Dean of the Dobro
Alex McKinney is a
professional sideman — and more
Next time you see Jerry Douglas in concert, thank him for creating Alex McKinney.
Wait, that has misleading connotations; rather, thank him for teaming up with guitarist Russ Barenberg and bassist Edgar Meyer and releasing the landmark album Skip, Hop & Wobble in 1993. That is the album that rocked McKinney’s world and altered the course of his career forever.
By the time McKinney was handed that album by a friend, a couple of years after its release, he already had an enviable 10-year track record. As bassist for Atlantic recording artists Athenaeum, generally considered the finest alt-rock band Greensboro has ever produced, McKinney was also a professional-level guitarist and banjoist. But he immediately went out and bought a Dobro, aka resophonic guitar, and began woodshedding. He got to break it out on a tune Athenaeum recorded for a benefit CD, a cover of Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen,” but by and large McKinney remained a bassist/guitarist. After Athenaeum broke up in 2004, he did a stint with local legend Patrick Rock, while easing into his new acoustic role with banjo wizard Andy Eversole.
He soon became a sideman for N.C. twang legend, Caleb Caudle, before getting the call from revered singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett to join her and multi-instrumentalist Scott Manring.
“I had actually taken banjo lessons from Scott as a kid,” says McKinney,” so to actually play alongside him onstage was a huge thrill.”
These days McKinney gets calls from any number of top-shelf artists needing a top-shelf Dobroist, both as a session man and sideman. As if playing four instruments — and playing them well —weren’t enough, he has also picked up the lap steel and pedal steel, playing them on songstress Carri Smithey’s new CD. He and singer-songwriter Alan Peterson have formed a duo, and he also plays occasional shows with guitar god Sam Frazier and percussionist Eddie Walker, in addition to sitting in with Dossett and Molly McGinn.
The gig that has McKinney most excited these days is with Martha Bassett’s new six-piece group. They just finished a CD, set for release in September, and launched the act at a sold-out show at The Crown.
Maybe playing with a half-dozen acts simultaneously isn’t enough to keep the boyishly handsome 42-year-old busy; he also works full-time as a web developer and designer at Bluezoom.
“When I picked up the Dobro I had all this experience already and knew the language of music,” McKinney notes, adding, “I love putting Dobro in situations and genres where you normally wouldn’t find it.”
Given that he’s the most in-demand sideman east of Nashville, that shouldn’t be hard to do.
— Ogi Overman