Bluegrass music and I had to work to find each other. Though I grew up in North Carolina, I did so in a classical music household with enough good indie music on the radio to keep me preoccupied until college. I knew naught of the high lonesome. Then, in Chicago of all places, a couple of cassette tapes and some thread-following from a Grateful Dead habit led me into a torrid love affair in the bluegrass promised land. I say bluegrass met me halfway because of the far-reaching, sophisticated vision and variety of the guys we know now as the Telluride House Band, especially Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Their albums with Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and others brought together everything I loved then and love now about music, from compositional intelligence to emotional expression to groove and improvising. I was smitten, and nobody smote me more than Jerry.
Jerry “Flux” Douglas seemed to be everywhere I looked and listened, from the cerebral massage of Strength In Numbers to the down home bluegrass of Boone Creek to Skip, Hop & Wobble to Alison Krauss and so much more. He was at every festival and on most every album that seemed worth buying. I hung on every silvery picked note and every vocal articulation of his steel bar. When I discovered that he lived in Nashville, that actually became one of my validating signals that moving to Nashville to settle down might be a cool idea. And sure enough, within a month of arriving I was ten feet from Jerry at a CD release show at Tower Records, my jaw agape. I got to meet this mighty, wide-ranging musician and discovered he was easy going and whip smart and very funny. I got to ask all the questions I’d built up and I’ve been able to write about Mr. Douglas quite often over the years. And still, this seems like a well of intrigue with no bottom.
The Jerry Douglas Band plays this week with an MCR lineup that simply defines modern roots music. The amazing Billy Strings is to bluegrass guitar what Tony Rice was in his generation. Jill Andrews writes and sings with the grace of an Appalachian Joni Mitchell. And Birds of Chicago offer a piquant take on the vocal duo. It’s going to be magic, but first I have to say a few more words (endless words) about Jerry Douglas, because of where he is right NOW. When last we saw Jerry it was in the formal attire of The Earls of Leicester, as traditional a bluegrass band as there is. Now he’s swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum with a full-blown jazz fusion album that’s due in mid August. His reconfigured band has two horns along with the exceptionally adventuresome and skilled Christian Sedelmyer on fiddle and Mike Seal on guitar. What If channels Jerry’s love for Chick Corea and Weather Report, with swift unison themes, tricky grooves and overtones of art rock. In its intricacies and ensemble intelligence, it’s shaping up as my favorite Jerry Douglas solo project since 2002’s Lookout For Hope, which as it happens has an earlier version of What If’s opening track “Cave Bop.” If you are refining your love of instrumental music and bluegrass crossover, you don’t want to miss this set.
We first saw Billy Strings at Roots in May of 2016 and it was a stunning performance that exceeded even my high, hyped up expectations. The guy’s so young and dynamic that it’s anybody’s guess how much and in what way he’s grown and changed since then. Young William Apostol grew up in a musical household in Michigan and made his reputation in a fiery traditional duo with mandolinist Don Julian. Now a band leader with an EP out and a full-length in the works, Billy blends the musicality of the Hartford/Grisman side of bluegrass with an edgy attitude and endless possibilities.
We’ll also welcome back Jill Andrews for the first time since she released her gorgeous 2015 project The War Inside. It’s a deceptively combative title for an artist with such a warm, bliss inducing voice, but she does write about some of life’s internal conflicts and she rocks out more than in her past folk-leaning work, in tandem with the sound sculpting producer Will Sayles. Recent news from the East Tennessee transplant includes sharing dates with her friends the Avett Brothers. It’ll be great to catch up with this stellar artist and hear the latest music and news.
And debuting on MCR this week will be Birds of Chicago, a collective type group centered around singer songwriter J.T. Nero and his wife, vocalist and wind player Allison Russell. Writing last year for NPR, Jewly Hight had this to say: “Real Midnight, their Joe Henry-produced second studio album, finds Russell and Nero memorializing the intense, freewheeling, all-too-fleeting attachments of youth ("Remember Wild Horses," "Times And Times"), eulogizing fellow dreamers ("The Good Fight") and meditating on mortality ("Sparrow"). . . .The title track, a drifting country-soul ballad, pivots from trepidation to rapture, as two lovers cling to each other, hungry to share in empathy and sensual pleasure.” Their music is as delicious as her descriptive language.