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On the Scene: Dobro Christmas album rings true

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CHRISTMAS SONGS: Nat King Cole's released memorable music, but his most famous recording is "The Christmas Song." It's the Christmas song everyone knows, said Jerry Douglas, a dobro player who is trying his hand at holiday music.

"Everybody hears (Cole) every year, and he'll never be forgotten," Douglas said. "He is Mr. Christmas."

Douglas, who will perform Saturday at the Newberry Opera House with John Oates of Hall and Oates (more on that later) and Maura O'Connell, isn't trying to take Cole's place. And he isn't releasing a Christmas album to cash in.

"It's was something in the back of my mind," said Douglas.

But he's been busy. Douglas, considered the best dobro player in the world, has played on more than 1,600 albums, recording with Bela Fleck, Dolly Parton, T Bone Burnett, Paul Simon and Ricky Skaggs. Since 1998, he's played with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and he's been named the CMA musician of the year three times.

Douglas can play just about any style of music, but the holiday tunes on "A Jerry Douglas Christmas" were difficult to master.

"Christmas records are hard to make. They're hard to play," Douglas said. "They have all the necessary ingredients to conjure up a good image. You sort of attach a memory to them. It's difficult to process.

"You could write a book on the proper song and look at a Christmas song."

The dobro, a resonator guitar, is a very vocal and lyrical instrument. It's not something you'd expect to hear on a Christmas song.

"Just playing them on my particular instrument would be different enough," Douglas said of the songs. "The instrument sings.

"I was careful how I arranged them. I didn't want to do the songs disservice."

Most of the tunes have a sincere reverence, like the traditional Christmas records Douglas listens to at home. He had to get some people to sing on the recordings so he called Oates and O'Connell, a Grammy-nominated Irish Singer.

"I didn't want to just do an instrumental show," he said. "I wanted to do a variety show kind of like 'A Prairie Home Companion.' "

There are typically two kinds of feelings when it comes to Hall and Oates: you either love them or hate them. I have the former. Douglas acknowledged that a Christmas show featuring Oates, a rock-and-soul legend, was an odd pairing.

"He wrote so many of those songs, whether you like them or not," Douglas said. "They were a huge success in their time.

"It's a strange combination. But it's a good combination. It's going to work.

"We're just friends. We wanted to spend some time together and we're going to do it this way."

Douglas is touring for his Christmas CD, but when gets home for Christmas, will his version be played at home?

"At my house, probably not. It'll be in the rotation."

Alongside Nat King Cole, of course.

The show starts at 8 p.m. The opera house is at 1201 McKibben St., Newberry. $40; (803) 276-6264

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie are coming home - sort of. The songwriting duo, who used to call West Columbia home, are playing a show Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Coffeehouse. They'll also perform at Christmas at Red Bank.

Sarah Lee and Johnny toured this fall with the extended Guthrie family, playing songs off "Go Waggaloo," the family CD of children's songs released by Smithsonian Folkways. These stops in December will give the duo a chance to play music off their disc "Folksong."

"It's an excuse for Sarah Lee and I to go out and do our own material," Irion said. "We don't really have a show together for 'Go Waggaloo,' and it's not something we wake up every day and say we've got to do this."

Irion and Guthrie, who live in Massachusetts now, have tapped into a creative spring there.

"Not to cloud the water too much, but we've got a duo record coming out in the fall," Irion said.

They were backed during the recording sessions by Vetiver, the folk-pop band signed to Sub Pop.

"They just seemed like the perfect candidates to back Sarah Lee and I on this record," Irion said of the album, "Bright Examples," which was recorded at Woodstock. "We just happened to meet them at a really good time. And we were ready to make a record."

Irion said his creative output is due to there not being much to do around where he and Sarah Lee live with their two daughters. And he just turned 40.

"I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I know I can come up with something," he said. "I feel at home up here. There's a lot of songs floating around.

"And to do the children's record opened up a whole other avenue."

But that doesn't mean he wants to tinker with the process of releasing a record or, like some younger bands, release a song and then tour behind that. For him, the album is still an experience. He's still into writing and recording a record, pressing the record and then touring behind the record.

"You don't just watch a clip on the Internet, you go see a movie," Irion said. "It's a piece of art. It's a thing. I'm not falling for that."

There is one thing about the album-making process that Irion doesn't relish as much as he used to: being on the road and away from home for weeks at a time.

"I used to wish I could be on the road all the time," he said. "Now, it's like if I can just be home for two weeks. It's not that glamorous. It's work. But if you can figure it out, it can work."

The road this week leads home - if only for a couple of nights.

The show starts at 8 p.m. The UU is at 2701 Heyward St. $5 to $12; (888) 849-4224, ext. 4

BREAKING DOWN: Dave Rempis and Frank Rosaly, two Chicago-based musicians familiar to local music fans who seek experimental elements in their jazz, will play at 701 Center for Contemporary Art Wednesday.

Rempis, the saxophonist who leads The Rempis Percussion Quartet, which released the thrilling live album "Hunter-Gatherers" in 2007, formed a duo with Rosaly, who played on the album recorded at Hunter-Gatherer in 2006. (Rosaly will also play with Fast Citizens, another Chicago band, at The Whig Dec. 18.)

Rempis and Rosaly, a percussionist, recorded "Cyrillic" which continues the free improvisation conversations they've had in previous bands. As a pair, though, Rempis said they've found more places to navigate.

And talk.

"There's fewer people involved, but that opens more possibilities," Rempis said. "You can really jump places. With three or four players, it's not as flexible."

The sound of the music defies description, quite possibly intentionally.

"Anybody who listens to it is going to take what they take out of it," Rempis said. "We basically went into the studio in an afternoon and made the record.

"It's really, to me, a reflection of the work we've put in all these different contexts."

To break it down, Rempis and Rosaly, who started playing as a duo in 2004, have stripped down the instrumentation but they added complexities to their delivery. If you can believe it, there's more stuff going on.

"Saxophone and percussion is a pretty monolithic thing," Rempis said. "In most bands, in a way, that's really the core of the music.

"We've been working together for quite a while in all these contexts. It seemed like a logical outgrowth of the work."

The show starts at 8:30 p.m. 701 CCA is at 701 Whaley St. $5 or $8; (803) 779-4571

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