Ed Gerhard House of Guitars (Virtue 2001) and Jerry Douglas Lookout for Hope (Sugar Hill 2002)
There’s no doubt that the guitar is the most popular instrument on earth. It’s very easy to master three chords and strum a song, but tremendously difficult to play well. It’s light, portable, and capable of almost unlimited expression, and, well, it sits on your lap and makes nice sounds. More than once I’ve actually witnessed guitarists on festival campsites (look away if easily shocked) sleeping with the things ….
Ed Gerhard is someone whose love for guitars clearly knows no bounds. He loves them so much that he’s turned his home into something of a guitar orphanage, a “House of Guitars.” Over the years he’s amassed quite a collection of cheap and cheerful outcasts, rejected by their previous owners once something more exotic, expensive and (let’s face it) playable came along. Gerhard (clearly a romantic soul) has decided that these “wallflowers” were all once someone’s first love and so deserve another “time in the sun,” instead of just growing old in dusty cases.
There’s something else though … Gerhard also decided to record these instruments in exactly the condition that he obtained them. Consequently there’s a plastic-topped Maccaferri with 35 year old strings, a Danelectro bass with a rattling pickup, and a host of other “quirks” on his album, House of Guitars.
So, an idea that’s either completely charming or perversely pointless, but what does this CD actually sound like? Jaw- droppingly brilliant, in a nutshell. The track listing is truly inspired for an album dedicated to “first guitars.” How many young guys, practicing away, have dreamed that one day they’ll get that awkward lump of plywood and wire to impress a girl with Paul McCartney’s “Junk,” dazzle their local folk club with an instrumental version of”Shallow Brown,” or sing the blues like some Delta ghost? Gerhard does all these things and more as these old, battered guitars come “alive,” in his hands and make the music that others may have dreamed of, but never got to play.
It’s the hands that make the difference, of course. Hands that have spent years in total dedication to mastering this instrument, practicing, practicing, performing and practicing some more.
This isn’t a “pointless” CD at all, nor is it merely “charming.” It’s a stunning demonstration of what’s possible when you get a player who really is “in love” with guitars. It’s also a damn fine collection of music which bears a lifetime of listening in its own right.
Having listened to this CD a few times, I succumbed to the inevitable temptation. I reached into the corner of my room (behind the expensive and reliable Takamine, the hand-made bouzouki and the trusty Epiphone) and pulled out my 40-year-old Hofner arch top. It sounded … bloody horrible, but then I’m no Ed Gerhard, and I guess that I’ve never truly been “in love,” in the same way.
Visit Ed Gerhard’s Web site for information about his recordings, performances and ( oh yes!) guitar teaching. Gerhard’s a previously unfamiliar name to me, but the personality that shines through this music, the Web site and (even) the booklet photograph (!) suggests that he’s exactly the man that you’d want as your guitar teacher. If you find yourself liking this CD half as much as me then you’ll probably wish that he were your friend or your big brother too!
Jerry Douglas is far from being a “previously unfamiliar” name to me. With a thousand session credits to his name, he’s lurking all over my CD shelves. If you’ve ever bought albums by Altan, Alison Krauss, Connie Dover, Davy Spillane, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Michelle Shocked, Earl Scruggs or Kathy Mattea then he’s probably lurking in your shelves too. (If you’ve never bought albums by any of those people then you’ve probably wandered into Green Man by accident while searching for something else; sorry for any inconvenience.)
Douglas is the undisputed king of the Dobro, or wooden-bodied resonator guitar. While these instruments are made by a number of manufacturers, “Dobro,” like “Hoover” or “Biro,” is the commonly used generic term.
This CD is something of a rarity in that it’s his own project from start to finish, with Douglas himself calling all the shots. The booklet notes state that “as a soloist, composer and arranger, Douglas has established a leading role for dobro in new acoustic music, a quintessentially American hybrid of bluegrass, jazz and classical whose boundaries lie too far over the horizon for anyone to see.”
What we get here is eleven tracks, of which nine are instrumentals ( 6 Douglas, 1 Duane Allman, 1 Bill Frissell and 1 trad). The two songs (Boo Hewerdine, Hugh Prestwood) are sung by Maura O,Connell and James Taylor, which gives a hint of the kind of names to be found in Mr. Douglas, address book. There’s a stellar cast of supporting musicians too (naturally enough), including mandolin hero Sam Bush, guitarist Ron Block and bass player Viktor Krauss.
Needless to say, the playing is exemplary throughout; there’re super-fast bluegrass picking, jazzy improvisations and moody textures galore, but the overall effect can, at times, get a bit (heresy alert!), well, dull. There, I’ve said it now. God knows, it’s not Jerry’s fault, it’s mine, and here’s the reason why. Jerry Douglas is often (rightly) described as “a musician’s musician,” and for regular Joes, Jacks or Jenny’s (like you or me) this music can go “too far over the horizon … ” There are also the cultural and geographical factors to consider. I’m not American, so bluegrass and jazz don’t run in my veins (as they may in yours), and an improvised saxophone solo (and there are a few here) is just a seemingly interminable period of sqwonking purgatory to me, I’m afraid …
It’s also perhaps unfortunate that I received this CD in the same batch as the Ed Gerhard one. Douglas was the player that I knew and admired; Gerhard was a “shot in the dark.” I’m left with the feeling that while Lookout for Hope is something of an exclusive album, House of Guitars is inclusive. Douglas may have a superior technique (to anyone on the planet), but Gerhard radiates a warmth that makes me want to play his CD again and again, while this CD feels “cold” in comparison. Douglas will doubtless add to his bumper crop of Grammy awards with this release, and I wouldn’t begrudge him it for a second. The fact that this music “loses” me at times, is (to re-emphasize) nothing to do with the player’s staggering abilities. If you’re a dobro player, this is an essential purchase. Perhaps we should resolve that previously mentioned problem of nomenclature by christening the instrument a “Jerry,” or a “Douglas” (I’ll leave the final decision up to you). Personally speaking, while I still think that he’s the undisputed king of his instrument, I prefer his playing when somebody else is calling the shots.