Simply put, there isn't a Dobro player alive who doesn't owe Tut Taylor. Taylor is a towering figure in the world of acoustic music, championed for his flat-picking mastery by generations of fellow musicians and connoisseurs of rural American music. Prolific and versatile, Taylor's licks have graced recordings by hundreds of country and bluegrass artists including Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Norman Blake, Clarence White, Porter Wagoner, Vassar Clements and Leon Russell, and his solo albums have been studied by countless admirers, some of whom playfully refer to him as King Tut.
One of those lifelong devotees is Jerry Douglas, perhaps the most celebrated Dobro player in the world for more than 30 years. "Tut's tenacious playing style, his phrasing and his way of making simple things interesting," as Douglas puts it, have had a seismic impact on Douglas over the years, and their 1994 co-production The Great Dobro Sessions won a GRAMMY Award for "Bluegrass Album of the Year." But now, with the release of Southern Filibuster: A Tribute to Tut Taylor (E1 Music: July 13, 2010), Douglas takes his esteem for the Dobro doyen to another level entirely.
For this labor of love, Douglas assembled 14 of the world's greatest Dobro players to interpret compositions penned by Taylor. He also enlisted Nashville's finest backing musicians for the recording including Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Jason Carter (fiddle), Tim O'Brien (mandolin), Russ Barenberg (guitar), Barry Bales (bass), Fred Carpenter (fiddle), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Chris Jones (guitar), Mike Compton (mandolin), Dennis Crouch (bass), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and Mike Bub (bass). All of the proceeds from Southern Filibuster go directly to Taylor. And even best of all, they didn't tell Taylor about the project until it was a wrap, giving him one of the nicest surprises of his 86 years.
"Jerry knocked me for a loop," says Taylor, "and I'm still knocked for a loop. I couldn't believe it. I haven't been in the limelight over the course of my life. I never really did this as a professional; I do it for fun. When I would hear a Dobro player play my tunes on the radio, I would be floored. So when Jerry told me, 'We've gotten 14 Dobro players together to make a CD of 14 of your tunes,' I couldn't believe it. I never thought anyone would do something like that for me. I felt very humble and very thankful."
Taylor's own regard for Douglas is no less strong than the younger man's is for him. "Jerry is heavily into the music," he says. "All Dobro players love the instrument, but he was the one to grab it and take it someplace else, way someplace else."
For Douglas, Southern Filibuster serves as both a years-later sequel to The Great Dobro Sessions and a necessary marker of the state of the instrument today. "Since The Great Dobro Sessions, we've lost three of our original 10 in that flock," he says. "I thought, why shouldn't we celebrate this instrument, the Dobro, that we love so much? With this in mind, I went through a mental list of who was viable, available and having an impression on the lay of the land these days as far as Dobro prowess goes. Rob Ickes, Mike Auldridge and Randy Kohrs immediately came to mind. From there it was easy to assemble the list of a veritable who's-who of the Dobro world: Curtis Burch, Phil Leadbetter, Andy Hall, Cindy Cashdollar, Ferrell Stowe, Ivan Rosenberg, Orville Johnson, Michael Witcher, Megan Lovell and Billy Cardine all came aboard. I knew they had all been impacted by Tut's trail of tunes." The fourteenth spot went, of course, to Douglas himself.
"Tut was one of my early influences when I was learning Dobro," says Cindy Cashdollar, whose playing has graced recordings by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and others. "He had a different sound. I admired his quirkiness."
"Tut is the pantheon of Dobro players," adds Orville Johnson. "His technique is a lost thing, and we all appreciate his writing. His seminal record Friar Tut that came out on Rounder in 1972 is such a touchstone of Dobro playing. There are certain legendary albums you come across when learning this instrument, and Friar Tut is certainly one of them."
Indeed, Taylor and Douglas have lived very different lives, and their careers have taken very different paths. Born in November 1923 in a small town in Georgia, Taylor took up the banjo and mandolin before he discovered the Dobro at 14 and taught himself to play the instrument, a form of resonator guitar invented by John Dopyera in the 1920s. Developing his own distinctive flat-picking style, Taylor quickly gained favor in the country and bluegrass world, and by the 1970s he'd become a fixture in Nashville, the most in-demand Dobro player on the scene. Despite all of his credits, though, Taylor never became a star. He was revered by fellow pickers and aficionados of acoustic music - not only for his musicianship but also his songwriting and production - but his name was virtually unknown to the general public. More people may even know Taylor as the proprietor of two of Nashville's favorite instrument shops than for his musical prowess: In 1970, Taylor opened GTR and then, after selling his share, went on to open the Old Time Pickin' Parlor. The shop doubled as a performance space and instrument workshop, turning out handmade pieces for the likes of Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and others.
Douglas, on the other hand, became something of a household name. Born in Ohio in 1956, he began playing at age eight and had turned professional by his teens. A busy session musician, he worked with a wide array of traditional and progressive acoustic musicians, among them Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck and Ray Charles - at last count he had reportedly played on more than 1600 albums. Since 1998, Douglas has also been a member of the highly acclaimed Alison Krauss and Union Station. His massive list of awards includes a dozen Grammys, three "Country Music Association Musician of the Year" awards, an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, and he was named the "2008 Artist-In-Residence" by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Douglas' prominence in the music industry places him in a perfect position to curate and direct Southern Filibuster, which includes new workings of classic Taylor tunes.
Among the tracks featured on the tribute set is Johnson's rendition of Taylor's "Ghost Picker." Says Johnson, "Tut can write simple things that are really catchy, which is a gift for a songwriter. I see his writing in three areas: things that are bluegrassy, tunes that are very infused with blues, and moody tunes, sometimes in a minor key. 'Ghost Picker' is a mood piece."
Cashdollar took on Taylor's "Little Green Pill," which, she says, "I have been performing for a long time but had never recorded." And for his contribution, Billy Cardine, the youngest Dobro player on the album, chose "Swampwater," a Taylor composition that Taylor himself had never recorded. "Tut showed me this song when I was over at his house one time," says Cardine. "I wanted to pick a song that we could document. His whole catalog is somewhere around 70 songs."
"Tut was wondering who was paying attention to him," adds Cardine. "His whole vocabulary is from a different era and it almost seems impossible for anyone today to sound like this guy. There is something about his playing that's deceptive. But as I got older and started thinking about life, I could hear Tut's presence in everything. He is always in the moment when he touches the strings. It gives you a feeling that you can't get any other way. The way he speaks music, there is a power to it, as great as any legendary musician."
"Tut was very humbled when we told him about the project," Douglas says. "He didn't think anyone was really that interested in his Dobro career. This affirms we are. And it astounds me that the songs these Dobro players picked maintain Tut's original essence, although they each added their own individual twists to create brand new songs. To me, this gives the songs new life that will be even further interpreted by the players of the future."
For all of the praise Douglas tosses at Taylor, however, the veteran is quick to return the compliment. "The contribution of Jerry Douglas to the movement of the Dobro is humungous," Taylor says. "There were many Dobro players. Then here comes Jerry, laying down some bluegrass stuff, just playing well. Then, he began to branch out, singlehandedly bringing the instrument to where it is today. I'm mighty proud to have him as my friend."
Southern Filibuster: A Tribute to Tut Taylor
(E1 Music: July 13, 2010)
1. "Southern Filibuster" - Jerry Douglas
2. "Swampwater" - Billy Cardine
3. "Dobro Country" - Michael Witcher
4. "Ghost Picker" - Orville Johnson
5. "Black Ridge Ramble" - Curtis Burch
6. "Oasis" - Rob Ickes
7. "Little Green Pill" - Cindy Cashdollar
8. "This Ain't Grass" - Mike Auldridge
9. "Me and My Dobro" - Ferrell Stowe
10. "Dozin' the Blues" - Randy Kohrs
11. "Acoustic Toothpick" - Phil Leadbetter
12. "Resophonic Guitar" - Andy Hall
13. "Reso Fandango" - Megan Lovell
14. "Stevens Steel" - Ivan Rosenberg