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Cris Jacobs Recharges With An All-Star Bluegrass Album

Joshua Black Wilkins

Let’s say you’re a bearded mid-40s Americana guy with a sharp hat, good songs, and a good voice. In these times of musical abundance, the stark truth is that may not be enough to stand out in the crowd. You’ve got to have that odd little something, and for Baltimore’s Cris Jacobs, that something is a three-string cigar box lap guitar. Its tone is bendy, cool, swampy and emotional - a magnet for attention. A few years ago at DelFest in Maryland that quirky, low-fi guitar - along with Jacobs’s outstanding voice - turned the head of bluegrass master Jerry Douglas. And this would prove fortuitous for Mr. Jacobs.

“I looked over and Jerry was on the side of the stage watching. So it was a little terrifying, wondering what was going through his mind,” Jacobs says in Episode 287 of The String. “But he was super nice after the set, and very complimentary. And I was floored by that, because he’s a hero of mine.” They crossed paths again and got a conversation going that would help the artist get out of a funk and find the path to his newest project. “As I was thinking about this whole bluegrass revelation in my mind, I was like, I'm gonna call Jerry. Maybe he'll help me produce this thing.”

Bluegrass is not what Jacobs has been known for in the 20 years he’s been a touring artist. For the first decade of the 2000s he was the frontman of the soul/jam outfit The Bridge. When they disbanded in 2011, he pursued a solo path with an electric band and high energy music that led his hometown alt weekly to call him the “King of Baltimore Rock and Roll.” Yet here he is 2024 with One Of These Days, a Jerry Douglas-produced album featuring the super-skilled Infamous Stringdusters as his backing band, plus star guests Billy Strings, Lindsay Lou and Lee Ann Womack. The album is so strong it landed Jacobs a debut on the Grand Ole Opry. He’s been tearing up the Americana chart in recent months. For some long time fans, it’s a bold new direction. Others, like me, are only recently learning about Cris and his portfolio of talents.

He says it - his musical life - started because his folks were Deadheads and his father had a great record collection. Everything Cris dug, whether Jerry Garcia or Jimi Hendrix, he’d study the influences of their influences and wound up loving deep roots music pretty young. “I heard Tony Rice when I was 17, I’d never heard a guitar sound like that. I wanted to do it so that that sent me down the rabbit hole,” he says. “I was obsessed with bluegrass for years. I mean, I still am. That music just really resonated to my core. It felt like ground zero for me.”

That said, bluegrass was but one musical element of the polyjamorous sound of The Bridge, Cris’s first serious band, which got going around 2001. By 2005 they were voted Baltimore’s Best Band by readers of the City Paper and they were touring the US and Europe and releasing albums, four in total. By 2011, the math and time equation didn’t work anymore as the guys started families. An old story. Jacobs forged ahead and built a solid solo career. The local paper called him the King of Baltimore Rock and Roll. The next hurdle was the pandemic, which left him at sea and depressed and wondering if he’d even go back to performing. The story of repairing himself, of turning back to bluegrass to find his fire, of collaborating with Jerry Douglas is the core of this engaging interview.

One Of These Days, written in a rush of concentrated fervor and recorded in optimal circumstances at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, crackles with bluegrass drive and shine while coloring soulfully outside the lines. “Poor Davey” draws a dark family story from headlines in Baltimore and jams out nicely with Billy Strings thrilling with both rhythm and lead guitar. “Daughter, Daughter” is a powerful prayer for his girl and her world set to only a stark and glorious duo of lap guitars with Douglas. I love the timeless form and lyric of “Work Song (I Can Still Sing),” which shines with vocal support from Nashville’s Lindsay Lou, an old Jacobs friend. It’s the cohesive, progressive roots statement Jacobs needed, just when he needed it.

“There's been good years. There's been not so good years. And you know, right now feels like a really inspiring period,” he tells me. “I've been doing this a long time, but it also feels like I've just sort of cleared my throat, and I'm ready to start doing it. You know, it does feel a little bit like a chapter one, which is, for someone like me, a really cool feeling. It's just a recharge.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>