Slidewinder Jerry Douglas
August 24, 2006
“The Best Kept Secret,” Jerry Douglas’ 2005 release, is almost certainly the most broad-ranging album ever put together by a dobro player. “The Best Kept Secret” opens with “She Makes Me Want to Sing,” featuring Pakistani-spiced guitar work by Derek Trucks; moves into the newgrass rave-up “Who’s Your Uncle,” with Douglas’ old mates from Strength in Numbers, Béla Fleck and Sam Bush. It carries on with the jazz-country crossover “Lil’ Roro,” with guitarist Bill Frisell, and a chugging take on Bob Wills’ “Swing Blues No. 1,” with vocals by John Fogerty. And Douglas’ melodic touch on the dobro is highlighted on a cover of the Joe Zawinul ballad “A Remark You Made.”All this from a guy who thought that taking up the dobro would confine him to a life of straight-up bluegrass.”When I started playing with the Country Gentlemen [as a 17-year-old, in 1973], I wasn’t thinking about playing any other kind of music,” said Douglas. “I liked other things, but I figured, I was in this bluegrass world, and they don’t like you to play anything else.”The Ohio-born Douglas’ early exposure to music came through his father, a steelworker who played bluegrass in his spare time. At the age of 8, Douglas was taken to a Flatt & Scruggs concert, where he was knocked flat not so much by the guitar-picking Lester Flatt or the banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, but by Josh Graves and his instrument, the dobro. As a teenager in the ’60s, Douglas developed a huge affection for rock ‘n’ roll, especially the Beatles and the Doors. But that was as a listener. As a player, he stuck close to bluegrass. After a year in the Country Gentlemen, the band’s mandolinist, Ricky Skaggs, moved over to banjoist J.D. Crowe’s New South, and Douglas soon followed suit. In the New South, Douglas became acquainted with guitarist Tony Rice. When Rice moved on to California to join David Grisman’s first quintet, Douglas visited and not only was exposed to Grisman’s groundbreaking style, but also played on Rice’s “Rattlesnake” album.All those influences made their mark on Douglas. “The world grew, and I grew,” he said. “All the people I’ve played with over the years, it all got mixed up in there.”For a seminal moment, when he realized that the dobro could be used for something way beyond the bluegrass sound, Douglas pinpoints his introduction to David Lindley. Lindley is a master of numerous string instruments. But it was how he played the lap steel – like the dobro, a slide instrument – that was Douglas’ musical big bang.
“What he did, how he treated the lap steel, that was eye-opening, a seminal moment for me,” said Douglas. “And then years later, meeting him, I found out more about how he did it.”The answer, in a word, was electricity. Douglas learned from Lindley that the traditional acoustic instruments didn’t have to be used in the traditional way, played into a microphone. You could plug in a dobro. The very thought might be sacrilege to a traditionalist, but Douglas was electrified by the idea.”It was like, fun with power tools, in a way,” he said. “It was like using a handsaw all your life, and someone hands you a power saw.”Earlier this summer, Douglas performed at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, before a crowd of some 80,000. At last year’s Bonnaroo, Douglas jammed with the Allman Brothers Band. The idea of doing either as a strictly acoustic act would have been scary. With electricity on his side, Douglas had no problems being heard by the masses, or being heard above the Allmans’ thunderous blues-boogie.The plugged-in dobro, said Douglas, “has a totally different voice and power. It has an opinion about everything. It opened the instrument up to the blues and rock world.”Douglas credits the advances in equipment for his ability to turn on the juice. It wasn’t long ago that electrified acoustic instruments sounded loud and unruly.”We’ve got good tones for the instruments plugged in,” said Douglas, who appears at Belly Up Saturday, Aug. 26, with a band that features fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Guthrie Trapp and bassist Todd Parks – all of whom, at times, play electric versions of their instruments – as well as drummer Doug Belote. “For a long time, pickup tones were so bad; they weren’t really friendly to acoustic instruments. Now, they really sound like the image they’re trying to portray. You can play to bigger places; you can play to 10,000 people.”
Finding the electric socket and turning up the volume has only been a part of Douglas’ expansion. The other side of the groundbreaking has been in the stylistic department.Rubbing elbows with J.D. Crowe and David Grisman enlarged Douglas’ ears. In the late ’80s came the big leap, when Douglas joined banjoist Fleck and mandolinist Bush, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddler Mark O’Connor in the acoustic supergroup Strength in Numbers. Fleck and Bush had already pushed the musical boundaries in New Grass Revival; Meyer and O’Connor were making their names as bluegrass players who slid just as easily into the classical world. Surrounded by such wide-thinking artists, Douglas couldn’t help hearing music in the broadest terms.It has also helped Douglas’ growth that he is one of the relatively few well-known dobroists. So when an artist of any stripe was looking for a dobro player for a recording session, Douglas was more than likely to get the call.Douglas, who had recorded with Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and numerous other country-leaning artists, knew he was entering a new realm when he was summoned to play on Ray Charles’ 1984 record, “Friendship.” “I thought, ‘Now that’s going to be different,'” he said. Douglas also contributed to Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” album: “That was another time I thought, wow, that’s different. You stand in the studio with them, and the world becomes a bigger place.”If you work with Edgar Meyer, then T-Bone Burnett, then John Fogerty, that all gets in there.”At 50, Douglas, who also plays lap steel and electric guitar, hasn’t stopped looking for the next source of inspiration. One of his latest artistic pushes came from 27-year-old slide guitarist Derek Trucks, whose own makeup includes elements of jazz fusion, soul and Pakistani qwalli.”Hearing Derek Trucks play, I thought that’s what I’ve been thinking about a long time,” said Douglas. “And here he is, playing it. I’d been doing that acoustically for a long time, and he’s getting it across.”
Though he has largely given up his career as a session player – after appearing on some 1,500 albums – Douglas actually still leads something of a triple life. He has become a fairly high-profile producer, his credits including projects by the Del McCoury Band and Jesse Winchester. Several years ago, he became a full-time member of the all-acoustic group Alison Krauss + Union Station. (It is a measure of his stature that the group is usually billed as “featuring Jerry Douglas.”) The immense popularity of Alison Krauss + Union Station has led many listeners to think that is Douglas’ main gig and the extent of his musical ambitions. Hence, the name of the recent album, “The Best Kept Secret.””It came to me that a lot of people know me as the dobro player on a lot of records, and in AKUS – but they didn’t think of me as a lap steel player, or these other things,” he said.It’s been a long time since Douglas thought of himself as a bluegrass musician.”The audience can dictate what you play, or you can dictate what you play,” he said. “If you are interested in different kinds of music and expanding your mind, not putting all your eggs in one basket – well, I hit that a few years ago. That came from playing on so many records and having a different voice on all of them. That became a training ground for dabbling in so many different styles.”At the end of the day, it’s hard for me to say what kind of musician I am. And that’s OK with me.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com