“It’s important to me to keep stretching, says Grammy-winner Jerry Douglas.
“I’ll be 50 next year, and I feel like I’ve still got things to learn. When you stop learning, you’re dead.”
Some might find such a sentiment odd coming from a man whom the vast majority of musicians and music critics consider one of the greatest dobro players who’s ever lived. Truth be told, he could have essentially thrown in the towel a few years ago, just kept his chops up, and likely coasted on his rep and existing ability to coax beautiful sounds from his chosen instrument for the next three decades.
Yet his restless yearning for what lies beyond is increasingly evident, if one knows where to look. You can see it in his youthful countenance, and you can hear it in his increasingly diverse and wide-ranging solo albums — which, more than ever before are stretching farther past the rigid confines of traditional bluegrass into the realms of jazz, pop, country, Celtic, folk, rock and (ahem) just plain old music.
One of the most celebrated and sought-after Nashville session men of all time, his fretwork graced over 1,000 different albums by other artists (both superstars and relative unknowns) before he left that high-paying but often soulless grind to concentrate on artistic endeavours which resonate with him on a personal level — such as playing with Alison Krauss & Union Station, as he has done since 1998.
In the wake of his 11th (and most envelope-pushing) solo album, The Best Kept Secret, which features —among other things— guest vocals on one track by CCR’s John Fogerty and a unique arrangement of a classic jazz fusion tune by Weather Report, Douglas brings his 4-piece backing band to town as part of the 2007 Savannah Music Festival.
The globe-trotting roots music icon spoke to me from Scotland.
Over the past 2 decades, at roughly the same rate that country music’s been watered down by commercial pop — traditional bluegrass and mountain music have been branching out as well. But they’ve been incorporating jazz, Celtic, classical and even jam-band music. To what do you most attribute this radical cross-pollination of Americana?
Jerry Douglas: It’s true that country music has changed greatly. In many ways the country we hear today reminds me more of rock music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The people who were avid listeners then have grown closer to country music, maybe feeling a little forsaken by rock radio. Bluegrass players are very influenced by all musics. I believe bluegrass, a relatively new music form, is an amalgamation of Appalachian, blues, and ragtime. Bill Monroe was heavily influenced by the blues, while Earl Scruggs was struck by ragtime played on piano and 4-string banjo in the ‘20s and ‘30s. So, it goes on evolving with the jazz influences of Bela (Fleck), Sam Bush, Chris Thile and myself. We hopefully attract younger players to our instruments and they learn what came before: Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Josh Graves and so on.
I’m always surprised listeners don’t immediately recognize the similarities between bluegrass and jazz. Do you consider yourself as much a jazz artist as a country artist, or do you even delineate things in those terms?
Jerry Douglas: Well first off, I don’t really consider myself a jazz musician. I do see similarities in bluegrass and jazz, though. Both are based on improvisational skills. Because bluegrass is such a physical, acoustic genre, a really good bluegrass musician will have the chops and stamina to hang tough in a jazz situation. I’m not sure I would label myself as any particular kind of artist. I suppose since I’ve had such a long career as a studio musician, playing mostly country, that’s how people refer to me. But it really doesn’t matter.
A few years back you walked away from an amazing career as one of the go-to session guys in Nashville. Was that something you’d been thinking about for a long while, or was it the result of an epiphany — that you just weren’t enjoying yourself much anymore?
Jerry Douglas: When I joined Union Station, I was pretty disenchanted with country music. It has formulaic tendencies, and we were in one of those ruts where we’d overrun the boundaries of what’s tasteful. I often wondered if I’d played on the same song with another artist the week before, or was unknowingly imitating myself. The main reason I joined the band, though, was because I liked their music. I wanted to be in a band again where you all pitched in to arrange a new song and then played it every night — hearing that voice and wrapping the right notes and phrases around it.
Can you foresee a time when you’d go back to session work with the same vigor?
Jerry Douglas: No, I don’t think so. I still enjoy the whole process of recording, but I think my time as strictly a studio musician has gone. I love challenging situations with different casts of characters, but I want them to be events. Not just a “10, 2, or 6” for whatever artist happens to call.
In your teens, you joined the Country Gentlemen, and helped set the pace for the whole “Newgrass” trend. What was it like to be a key figure in a movement that pushed a rigid form of music into uncharted waters?
Jerry Douglas: Of course we weren’t thinking of being trailblazers. We were just twisting the music we loved into something else that had our brand on it. The difference was we could play the hardcore bluegrass if we wanted to — something I’m not sure the jam-bands can actually do.
Are you at all surprised with the many forms bluegrass has taken of late, and the ripples which have spread internationally from the Newgrass movement?
Jerry Douglas: I’m not surprised. Evolution is a tough groove to break. New musics are popping up constantly and those with their ear to the ground are going to keep on pushing the envelope. It does amaze me sometimes how knowledgeable the Europeans are of the different players in this particular genre. As many variations arrive, the true form stays alive and well. Often, you’ll find it internationally. I’m always happy to hear that as well.
You’ve called the dobro a very “vocal” instrument. Could you talk a bit about the idea of coaxing different “voices” from it, and how that attracted you to it as a child?
Jerry Douglas: The dobro is a very good foil for singers. Because of its sustain and ability to change notes without crossing a fret —the slide bar is my fret— it can sound like an accompanying singer. I try to compliment the vocal, excite the phrases, listen closely and react to the words. Sometimes this calls for a harmony note or notes against the singer. The thing I don’t want to do is distract from who’s singing. That would be crossing the line. The best thing to know is when not to play. It’s also the hardest to learn. I was attracted to it because of that ability and the bluesy feel that came from the man I was trying to emulate: Josh Graves. He played with Flatt and Scruggs in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was a master at controlling the emotions of songs.
Would it be a truism to say that your attraction to those qualities of the dobro reflects a desire to be known as a vocalist yourself?
Jerry Douglas: It would be the absolute truth. Even though I didn’t know that when I started playing the dobro. I was a singer and played guitar and mandolin. Somehow, when I got to the level where I could back up a singer, the dobro became my voice. Instrumental music can be boring, or for musicians only. A way to show off the chops of a collective group of players. I don’t subscribe to that brand of music. I want my music (and everyone in my band) to be articulate and of high quality, but if what I play isn’t accessible to the listener, what good is it? We need to fill the seats and be entertaining. We want to have as much fun as the audience. That’s why we travel and play music. Otherwise, we could just stay home and amaze each other with our lightning-fast note explosions. (laughs)
This new album boasts a pretty staggering variety of musical styles. I’ve never thought of Alison Krauss as funky, but her turn on “Back in Love Again” is about as greasy and lowdown as one could imagine. Even with the stellar caliber of talent you regularly work with, are you ever surprised at the serendipitous moments that can occur when little regard is paid to pigeonholing people into the genres they’re best known for?
Jerry Douglas: Singers of Alison’s caliber are not that common. When you have a gift like hers, you should enjoy it. She is also a very funny person, and it shows when she gets into a situation like that one. We had so much fun doing that song. She and I could have done something more like what we always do with Union Station. But this needed to be different. We allowed ourselves out of the comfort zone. That can happen with any high-powered musician, and should from time to time, or the pigeonholing will begin. Life is too short.
John Fogerty and you have guested on each other’s records. He’s well known in the biz for being both a voracious musician and a very demanding fellow when it comes to recording. However, his vocal cameo on your CD came together very quickly. What is Fogerty like to work with, and what was the vibe like when you realized you actually got to have the voice of CCR sing on your album?
Jerry Douglas: John and I are great friends. We also have the utmost respect for one another. Before I went to L.A. to cut this song, we talked a lot about what kind of song it should be to fall neatly into the record and the duo idea was automatic. He knows I would never put him in any kind of uncomfortable place. I’ve been listening to him since the 3rd grade! He was pretty young then, too. He wrote “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising” when he was 17. I was thrilled. He enjoyed it too, and we’re still great friends.
Most people imagine winning a Grammy as an unbelievable rush, but after taking home almost 10 of them — does that particular form of recognition lose its lustre, or is every nomination or win as thrilling as the first?
Jerry Douglas: Receiving something from your peers ]—like a Grammy— is always exhilarating. Each one is the same as the first. It means you’ve made some contribution to society and maybe changed the way someone thinks on any number of things. Grammys are far-reaching. It’s not the reason I do what I do. It does make the days when you’re sick and have to play a show 1,000 miles from home go a little easier — if you need to conjure that up to get through the gig. I’d rather not have them staring me down from the book shelves, but I am proud of them.
Are there any far-out collaborations you keep in the back of your mind that some might find bizarre, but which you have a sneaking suspicion might result in beautiful music, regardless of the public’s ingrained notions of how such things should sound?
Jerry Douglas: Well I never worry about pre-conceived notions, but there are some strange ones still in my head. Horn players intrigue me. We’ll see.
You’ve played Savannah a few times in the past. Did you enjoy your time here?
Jerry Douglas: Yes, I’ve played there several times over the years, and have always enjoyed it. Savannah has a wonderful feel to it. The genteel South lives on there. The architecture is beautiful. Being so close to the sea has its advantages, I’d imagine, landlocked as we are in Nashville. I’m just so glad it was largely spared so long ago. We don’t have that many places in this country with the history and treasure that Savannah holds. It seems very romantic.
Will your set here focus mostly on the newest LP, or serve as a career retrospective?
Jerry Douglas: Focusing on the new record is fun for me, but it won’t be all we do. I guess it is a retrospective. The band’s been together now for a year and it’s been very rewarding. Guthrie, Todd, Doug, Gabe and now Luke are some of the best I’ve ever played with and they keep getting better.
What’s next for Jerry Douglas?
Jerry Douglas: I’m just getting back from 2 weeks in Scotland taping a series for BBC called The Transatlantic Sessions. What a great time that was. I serve as musical director. I start rehearsals with Union Station soon for a tour that will include some dates with my old friend Tony Rice. Alison and I and the band will be out most of the Summer and Fall. Also, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer and I play some dates together in late October and November. It’s looking like another great year of music, hanging with the family as much as possible. I’m a lucky man.
The Jerry Douglas Band plays Trustees Theater at 8 pm, Thursday, March 29. This show is part of the Connect Americana series, and is co-sponsored by Connect Savannah. Tickets for this ALL-AGES event range from $15 to $40, and are available at www.savannahmusicfestival.org, at the SCAD Box Office, or by calling 525-5050.