december 2009

jerry douglasJERRY CHRISTMAS
Jerry Douglas
E1 Music

Anyone who’s followed Jerry Douglas’s solo career knows when he gets together with his similarly exploratory mates he likes to find out how much a song’s melody can be stretched and remolded from its original shape and then returned to the state from whence it came. Interesting, then, that on his exemplary Jerry Christmas celebration he teases with hit-and-run improvisation, suggesting where the path might lead, but takes care to return to the familiar melodies and emotional touchstones in his mostly traditional and familiar repertoire. It’s beautifully done at every turn, and where some may wish for more progressive excursions into improvisational dialogues, others may respect as Douglas’s honoring both the songs in their original, beloved forms and the power these selections exert over the feelings and memories of most listeners, presumably Douglas too.

Case in point: Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.” Douglas adds a brief, ruminative intro to the song, then plays a version faithful to the great Guaraldi original, but at a slightly slower tempo, adds a fleeting couple of bars to the melody near the end, then seems to take care to evoke the sound and feel of the original, minus a piano, but also without any additional color in the way of dobro filigrees. Similarly, in the poignant “All Through the Night”—a children’s tune not normally associated with the holidays, but its winsome mood is appropriate to the overall tenor of this outing—Douglas precisely and gently picks out the melody on dobro as Guthrie Trapp delicatelyfashions a second voice to Douglas’s on guitar, while Luke Bulla’s mellow strings add a voice both soothing and evocative. Speaking of voices, there are some human ones on the album, too. Think the incomparable Maura O’Connell, delivering heartache of an epic order on Boo Hederwine’s melancholy, Irish-tinged ballad, “New Year’s Eve,” with Douglas’s rippling commentary sounding the inner turmoil O’Connell withholds from a tear-stained confessional. And lo, the star, Douglas himself, makes a rare vocal appearance, in the album’s comic relief number, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” croaking what the liners describe as a “scary vocal,” in a lumbering, oom-pah arrangement that might be inspired by the twisted perspective of latter-day Tom Waits taking a grumpy view of Kris Kringle more suitable for All Saint’s Day than Saint Nick’s day.

Though Douglas himself is the star of the show with his remarkably personable dobro, his basic band of Todd Parks (bass) and Guthrie Trapp (guitar, mandolin) insinuate themselves into the arrangements in a wondrously low-key fashion. Fiddler Luke Bulla, last heard from in these pages discussing his new group WPA in an October 2009 cover story, has several arresting star turns fashioning some of the sweetest, most affecting fiddle lines this side of Stuart Duncan, while allowing himself the slightest leeway to break away from the standard melody line, then reign it back in—his lilting, backwoods solo on “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” illustrating the respect with which these musicians approach the material in its stating of and variations on the theme before falling back into the ensemble mix to make way for a sprightly but tender mandolin solo from Trapp that suggests the breathtaking wonder of the Nativity event. At other times, Bulla is so in the moment, adding the most beautiful, soft strains to Douglas’s introspective reflections—witness the subtlety of Bulla’s entrances and exits in a melancholy “In The Bleak Midwinter”—as to evince a poet’s understanding of rhythm and color in advancing a lyrical line. Jerry Christmas may not be the album you hear about most this Yuletide, but the point is it will be around for seasons yet to come, because its evocation of time and life experiences is the stuff of enduring holiday fare. -–David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024