Jerry Douglas: the dobro man
August 29, 2008
SNOWMASS VILLAGE Jerry Douglas describes his life of late as being sort of like a Ferris wheel.One thing that description could mean is a series of ups and downs. Douglas had flown the night before from a gig in North Carolina to his home in Nashville, while nursing a bad cold that practically could be felt over the phone. Thats no fun, flying with a head cold, he said.But Douglas mood is upbeat, and hes not up for complaining, not even begging off from the scheduled interview. And when he expands on his explanation, and calls his existence a pretty nice Ferris wheel, its clear hes not talking about lifes highs and lows.Instead, as with a Ferris wheel ride, the view is constantly changing for Douglas, the surroundings are in neverending flux. Douglas itinerary for the month is a head-turning tour through musical styles, collaborators, material and venues. One day, he appeared as part of jazz bassist Charlie Hadens bluegrass-leaning band at New York Citys Lincoln Center; that evening, at the same venue, he was persuaded by punk icon Patti Smith to join her for a few songs. Douglas also is in the midst of a residency with the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, for which he has coordinated a four-part series of concerts. The first show, which he played last week, was something of a CD release party for his wide-spanning new album, Glide, and thus featured guests who contributed to the album country singer Travis Tritt, steel guitarist Lloyd Green plus the members of the Jerry Douglas Band. The next gig in the series, which was set for this past Wednesday, featured three of Douglas bandmates from the super-influential strings supergroup Strength in Numbers bassist Edgar Meyer, banjoist Bla Fleck and mandolinist Sam Bush plus the Whites, the bluegrass band Douglas played in through much of the 80s. Douglas says he is not at liberty to say who his guests will be on the next two Hall of Fame shows, but he allows that some of them are far removed from the bluegrass and acoustic realm.Its my career, said the 52-year-old. It takes some turns far right and far left.Douglas next show, at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival at Snowmass Town Park, is a more routine gig, with the band he put together three years ago: drummer Chad Melton, bassist Todd Parks, violinist Luke Bulla and guitarist Guthrie Trapp. But the set will take at least one sharp turn, as Douglas is planning to have Woody Creeker John Oates join him onstage. (Douglas played on several tracks on Oates CD 1000 Miles of Life, due for release next month.) And there may be more last-minute detours in store, as Douglas learns what other musicians will be in the area.
When Douglas took up music, in his native Ohio, he had no idea that such a broad range of musical options were available to him. Douglas fell in love with music watching his father, a steel-worker by day, play guitar in weekend bluegrass bands. He fell even harder for his instrument, the dobro, at age 8, when he witnessed a Flatt & Scruggs show, and tuned into dobroist Josh Graves.I loved the sound of that instrument, and I loved the sound of bluegrass, he said. But Douglas was also infatuated with the emerging sounds of rock n roll, with a particular affinity for the Beatles and the Doors. That, however, was miles away from bluegrass and the dobro, and at the time, there were no bridges between the different worlds. So he settled into the bluegrass realm, and landed his first prominent gig, at the age of 17, with the Country Gentlemen.As Douglas developed his instrumental skills, his ambitions widened correspondingly. As he saw such bands as J.D. Crowes New South which he would eventually join and the David Grisman Quintet break fresh acoustic ground, he realized there were fewer and fewer boundaries dividing genres. And when Douglas, in the mid-80s, joined Strength in Numbers, which brought in elements from jazz, classical and folk, he was inspired to knock down any last walls between styles. The group recorded one genre-bending album, The Telluride Sessions.Strength in Numbers was very significant, he said. Just the understanding, the example it set, that there was an audience for that kind of thing. That opened a door to all of us, to keep up doing that sort of thing. MCA loved the record, but didnt know what to do with it, didnt know who to send it to. But we all went, people really like this, so this gives us license to proceed.Douglas has proceeded, taking the dobro, a resonator guitar played with a slide, to places it had never been before. Among the artists Douglas has recorded with are Phish, John Fogerty, Bruce Hornsby and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; on the country/bluegrass side, he has recorded with virtually every significant act there is, giving him a total of more than 1,600 album credits. Three years ago, Paul Simon invited the Jerry Douglas Band to tour as his opening act for a six-month span. In 1998, Douglas joined the membership of chart-topping acoustic band Alison Krauss + Union Station; the band is now officially billed as Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.I had no idea it would go where its gone. Ive learned that along the way, said Douglas. It was probably pretty soon after I got to playing professionally, with the Country Gentlemen. I started listening to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and I was able to adapt all that to the dobro. I found myself in all these situations, and it just worked. I made the dobro take on the role of the electric guitar, so it wouldnt be a background instrument. I kept exploring it.
Glide, released earlier this month, is a description of Douglas journey with the dobro that works on both musical and metaphoric levels. The album runs through Celtic (Route Irish), mainstream country (A Marriage Made in Hollywood, featuring singer Travis Tritt), banjo tunes (the traditional Home Sweet Home, featuring Earl Scruggs), and the sort of complex, sophisticated and uncategorizable compositions Strength in Numbers was known for (Pushed Too Far). Perhaps the highlight of the album, and the furthest Douglas pushes on the borders of his instrument, is the New Orleans-inspired Sway Sur La Rue Royale. The tune opens with Douglas dobro lines, which conveys a sense of post-Katrina blues. Then come drum rolls and horn parts that are direct from Bourbon Street; it is almost certainly the only second-line parade led by a dobroist.I saw a TV show a couple Christmases ago, after Katrina, said Douglas. And it was about these musicians who all called in sick, so they could be replaced by New Orleans players, to give them work. They showed the musicians playing, and it was so New Orleans. I said, Ive got to capture that. Douglas made a point not only of hiring New Orleans players for the track, but to record it in New Orleans. I needed to have players who live and breathe that air.The concept beneath Glide was Douglas idea of a smooth ride. He was thinking specifically of huge, vintage gas-guzzlers; the cover art features Douglas behind the wheel of just such a vehicle.The great big, old cars, you didnt feel a bump in the road, he said. It was like ice-skating, just hovering across things looking at the terrain, but not feeling it. I wanted the whole album to feel that way, and most of the time it does.That notion of a smooth journey could just as well be applied to Douglas ride with the dobro. He has made big jumps with the instrument into jazz, rock and more. And he has virtually always landed it.Among the major hurdles, however, has been volume, and amplification. Douglas could generally be heard among electric instruments but it meant sacrificing the genuine sound of the dobro. Over the past two years, Douglas has been working with Fishman Transducers to create a pick-up system to overcome his amplification difficulties.Now I can make it as loud as a Telecaster, he said, but it still sounds like a dobro. Now, being able to play like with the rock n rollers too, weve opened Pandoras box. That takes away that barrier.Douglas is currently lining up a project that would take him a step toward the rock n roll world. Hes talking about putting together a tour that would feature his band, and the Derek Trucks Band, led by the slide guitarist who is also a member of the Allman Brothers Band, and has done time in Eric Claptons group. Beyond that, he doesnt know what other barriers hes going to leap. It just depends on what comes up, he said, adding that he needs some time to recover from the latest flurry of activity.Mostly, what Douglas expects to find ahead are not exactly barriers, but challenges for what can be done with the dobro.I havent thought that its just one instrument that can do one thing, he said. I havent found its boundaries. Im not really looking for them. Ive tried to throw it in everywhere, and it fits email@example.com