Bluegrass music is full of hotshot musicians, but only a handful qualify as true innovators. Jerry Douglas, the extraordinary Dobro player, belongs to that exclusive club. He took an ungainly instrument with a relatively limited musical vocabulary and found a way to coax a variety of sounds from it: sweet lyrical fills, muscular rhythmic chops, lightning-fast runs. It's no surprise that Douglas, who for several years has been a full-time member of Alison Krauss' fine band Union Station, has played back-up on more than 1,000 recordings.
But Douglas is also a solo artist who, despite his bluegrass-oriented résumé, often delves into jazzier realms. On Lookout for Hope, Douglas takes an eclectic approach. He duets with himself on Duane Allman's "Little Martha," which proves a good vehicle for Douglas' improvisational flights of fancy. Then he quickens the pace considerably on the self-penned "Patrick Meets the Brickbats," a bluegrass number featuring guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Sam Bush, bassist Barry Bales and drummer Larry Atamanuik. "Footsteps Fall," sung by sweet-voiced Irish balladeer Maura O'Connell, demonstrates why Douglas has always been in such demand for back-up. The traditional hymn "In the Sweet By and By" becomes a soul-filled wonder in Douglas' able hands.
It's the jazz numbers on Lookout for Hope that leave something to be desired. The title tune, by guitarist Bill Frisell, runs more than 10 minutes and features a meandering solo by Phish's Trey Anastasio. Frankly, it's boring. Ditto for "The Sinking Ship," with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which strays dangerously close to Kenny G. territory.
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Douglas closes the album with a maudlin number called "The Suit," written by Nashville veteran Hugh Prestwood and sung by James Taylor. The song isn't much to write home about, but Douglas' superb accompaniment on Dobro and lap steel proves that, despite his penchant for solo work, Douglas is at his best as a back-up musician playing wonderfully sympathetic harmony notes behind great singers.