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Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes

Three Bells – 2014 (Rounder)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes

It must be frustrating to resophonic artists of the stature of these three that even they still have to on occasion answer the question "What is that thing you're playing?" The number of well-known Dobro players has always seemed to lag behind even the banjo, and even in the "Golden Years" of '50s and '60s country music, the only widely known names were Josh Graves and Pete "Brother Oswald" Kirby.

That began to change in the late 1960s when Mike Auldridge began appearing on stage and recordings with high-profile D.C.-area bands like the Country Gentlemen and Cliff Waldron's New Shades of Grass before moving on to a more than 25-year tenure with the Seldom Scene, a band that in many ways redefined bluegrass and brought new fans to the music.

Around the same time, teenaged Jerry Douglas was beginning to attract attention as a member of the earliest versions of J. D. Crowe's legendary band, the New South. Four decades later, he's almost unquestionably the single most widely known Dobro player in the world, for the last 16, a mainstay of Alison Krauss' band Union Station, and still among the most sought-after session players in Nashville.

The third member of the "Three Bells" triumvirate, Rob Ickes (rhymes with "hikes"), was barely out of diapers when Auldridge and Douglas were first becoming known. Since signing up with Blue Highway 20 years ago, Ickes has solidified his reputation in the resophonic elite. The bittersweet aspect to this collaboration is that Auldridge passed away in December 2012 shortly after these recordings were made.

Some critics and fans still consider the Dobro to be musically limited, appropriate only for bluegrass, but each of these three masters in his own way has blazed new trails for the instrument. Auldridge was particularly fond of swing, and this is heard here on "For Buddy," an homage to pedal steel great Buddy Emmons, and Leon McAuliffe's "Panhandle Rag."

Ickes has long had a jazzy and sometimes ethereal edge, and that's apparent on "The Message," while Douglas' "The Perils Of Private Mulvaney" is a Celtic-flavored testament to the melodic abilities of the Dobro. The most ear-catching cut, though, is the title track, an instrumental cover of the 1959 hit by The Browns. Contrary again to common perception that one Dobro is enough, it's a three-part harmony delight.

In producing this all-instrumental epic, Douglas opted not to have a band, just the three of them playing together. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, an extraordinary collaboration and a fitting remembrance of Auldridge.