Dobro master Jerry Douglas goes from valued sideperson to star

A number of sidemen (sorry, sidepersons), the indispensable, often unknown players who toil behind t
Dobro master and accomplished sideman Jerry Douglas will bring his band to The Egg in Albany on Friday.
Dobro master and accomplished sideman Jerry Douglas will bring his band to The Egg in Albany on Friday.

Here’s to the sidemen (sorry, sidepersons), the indispensable, often unknown players who toil behind the stars. Barely visible in bad light onstage, uncredited on records, they emerge from obscurity only through a rare blend of blazing skill and accommodating flexibility. Sidepersons must play brilliantly, usually without much recognition, submerging their egos in other musicians’ visions.

Dobro master Jerry Douglas has mastered this balancing act to a singular degree of accomplishment and perfection. Everybody likes him. Everybody wants him on their records: an astounding 1,600 albums at last count.

And everybody wants him in their bands, starting with Boone Creek at 17, then the Country Gentlemen, the New South, the Whites, Strength in Numbers (with fine fellow sidepersons Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor), “Skip, Hop & Wobble” (with Meyer and Russ Barenberg) and most famously with Alison Krauss and Union Station since 1998.

Ohio-born Douglas was made for Nashville, where his blend of all-purpose skill and personable flexibility vaulted him into the front rank of stars behind the stars.

As sideperson and producer, Douglas has graced (and he earns that term way more than most) recordings by big stars, from soulman Ray Charles to British imports Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello, from jam-sters Phish to perfectionist supreme Paul Simon, with every variety of rocker, country star and blues master in between.

But when Douglas tired of the Nashville schedule — “the 10, 2 and 6” (o’clock sessions) — he moved from being a sideperson to hiring them for his projects. He’s recorded 13 albums of impeccable beauty, won an equal number of Grammy awards, plus the Country Music Association’s “Musician of the Year” award (for sidepersons) in 2002, 2005 and 2007; and the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2004.

Douglas led an ensemble with his name on it into The Egg in December 2009: It seemed to everyone but him a most incongruous crew, co-starring Irish/country singer Maura O’Connell and pop/soul singer John Oates (of Daryl Hall and), in a holiday show. But Douglas made it work, mostly, because everybody likes Jerry Douglas. They sang and played their hearts out for him.

He returns to The Egg on Friday, with a more likely ensemble given his roots in acoustic traditional music and mastery, in any style, of jazz-complex improvisation.

Future stars?

They’re Douglas’s sidemen now, but who knows?

Born on the bayou, drummer Doug Belote started playing at 12 and was working in south Louisiana bars soon after, studying briefly in New York before sideman gigs with some of the same artists who employed Douglas. Recent credits include subdudes singer/guitarist Tommy Malone’s solo album “Natural Born Days,” accordionist Jo-El Sonnier’s “Legacy” album and Sonny Landreth’s “Elemental Journey.”

Tennessean bassist Daniel Kimbro has co-starred since 1997 (the year before Douglas joined Alison Krauss & Union Station) with siblings Shawn, Amanda, Cory and Jacob and some non-Kimbros in Mountain Soul. Their self-named 2011 album features Daniel and Cory Kimbro, some sidepersons in Sam Bush’s band and other non-Kimbros.

After earning a business degree from Wake Forest and working a desk job in DC, the Pennsylvania-born fiddler Christian Sedelmyer moved to Nashville. Among Music City’s 114 million musicians, he explored bluegrass, old-timey, folk and country, inspired by brilliant sideperson Stuart Duncan.

Reaching beyond the rock he’d played in his father’s band and earlier classical training, he joined the acoustic folk crew Farewell Drifters (performing at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival near here); played hundreds of recording sessions, formed 10 String Symphony with fellow fiddle player, singer and banjo player Rachel Baiman; and recorded “The Show About Nothing” with mandolinist Dave Goldenberg.

The Jerry Douglas Band plays on Friday at 8 p.m. at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). Admission is $28. 473-1845

Short cuts

Like the Jerry Douglas Band, the Ghost Train Orchestra boasts top players; sidepersons behind leader-trumpeter-singer Brian Carpenter. Playing on Sunday free at Music Haven (Central Park, Schenectady), the Ghost Train Orchestra is Carpenter’s musical antique shop.

Based in Brooklyn, they dust off big band jazz of the early swing era; and not just such mainstream composers as Fletcher Henderson; also eccentrics Alec Wilder and Reginald Foresythe, among others.

The Ghost Train Orchestra comprises violinist Mazz Swift (whose credits include rappers Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Common), mandolist/clarinetist Dennis Litchtman (featured in the acoustic bands King Wilkie, Astrograss and others), saxophonist Andy Laster (sideperson to jazz man Julius Hemphill, rockers Elvis Costello and Lyle Lovett and more), reed player Petr Cancura (heard with jazz men Danilo Perez, Julian Lage and Bob Moses), trombonist-guitarist Curtis Hasselbring (the iconoclastic bands Slavic Soul Party and Medeski Martin & Wood), tuba player Ron Caswell (heard with jazz men Max Roach and Anthony Braxton and rock originals They Might Be Giants), guitarist Avi Bortnick (who’s worked with jazz players including John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin and others plus the Brazilian collective Forro in the Dark), bassist Michael Bates (sideperson with avant-gardists Chris Speed, Russ Johnson), and retro music specialist, drummer and composer Rob Garcia.

Jazz singer Colleen Pratt opens, leading her crew of area jazz masters. 7 p.m. Free. Rain site Proctors.

Percussionist Sheila E also played for years as a sideperson before taking a leading role in the family business. Daughter of percussionist Pete Escovedo; niece of percussionist Coke Escovedo (sideperson with Santana), and of Alejandro Escovedo, Javier Escovedo (the Zeros) and of Mario Escovedo (the Dragons) — and god-daughter of Tito Puente — Sheila E has played with Prince, Billy Cobham (playing The Egg at the end of the month), Ringo Starr, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Beyonce, Kanye West and many more.

She’s released seven albums, “Icon” came out last year, and played during “Drum Solo Week” on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Sheila E leads her own band tonight at Alive at Five. The reconstituted and powerful jammers Conehead Buddha will open. 5 p.m. Free. The show has been moved to the rain site: the Corning Preserve boat launch under I-787.

Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]

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