Three Bells is an absolute rarity in the world of recorded music. It’s quite seldom that a new project conveys so much joy, so much love among the musicians, and for the instrument they share in common.
Conceived as a chance for dobro buddies Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes to play together some more with Mike Auldridge as his health was failing in 2012, the project is dedicated to his memory. They completed the last of the sessions on September 17, and we lost Mike that December 28.
It’s a lovely and fitting tribute to a master musician, but it’s much more than that. The tracks here find the man who revolutionized the slide resonator guitar in the 1970s and beyond, recording with two of the most influential practitioners of the following generation, whose own artistry is wholly dependent on what Mike laid down before them.
And boy, do they play! Though Mike’s body ultimately gave out on him, he never lost a step on the instrument to which he had dedicated his life. His tone is fat and rich, his intonation spot on, and his note choices timely and efficient. As throughout his career, there’s never an extraneous note, not one more than is needed.
And there isn’t one more instrument than is needed either. Mike, Jerry and Rob cut this entire project with nothing but dobros. No rhythm guitar, no mandolin, no fiddle, no bass. Though I wouldn’t have guessed it, the sonic richness they obtained is striking, and quite beautiful in its simplicity.
Interestingly, both Jerry and Rob bent their own playing styles closer to Mike’s for Three Bells. Everything is more compact, without the super-quick note flurries that have characterized their approaches. There’s no showing off here. It’s all about Mike, the music he loved and the style he played.
>Appropriately, the record starts with Mike alone playing the reso classic, Silver Threads Among The Gold, a melody familiar to anyone who’s ever held a bar. Rob and then Jerry add their own interpretations, both with mildly Hawaiian touches, before closing it out in three part harmony.
For the most part, all three used their primary guitars for these sessions. Mike and Jerry had their signature Beard guitars, and Rob his Scheerhorn. But for two tracks, they utilized a trio of vintage Dobro models, a pair of 1937s from Mike’s collection, and one of Josh Graves’ old instruments which Jerry brought along. These were played on North, a Douglas original, and the album’s final track, Using My Bible For A Roadmap, which opens with just Jerry on Josh’s guitar. Rob comes in with one of Mike’s ’37s on the second verse, before Mike enters on the third.
The highlight of the album is easily the title track, which was a huge hit for The Browns in 1959, based on a French pop song from a few years earlier. Its simple melody is perfect for the resonator guitar, and is well served by the bell-like tones of the many guitars. All of the other songs were recorded simply, just three guys with their guitars, but this one has multiple overdubs including Jerry playing a bass part on a baritone dobro. Rob described it as sort of like an art guitar, a big, almost unwieldy instrument, but with a great, deep sound.
A close second would be The Perils of Private Mulvaney, another Douglas tune in fiddle tune form with a decidedly Celtic flair.
Another fun tune is their rollicking version of Panhandle Rag, a feature song for Mike throughout his career. Here the guys stretch out a bit more, and you can hear their stylistic differences more clearly. But each time Auldridge enters following a more adventurous solo from one of the others, his total mastery, and his gigantic tone, are apparent.
Anyone who enjoys the sound of the slide, resonator guitar will want this one in their collection. Three Bells will be the standard to which all other dobro records will be compared for some time.