On Jerry Douglas' salute to dobro master Tut Taylor, two Bing Crosby comps and a Carrie Underwood bio 

Like almost anyone who's played the dobro over the past few decades, Nashville session great Jerry Douglas has been influenced by Robert A. "Tut" Taylor's sound and technical acumen. His approach to the instrument was revolutionary, in part because Taylor taught himself the dobro at the age of 14 using a flat pick rather than a thumb and fingerpicks. He soon displayed amazing speed and executed unusual voicings, emerging as a great soloist and exciting, innovative figure to everyone who has come after him.

Now 86 and still active, Taylor, whose greatest records include acclaimed sessions with John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Nancy and Norman Blake and Clarence White, has never sought glory nor even been acknowledged for his brilliance outside bluegrass, folk and acoustic music circles. That's something that Douglas wanted to change, while in the process also creating a suitable tribute work. The results are the spectacular release Southern Filibuster: A Tribute To Tut Taylor (E1), which Douglas produced, and is an ideal Christmas gift for a picker especially, or a music lover in general.

"I really wanted to do something different besides the usual tribute record," Douglas said. "Everyone who was involved was determined that they weren't going to just go in there and reproduce something exactly to reflect Taylor's presence. Instead they chose pieces where they could take them and do something special or distinctive, and in that way still show how much Taylor's influence meant to them."

The list of 14 participants is a textbook crew of dobro masters. Douglas leads off with the title tracks. Rob Ickes, Mike Auldridge, Randy Kohrs, Cindy Cashdollar, Curtis Burch, Andy Hall, Michael Witcher, Billy Cardine, Ferrell Stowe, Orville Johnson, Phil Leadbetter and Ivan Rosenberg join in on the session, which also shows how Taylor's style has seeped into the worlds of country, Southern and modern rock, as well as classic and contemporary bluegrass.

"I am deeply touched and thrilled by this record," Taylor said in response. "I was really stunned when Jerry told me what they were doing and then when I heard it even more impressed by what these guys did. They're certainly doing some things on the instrument that are incredible and continuing that tradition. It's funny because when I started playing the dobro I wasn't conscious of being different. It was a time when you didn't have the advantages of taking records and being able to hear what people were doing. I had been a banjo and mandolin player, and a lot of the things I'd learned about those instruments I just applied to the dobro. I didn't even think I was doing something that was unorthodox until other people told me years later."

Douglas used a couple of celebrated Taylor releases as foundation material, most notably Friar Tut from 1972. While every selection is outstanding, highlights beside Douglas' "Southern Filibuster" include Auldridge's "This Ain't Grass," Phil Leadbetter's "Acoustic Toothpick," Curtis Burch's "Black Ridge Ramble" and Randy Kohrs' "Dozin' The Blues."

"We wanted something that would stand out on its own in addition being a showcase for Tut," Douglas said. "I didn't really have to say a lot to the musicians because everyone was determined to make this something special. In fact in most cases the songs that I picked for them and the ones they wanted to do turned out to be exactly the same."

Douglas calls the album "one of the best and most enjoyable projects I've ever had any involvement with in my career," That statement carries considerable weight, considering he's appeared on more than 200 releases and been named Musician of the Year three times by the Country Music Association and 10 times by the Academy of Country Music. He's also a former National Heritage Fellow and a longtime member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.

For Taylor, a member of the Dobro Players' Hall of Fame, the tribute CD proves both an honor and inspiration to continue his remarkable career. "I'm still playing and practicing," Taylor adds. "But this record gives me some new momentum and I'm extremely grateful to Jerry and everyone involved because they really captured the essence of what I've been doing all these years."

Classic Crosby

Bing Crosby's impact on jazz and pre-rock popular singing has sometimes been overshadowed by his equally impressive feats as a film and TV star. But Crosby's mellow, relaxed style also contained its share of improvisatory elements, and he had the type of emphatic delivery, great timing, wide range and vast knowledge of songs that enabled him to record and publicize lots of outstanding tunes from many sources. Two new releases spotlight his flair in two areas: the show tunes and standards that were his forte, and holiday material.

The 20-song disc Bing Sings The Great American Songbook (Collector's Choice), is culled from the more expansive (and extremely expensive) seven-disc Mosaic boxed set The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56. As amazing as it sounds today, for many years during the heyday of national radio Crosby had a show where he was free to perform the work that he loved, backed by pianist Buddy Cole and his trio (guitarist Vince Terri, bassist Don Whitaker and drummer Nick Fatool). Most of the songs were done for Crosby's own program, with the exception of four previously unissued cuts that were originally done for the Ford Radio Show.

These songs stood in contrast to the breakout numbers in the early years of the rock 'n' roll explosion, where tempos would explode and exuberance poured out of the artists' performances. Crosby's warmth and expressiveness were still evident, but he incorporated them into treatments that retained his customary precise diction, tight pacing and soaring yet controlled approach. It was also the final heyday (1954-1957) of national radio as a showcase for singer-hosted programs. These would soon give way to the modern format, where the DJ is the star and the songs often incidental to their presentation.

Some like "Ol' Man River," "Anything Goes," "I've Got A Crush On You" or "Don't Around Much Anymore" will be familiar to people who've seen some of Crosby's TV programs. But some others may be new, among them "Button Up Your Overcoat" or "I'll Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan." All were written during the era when Broadway was a prime venue for the songwriters of the day, and the stage often the place hits were broken. Still, no one combined smooth and majestic like Crosby, and each piece contains a surprise or two, whether it's added emphasis at the end of a line, melodic twists or a fresh interpretation on a frequently covered cut ("That Old Black Magic," "Get Happy," "Almost Like Being In Love.")

The Crosby Christmas Sessions (also Collector's Choice) combines tracks from multiple dates. and displays his stylistic versaility. Besides working with different orchestras, Crosby is partnered with various vocalists, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Paul Weston, even David Bowie, and he proves an equitable and effective collaborator in every circumstance. Some are more fun than others, among them "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" with Fitzgerald, "Here Comes Santa Claus' with Lee and "We Wish You The Merriest" with Frank Sinatra, as well as the closing "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" with Bowie.

These sessions range from prime Crosby in 1949-1959 to 1977, by which time he was much more elder statesman and affable TV personality than the vital vocalist who once was the biggest male performer in America. But coupled with Bing Sings The Great American Songbook, this is a fine addition to the glittering Crosby legacy, and a worthy present for either Crosby devotees or lovers of an earlier time in American music and broadcasting.

New Underwood

Carrie Underwood is both a pivotal performer and country music lightning rod. As the winner of the enormously popular American Idol in the show's fourth season, she was also one of the first contestants to profess a preference for country over pop, bringing a new sensibility to the program. In addition her charm and photogenic qualities made her the ideal star for the demographic-obsessed types that rule television and radio broadcasting. Her first CD Some Hearts quickly became a platinum smash, and both Carnival Ride and Play On continued her success. She's also won multiple CMA and ACM awards as Best Female Vocalist, and she captured the ACM's most prestigious honor, Entertainer of the Year, for a second time in 2010. This made her the first woman to win that award twice.

Yet Underwood is often accused by traditionalists of being little more than a pop singer moonlighting in country. For some listeners who cite Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline or Kitty Wells as their reference point, there is nothing Underwood can do, say or sing to allay their suspicions. Veteran journalist Vernell Hackett neither ignores the issue nor makes it the primary point of her thorough and highly readable new volume Carrie Underwood: A Biography (Greenwood).

Instead, Hackett makes her case through presenting Underwood's background growing up in small-town Oklahoma. Her chronicle highlights such key moves as Underwood's decision to try American Idol despite the show's alleged bias against non-rock and non-pop types, and her willingness to go on the road with already established stars such as Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. Their audiences' instant and complete acceptance of her talents is certainly evidence to counter the accusations of detractors.

The book also shows another side of Underwood, one that the celebrity/tabloid press usually ignores in its mad rush to document her romantic partners. Underwood has has been a prominent speaker for the Humane Society of the United States. She participated in recording a song for Stand Up for Cancer, has worked on behalf of the Do Something youth organization and toured for the USO. Other causes she's helped include literacy and local, national and international food and relief efforts.

Hackett shows how a once naive, unsophisticated singer has steadily become a power in country, taken more control over her look and image, and expanded her activities into other areas like film and TV. Yet she hasn't lost the small-town values of honest dealings in business affairs and personal relationships. While the production and sound on her recordings are tailored for 21st century radio, Underwood's love and devotion to country remain rock-solid.

Anyone who's admired her work and personality in the past will savor Carrie Underwood: A Biography. Those who've been quick to dismiss her as fluff and a fraud may also change their minds after reading it as well.

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