thrilling local crowds for decades, from his groundbreaking '70s tenure at Lexington's Holiday Inn North with J.D. Crowe and the New South, and subsequent sweeps of local lounges and college dorms with Ricky Skaggs in Boone Creek, to recent arena concerts as a featured member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
The fun continues on Glide, a new Douglas solo album that further redefines the repertoire and musical context of the slide-savvy resonator guitar known as the dobro.
There is a lightness of tone and temperament to much of this music, as in the misty Celtic textures that rise like steam around Route Irish and the subtle harmonic mingling with violinist Luke Bulla on the album's title tune.
Sure, there is a bluegrass foundation in much of the music, especially in the merry string interplay of the album-opening Bounce. Of course, Douglas left traditionalism behind long ago, and the tune quickly emphasizes a melody both plaintive and playful. But then, the tune also matches him with Kentucky-born mandolinist Sam Bush and world-class — and classically inclined — bass ace Edgar Meyer, who have been equally industrious in pushing string music into progressive territory.
But the musical cunning, stylistic depth and pure sense of adventure widen from there. Douglas opens Sway Sur La Rue Royale with a solo serenade on Weissenborn steel guitar that recalls the open, winding melodies of Leo Kottke's '70s records. But the tune, a New Orleans funeral march, quickly veers to its homeland with a strut of clarinet, sousaphone and piano as well as the processional snap of Doug Belote's drums.
Two vocal tunes enlist fine performances from a pair of country stars. A shooting-star saga of a drug-addled celebrity called Marriage Made in Hollywood is sung with refreshing reserve by Travis Tritt — so much so that one wishes Tritt might adopt similar dramatic modesty in the production and material of his own albums.
Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream) later brings in the tune's composer, Rodney Crowell. Recorded more than two decades ago by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band but never by Crowell, Long Hard Road benefits from an inviting homespun narrative, a spry country shuffle and some gentle but richly colorful exchanges between Douglas and another Crowe-era mate, guitarist Tony Rice.
Other delights include a Rice-and-Douglas romp with banjo giant Earl Scruggs on a homey take of Home Sweet Home, the welcome resurrection of sublime '80s material (the feisty title tune to Meyer's 1988 album, Unfolding, and 1989's Pushed Too Far) and a one-man Scottish medley of Douglas-designed strings titled Trouble on Alum.
Glide is dedicated to a dozen inspirations that have "gone clear" in recent years. Among them is Josh Graves, the veteran Flatt & Scruggs sideman widely viewed as one of the initial innovators of the dobro.
Given the album's musical finesse and expansive stylistic reach, Uncle Josh can rest easy. Douglas will take things from here.