- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Country music at the Kennedy Center? Yes indeed, if you head on down between now and April 6.

For the far-ranging series “Country: A Celebration of America’s Music,” the music once associated with rural hollers and old-time radio holds pride of place at an institution more known for rubato and bel canto than for fiddle playing and picking.

On Tuesday, some of the best pickers and pluckers around come together for “String Masters,” an evening devoted to the art of the string player. Performers includes mandolin player Sam Bush, fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Bela Fleck, bassist Mark Schatz and guitarist Bryan Sutton.

“When you get to play in a place like the Kennedy Center it’s special,” says nine-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas, one of the evening’s performers, whose new album, “The Best Kept Secret” — a far-reaching collection of original instrumentals that stretch the limits of traditional genres from Celtic to bluegrass to jazz to country rock — was released last fall. “We’re all coming up a day early just to rehearse.”

Mr. Douglas has long been associated with the Dobro, an acoustic guitar equipped with a steel resonator that is usually played on the musician’s lap. Guitars like these began appearing in the 1920s, when bands of the pre-electric age sought to make their instruments louder.

After a period of decline, Dobros underwent a resurgence in the late ‘70s, popular with contemporary bluegrass groups, blues musicians and others. These days, whenever artists like Dolly Parton or Paul Simon want that special sound of the Dobro, they tend to call on Jerry Douglas.

“My instrument and the way I play, you have to be a little bit of a chameleon,” says Mr. Douglas, who has appeared on more than 1,500 albums and headlined 11 of his own. “You need to be able to suit the situation as well as the song.”

The Kennedy Center performance marks one of the few formal occasions when Mr. Douglas can get together with longtime friends and collaborators whose own busy schedules can make it hard to meet these days.

They plan to use the occasion to celebrate both the traditional roots and the progressive shoots of the genre, which means you’ll get to hear longtime favorites as well as some new takes on the material.

“We’ve kind of grown up together,” says Mr. Douglas of his fellow performers, most of whom he’s known and played with for more than 20 years.

“But we’ve all developed differently. So when we get to play together, all our attitudes collide. We’re trying to make all those notes meet in the air at the right altitude and velocity. We just play all out.”

• • •

Meanwhile, Rhonda and Sparky Rucker sweep through the area Sunday for a special Folklore Society of Greater Washington performance at Mount Lubentia, a historic home in Upper Marlboro owned by Andy and Sondra Wallace.

The husband-and-wife duo has always been interested in the connection between words and music, which is why the two have always spent a bit of time before performing a song, whether a Civil War-era ballad or a snatch of Piedmont blues, explaining its origin.

Now, the team is expanding on its storytelling proclivities to produce an album where the focus is more on the story itself.

“It’s called ‘Done Tole the Truth, Goodbye,’ ” says Mr. Rucker, who took the line from an old Brer Rabbit story. Long known for his expertise on banjo, guitar and spoons, he is also in possession of a richly resonant baritone that can impart new life to an old standard song — or story.

Wife Rhonda, who practiced medicine for five years before becoming a full-time musician, frequently conducts workshops in blues harmonica playing. (She also plays piano and banjo.)

Together, the two have presented programs of music of the Underground Railroad and Civil Rights music as well as workshops of blues and 19th century tunes, each of which, of course, has its own story.

The evening also will feature music from the black string band tradition, including some of the favorites of the late Howard Armstrong. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear the story “Big Sixteen,” taken from the work of Langston Hughes, which deals with the “jack-o’-lantern” theme common to European and African American tales.

“The story has grown tremendously since I first started telling it,” says Mr. Rucker. “Now, it can take me twenty minutes.”

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