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Three of America's finest roots musicians are bassist Edgar Meyer, dobro player Jerry Douglas and mandolin master Sam Bush. Each has a virtuosic command of the bluegrass/folk/acoustic traditions. Anything but preservationists, they're dedicated to pushing the boundaries, growing into the cracks between genres, and drawing from a vital flow of creativity that has yet to harden into style. Their music is a combination of country and improvisation, at its best an engaging balance of familiarity and surprise.

At least that's the plan. "We're still figuring out how we are going to play together," bassist Meyer says. "We're old friends -- we enjoy being together and listening to each other. Over the years we've been involved in so many things, but never just the three of us in one situation."

"Edgar has been pushing towards this music for a long time," Douglas says. "It's like getting your foot up on a large rock — you can see farther from the top."

They played together previously as part of the roots super-group Strength in Numbers (their numbers in that case strengthened by star violinist Mark O'Connor and banjo iconoclast Béla Fleck). In that setting, they reached far beyond their newgrass idiom to encompass an eclectic mix of everything from classical to jazz to reggae, in freewheeling country textures.

It helps that the musicians have played with so many different kinds of genres. With a dozen albums as bandleader, and more than 500 more as a sideman, Douglas' distinctive dobro sound has graced releases from Bill Frisell and Lyle Lovett to Phish; he's long held a featured spot in Allison Krauss' Union Station and provided memorable support on the breakout soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou" (as well as making a brief appearance in the film).

His instrument is a guitar with a built-in metal resonator designed to provide enough amplification to compete with the naturally louder instruments on an acoustic stage. Douglas fell in love with its sound as a child growing up in Warren, an Ohio River steel town where his father led the only bluegrass band within 100 miles. ("Now there's one on every corner," he says.)

The dobro may be the perfect instrument for a Rust Belt native playing Bible Belt music. Created in the late '20s, the dobro is a relatively recent invention, but then again, so is bluegrass. A postwar synthesis of mountain reels and the blues, bluegrass is thoroughly modern music, despite its air of rural timelessness. "When I was young I listened to both the Beatles and Flatt and Scruggs," Douglas says. "It confused me, but I always wanted parts of both in my music."

And it's music that has continued to evolve. Sam Bush coined the term "newgrass" to distinguish his transgressive, long-haired, hard-driving approach from the hay-bale-and-plaid-shirt purist crowd.

"The truth is that all of us in this community have a mixed heritage," Meyer says. "Sam's natural combination of bluegrass and rock 'n' roll has a very big impact."

Meyer's own multifaceted career extends into classical performance and composition. The New Yorker calls him "the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively unchronicled history of his instrument."

Hardly faint praise, but being inclusive has a cost. "If you want to be adventurous, a lot of mainstream types can't figure out which bin to put you in," Douglas says. "But if you want to own a mansion in the suburbs, [commercial] country music is your man."

But if they aren't raking it in like Garth Brooks and the cowboy-hat crowd, they've garnered great respect and a host of Grammys and other music awards. And they're certainly accessible. "We want to play music that is challenging but doesn't leave the audience behind," Douglas says. "Maybe it just makes them think a little harder than usual at a concert."

"The best music is like a conversation," Meyer says. "I don't actually know what makes a performance successful; each is part of a lifetime of figuring out how to make the most beautiful music possible."

So in the end, it's just three articulate artists, comfortable with themselves and with each other, exchanging ideas at the fluent height of their careers, with the audience invited to listen in. S

Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush perform at the Modlin Center Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8-$36. 289-8980.

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