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In demand, on dobro

Jerry Douglas finds his niche with Alison Krauss, Union Station

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Alison Krauss and Union Station is a band. That's hard to remember sometimes, given all of the attention and praise lavished on Krauss herself. Not that the music press and radio types can be blamed for their 20-year-long crush on Krauss. After all, this is a world-class bluegrass fiddler who also owns a singing voice that's finer than Italian silk and sweeter than Tupelo honey.

She also has some pretty hot pickers in her group, which has been true ever since the late 1980s, when the equally swoonworthy Alison Brown was plucking the banjo in Union Station before setting out on her own.

Krauss raised the ante on the crack musicianship of the group in 1998, when she invited Dobro poobah Jerry Douglas to fill in on a tour. The dates went so well, Douglas was invited to join the band full-time. Such is Douglas' reputation in Nashville that the group actually changed its name to acknowledge his amazing chops and status in roots-music circles -- the band became known as "Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas."

"I can't believe I'm still here," says Douglas with a laugh. "Because at first it was only supposed to be temporary. But I think when they added the Dobro, the band's sound really changed, because suddenly they had an instrument that can maintain a sustained sound to back Alison's vocals.

"And it's sort of a challenge playing behind her -- her voice is so pitch-perfect. You'd better be exactly in tune when you're accompanying a voice like that," adds Douglas during a phone interview from New York. "The trick, though, to playing Dobro behind a voice like that is to stay out of her range -- to play either above her or below her, so you're not clashing, tonally."

Douglas had been fielding critical kudos for years before joining Union Station. On the one hand, he'd long been a fleet-fingered master of the Dobro, who, on his solo records and collaborations with his equally adventurous newgrass pals, had ventured out beyond the bluegrass genre to explore progressive-bluegrass, jazz, Celtic and rock styles. On the other hand, he'd been a highly-sought-after session man by the Nashville commercial-country crowd. He's also lent the alternately soulful and mournful whine of his Dobro to the recordings of non-country acts like James Taylor, Ray Charles and Paul Simon.

And then, of course, there was his production work -- he was often producer-of-choice for acclaimed roots-music heroes and heroines like Maura O'Connell and, uh ... Alison Krauss. It's true: early on, in 1990, Douglas produced the Krauss album I've Got That Old Feeling that helped Krauss reach out beyond the usual bluegrass audience and tap into the mainstream country and pop markets.

The current tour by Krauss, Douglas and company is more or less in support of A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, which was released in April. In addition to playing faves from the previous 20 years of her career, Krauss and mates will be performing songs that comprised that particular "best of" disc -- which pulled together some of the collaborations she's done in recent years with non-bluegrass artists like John Waite, Brad Paisley, James Taylor, Natalie MacMaster and The Chieftains. The disc also includes tracks she contributed to soundtrack albums for Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou, as well as a few new tunes she penned for the disc.

Dig this: As if her previous wide-ranging collaborations didn't underscore her devotion to spreading her stylistic wings, she recently recorded an album with Robert Plant, due this fall.

While Krauss and Douglas like to push past the boundaries of conventional bluegrass "rules," Krauss' instincts are often to go in more of a mainstream-pop direction, "which really only helps the band, because it draws more people to her music," says Douglas. On the other hand, Douglas's instincts are different -- he likes to "go progressive."

That requires something of a balancing act for Douglas. "On the one hand, my job is to play what's supposed to be there, to do what's best for the song -- instead of just showing off," says Douglas with a laugh that suggests he's heard such good-natured ribbing before. "But then, Alison never tells me to dumb it down -- we're definitely not into that. I like to think that between us, we really are pushing the boundaries of bluegrass into new directions."

Alison Krauss and Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas, will perform at Bobcats Arena on Aug. 17. Tickets are $37.50 and $49.50.

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