Doug Perkins explores the bounds of acoustic guitar — with a little help from his friends
Doug Perkins has played on more records than he can remember, but having his name on the cover of one is something new for the veteran guitar picker. Now, with the release of his first solo record, Music for Flat-Top Guitar, the longtime sideman is stepping out front.
Perkins has been a staple of the Vermont music scene since he migrated here after college in 1986 and soon established himself as one of the most versatile and inventive flat-pickers around. He’s played with Smokin’ Grass, Gordon Stone and numerous singer-songwriters with a style that flows effortlessly from bluegrass to jazz to classical.
Last Saturday, the 54-year-old picker drew a standing-room-only crowd to his CD-release show at Burlington’s Skinny Pancake. The microbrew-swilling crowd was hopped up for the highly anticipated concert, but Perkins was characteristically low key. Sitting on a bench seat close to the door, he leaned in to the microphone and said softly, “Thanks for coming.” Then he announced an only-in-Vermont special offer: “The first 10 people who buy a CD get an organically grown bulb from my garlic patch.”
Perkins might be the furthest thing from a rock star. He plays with stone-faced concentration, peering out from underneath a ski hat and bushy beard. His fingers fly up and down the fret board, but he hardly makes a move, save for the occasional head bob. He lets his music do the talking. And his guitar has a lot to say.
Talking about his record over coffee in Waterbury last week, Perkins said humbly, “I just did what I could. I wanted it to be mostly original material. Then you’ve got to find the guys to play the music you want to write.”
For his debut album and release show, Perkins assembled what he calls his “dream band” — Jamie Masefield on mandolin, Tyler Bolles on bass and Patrick Ross on fiddle. All three are Perkins’ old friends and longtime collaborators, but they had never before played together.
Their first official meeting happened in Kristina Stykos’ Pepperbox Studio in Chelsea, where Music for Flat-Top Guitar was recorded over a period of 16 months. Stykos and her husband, Froggy Bottom Guitars builder Michael Millard, are neighbors of Perkins, who lives on 130 acres in the town of Washington. There he composes, gardens and does occasional woodworking.
The all-instrumental Music for Flat-Top Guitar is composed of Perkins-penned rags, jigs and waltzes, with a few traditional bluegrass fiddle tunes and three classical compositions — two by Bach, one by Chopin — thrown in for good measure.
“Bach is so jazzy,” Perkins said. “I think I’m modern with these lines and chords, but Bach did it all 300 years ago. It flips me out, but it makes me feel connected to the way back.”
Perkins’ original songs are all new. He wrote the opening track, “Garlic Patch Rag,” while working for the U.S. Census in 2010.
“Mitch McConnell doesn’t need to worry,” Perkins said, referring to the Republican U.S. Senate leader. “The government wasn’t paying me for writing a song. It was on my lunch break.”
“Loch Ness Jig” was cowritten with Ross, whom Perkins met when Smokin’ Grass recruited the Northeast Kingdom native as their fiddle player when he was 14. “His mother would drive him to gigs,” said Perkins, who called Ross one of the best fiddlers he’s ever heard.
Masefield is an even older friend; the Jazz Mandolin Project front man and Perkins played their first gig together — with Mike Gordon of Phish on bass — in 1987 and have continued collaborating ever since. Bolles is a relatively newer addition, though he’s part of a trio with Perkins and Masefield that performs with some regularity.
Perkins recorded the entire album with his 1969 Martin D-18 — the gold standard in bluegrass music. The guitar is a weathered but beautiful instrument he bought for $450 back in 1984. “It was in a drummer’s closet. He was my bandmate,” Perkins recalled. “I bought it on layaway. I would give him my gig money.”
Raised in Ridgewood, N.J., Perkins came north to attend college at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He studied classical guitar in high school but is otherwise almost entirely self-taught. “I’ve taken a few lessons,” Perkins said. “I made a butternut bookcase in exchange for lessons from Paul Asbell.”
He played electric guitar in a college funk band called Omni and a rhythm and blues band called the Oscillators. At the time, Perkins didn’t think much of bluegrass. “The first bluegrass I heard, I immediately dismissed as being simple,” he said. “I was stupid.”
The record that changed his mind was the David Grisman Quintet’s 1977 self-titled debut album, featuring flat-picking legend Tony Rice on guitar. The DGQ’s blend of bluegrass, swing and gypsy jazz blew Perkins away. And it has clearly influenced his own songwriting.
“I like to think that David Grisman saved me from electric guitar,” Perkins said.
Doug Perkins’ CD is available at Pure Pop in Burlington, Buch Spieler in Montpelier and at dougperkins.bandcamp.com .