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The Lush Twang Of Dobro-Times-Three In 'Three Bells'


The Dobro is a fretless resonator guitar that helps supply country and bluegrass tunes with their signature twang.


GOODWYN: Three of the best musicians to ever pick up that instrument are Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. Auldridge, Douglas and Ickes came together to produce an unusual album, "Three Bells" featuring just their Dobros, unaccompanied by any other instruments. But the collaboration was bittersweet. Mike Auldridge was in the late stages of prostate cancer, and he died soon after the recording sessions ended in 2012.


GOODWYN: Now "Three Bells" is being released on Rounder Records. And Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes join us from Spotland Productions in Nashville to talk about the project. Welcome to you both.

JERRY DOUGLAS: Thank you, Wade.

ROB ICKES: Good to be here, Wade.

GOODWYN: And I've got a tell you it's not all this somber.


GOODWYN: Well, many of us are familiar with the sound of the Dobro, but I'm not sure how many of us, you know, know the instrument itself. Can you tell us a little bit about the Dobro and how it's played?

ICKES: Well, the Dobro was invented in the twenties. And basically, they were trying to make an acoustic guitar louder. So they put a metal resonator inside the body of the guitar. And it's just this great combination of that metallic resonator blending with the wood body of the guitar. And its played with a slide. And it's just the coolest sound on the planet. I don't know what to say.

DOUGLAS: That's about all you need to know. That was Rob Ickes explaining the Dobro so this is Jerry. You have to understand that the guys that invented and created the Dobro were Slovakian. So they were used to hearing these loud oom-pah pop bands and things like that. And they loved Hawaiian music, but it wasn't loud enough for them. So that's why they invented the Dobro guitar.

GOODWYN: How did each of you come to the Dobro? Was it like when I was in high school and the band director suggested I move from trumpet to baritone? Did you start with a guitar? Do all Dobro players start with guitars?

ICKES: I heard Mike Auldridge play when I was 13. And that just freaked me out, you know, I loved it. And I started playing that day.

DOUGLAS: I heard the Dobro guitar first through the recordings of Josh Graves, who was called Uncle Josh Graves with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys. And they had a radio show out of Nashville that I heard every morning as I was getting up to go to school. And I loved the sound of the instrument, but didn't actually get to see it until I saw, you know, I saw it on a cover of a couple of Flatt and Scruggs records.

GOODWYN: What makes a great Dobro player?

DOUGLAS: Well, he has to be really intelligent.

ICKES: Good-looking.

DOUGLAS: Good-looking, rich. But no, you have to have an ear for pitch because you're playing in your left hand with a bar, as Rob said. And so you have to be in tune all the time. You can't be a quarter of an inch off or a quarter of an inch in either direction.


ICKES: And that's one thing, I mean, when Jerry was talking about doing this record, you know, I assumed there would be a band behind us. And he said let's just do it with three Dobros, you know? And Mike and I both were kind of like he's nuts, you know. Is he sure - does he know what he's doing? But when we got there the first day and started working on the first song, it was just a great - it was amazing, you know, how musical - what was happening. But, you know, speaking of pitch, I was just - I was really concerned about pitch. Just with three Dobros, there's no frets, who's going to lead it, you know? But golly, I mean, I listened to the end of the track on some of these songs and it's just - we're all just right on the money. And that really surprised me because I never recorded with two other Dobros before, you know.

GOODWYN: Each of you contributed a solo piece. Mike Auldridge chose a medley of "Till There Was You," the Meredith Wilson favorite from "The Music Man" and "Moon River."


GOODWYN: Did Auldridge, you know, tell you why he chose these two songs?

DOUGLAS: I think that he was a little older than us and came from an era - and he loved the melodies and it's very difficult play. But Mike was very fluent in the music of that time.

GOODWYN: Tell me about the song "The Perils Of Private Mulvaney."

DOUGLAS: I wanted to write a fresh solo tune for this record. And so, as I often do, I made up a story that I could write the song from. And the story went like this - it went - this was during World War I and Private Mulvaney was in the Irish forces.


DOUGLAS: And he had his little flat metal had on. And he's out there and, you know, he's in the trenches and so he's going to war. He gets in the middle of the war, he's being shot at. Maybe he gets hit, maybe he's sent home, you know, but in the end, he prevails. And he comes out of it and he's, you know, he's fine and in the end of the war, he comes home jubilant and goes to the pub.

GOODWYN: Rob, what were the recording sessions like? I mean, did it feel normal or were they fraught with meaning?

ICKES: It was fraught with meaning, you know, for me because Mike's the guy that got me into playing. And Jerry's been such a huge influence on me my whole life, you know? So it was exciting, but, you know, once we started playing, it just felt so good. And it just - everybody sort of did a different job and - just to make it sound complete. And it was just a real musical conversation.


ICKES: That's what appeals to me about the instrument is the conversation that happens between the Dobro and a good singer. You know, backing up a vocalist is one of my favorite things to do on the instrument. And I felt like this record was kind of like that. You know, we all listen. It's about listening, not just talking the whole time. And so there's some great moments on the record where I say something and then Jerry responds and then Mike says something, you know. But we're not talking over each other. It was a very - it was just a real musical experience.


GOODWYN: Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. Their new album, recorded with the late Mike Auldridge, is called "Three Bells." And it's out Tuesday on Rounder Records. Gentlemen, it was a pleasure.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Wade.

ICKES: Thanks a lot, Wade.


GOODWYN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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