Jerry Douglas is a dobro master, appearing on over 1500 records. Scrolling through his credits "makes you tired" Douglas says with a big laugh. But it attests to his prowess on an instrument that is predominately a signature in bluegrass and yet he has taken into rock, country, blues, Americana, folk and world music. Artists he has worked with include Mumford & Sons, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles and John Fogerty, who called Douglas "my favorite musician of all time." He has 14 Grammy Awards out of 31 nominations. He also has writing credits on at least 95 songs.
Douglas became fascinated with the dobro when as a young boy, his father took him to a Flatt & Scruggs concert. Smitten with the sound, he tried to turn his regular guitar into a dobro before obtaining the real thing. Following high school, he moved to Washington DC to join the Country Gentlemen, who at the time also counted Ricky Skaggs as a member. In 1983, Douglas won his first Grammy, Best Country Instrumental Performance, with J.D. Crowe's New South for "Fireball."
In 1998, he joined Alison Krauss' backing band Union Station, playing on their acclaimed albums Forget About It (1999) and New Favorite (2001). He and other members of the group morphed into The Soggy Bottom Boys for the incredibly popular Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, earning Douglas Grammy number six for Album of the Year as the bluegrass revival took hold. (Their performance was a highlight of the ceremony - the camera operator seemed fascinated with Jerry's dobro.)
August 18, 2017 will bring the release of a new album Douglas has made with his Jerry Douglas Band called What If. The record contains some new songs, covers and reworkings of a few older tunes he had recorded in the past, namely "Cave Bop" and the Jimi Hendrix classic "Hey Joe," which Douglas originally covered in 1992.
Jerry Douglas: It didn't work out so well [Laughs]. The dobro, the strings are higher, and I used to have this really awful story that we used the family toothbrush to raise the strings up. Not true!
I make up weird stories for the audience because they need to laugh once in a while. But my father took me to see Flatt & Scruggs when I was a little kid and I said, "If you'll raise the strings up on my guitar, I'll try to learn how to play like that man did up there." But my guitar was a Silvertone, a Sears Silvertone model. It wasn't a real professional piece. I wouldn't even say it was a real guitar.
My dad played guitar too, and he took our guitar cases and he laid them down on top of the cedar chest that we had. I put my case on top of the cases in the sun, which would come in and beat down on this area every day. I came home from school one day and I saw the case looked kind of funny. I hit the latch and when I opened up the case, the guitar just folded up like a mousetrap. All the glue joints had softened from the sun and the guitar had so much tension on it, it exploded. So I had to get another sturdier guitar and then I finally got a real dobro at that point. My father saw that I was really trying to learn and was making some headway so he found me something to play that was better.
Douglas: It's got such a soulful sound in the right hands. It can be a torturous thing in the wrong hands. I've met many people who go, "You're the reason I play dobro." And I look at their wife and I say, "I'm sorry." And they'll go, "No, no, no, he's allowed in the house with it now." [Laughs].
But it is one of the instruments that is closest to the human voice, just in the emotional parameters where you can go: vibrato and loud/quiet, all the different ways you can play and emulate the human voice. I was a singer until I was six, seven years old and I started playing guitar. Then I started playing dobro and I didn't sing at all after that. I just sang harmony parts on things but I didn't sing leads or anything like that because it kind of comes from the same place in your brain – your pitch and your intonation and things like that. That's what grabbed me about it. It hit me right in the heart.
Songfacts: Was it all Josh Graves at first?
Douglas: Yes, completely, because he could play fast like Earl Scruggs. He could play on the really fast instrumental stuff but he also took solos and was the guy they used when they wanted to be emotional in the songs or to be bluesy or to bring out all of these different feelings. He was so good at that. He had learned to play from a black man who was in the area where he grew up in East Tennessee. That was one of the first sounds he heard and it stayed with him and he passed it on to me not knowing it. But I got to be good friends with him later on in his life and he told me how he got to that point and how a lot of people did use it for blues singing and playing because it was a louder guitar and they didn't need to use a sound system or anything. The guitar was able to keep up with their voice, to be as loud as their voice.
Douglas: Totally. I still do have it. My father told me just a few years ago, "I really like the records you make but I don't understand them." He said, "Would you make me a really good bluegrass record one of these days?" And I said, "Yes, I will."
It was at that same time I had been thinking about getting a band together that could play the Flatt & Scruggs stuff, and that became the Earls Of Leicester. I made a couple of straight-up bluegrass records for him. I had him in mind the whole time and he just loved it. Now I can make as many crazy records as I want to and he doesn't have to understand anything [Laughs]. He's happy with what he's got.
But I think anybody that learns to play a certain way and a certain genre of music, when they stretch out and they bring in all the influences they have, all the things they listen to, it's all in there, and it comes out in my playing at some point, or in my writing. I can move the song in any direction and it's built off of phrases and harmonies and melodies more than it is just verse/chorus/verse/chorus.
I'm thinking about phrases and thinking about changing things as the song moves and evolves more than I am thinking about the old way I originally learned to play bluegrass music. It was a stricter form then.
I write more like a jazz writer were to write. There are more parts. There may be five parts to the song but they evolve and the song eventually returns to its original melody.
Songfacts: You have reworked "Cave Bop" on the new album from a bluegrass heel-kicker-upper to something more jazzy with horns. What gave you the idea to change it in the way that you did?
Douglas: That song originally went in the studio with me for another record, and I did record it for that record, but I took it in the studio and I recorded it last because I didn't know what tempo I wanted the song to be in. When I got to the finish of the record and started to record this song, I decided to play it as fast as we could possibly play it, as more of a bebop song.
You can imagine the song really slowed down and just being a bluegrass instrumental with some weird chord changes in it, so this time we didn't play it at breakneck speed. We played it fast just to create more of a groove and for it not to be sort of haphazard. We wanted to create more of a groove and more of a feel throughout the song and let everybody solo over that feel instead of just, OK, here's how fast we can play. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to bring more substance into the solos. It made the song more interesting to me and fleshed out.
When you record any new song that you've written, you really don't know the song that well. You record these songs when they are new and then if you could go back five years later, or even one year later, you may do it totally different because you've lived with the song and you've found something out about the song that you didn't know when you recorded it the first time, and that's the chance I got. For this one, I got the chance to just rearrange my thinking about the whole song and approach it from a different angle.
Songfacts: Is that what you did with "Freemantle" [originally on Changing Channels, 1987]?
Douglas: Oh yeah, totally. That song was a duet at first and just Bela Fleck playing guitar and me playing dobro. This is a full band treatment and a more involved arrangement. The parts are broken down and scattered around. It's sort of dismantled. It should be called "Dismantle" instead of "Freemantle" [Laughs]. We took it apart and put it back together. It's like the Frankenstein version of the original song.
Songfacts: What can you tell us about "Butcher Boy"?
Douglas: "Butcher Boy" is an ancient song. I don't know who actually wrote the song but it's a traditional song. It has words and Elvis Costello sang the words when I was playing with him for a couple of years. It's an old English song and it's about a murder. But we created this mysterious kind of cloud around the whole thing. I wrote another part to insert into it so instead of just having this one-verse feel to it, I have a sort of release that lets us go into an almost different song. It's still only a two-or-three-part song, and you could probably break it down into more than that, but I just added a new section to it. It's a very simple part, but the other part, the new part, has alternative sections to it. It has a short ending and a long ending. It keeps you on your toes.
It's no wonder we don't play it that much because as simple as it sounds, it's hard to remember. Did I play this section slow or did I play the phrases fast? Does this have ending A or ending B or does it have both? It's sort of like putting together a puzzle and once you have it, you have it. But I don't feel like I have it yet. I can play it, I can get through it, but I'm not convincing enough to myself to actually feel confident about it.
Songfacts: Was it always as moody?
Douglas: No, it's very straightforward. Before I heard Elvis singing it, I heard it on a record that has like 100 songs on it. It's like American Old-Time Records. There was a guy named Buell Kazee and his is a real mountain version if it, as those folks did. They would drop beats and all kinds of things. They just wanted to get the words out and as soon as they could remember the words they would sing them. Sometimes they didn't remember on the right beat so they would turn it upside down, all crazy. I love playing with those folks. Some of them do it the same way every time because they've learned it that way, but you can tell that it's a mistake but it's OK to make that mistake, because that's the way you know it and that's the way you sing it so that's the way we're going to do it.
But I straightened it out somewhat. It's still a tangled web, that song, and if it doesn't feel mysterious, if it doesn't have that cloud, it's not right.
Songfacts: What can you tell us about the Union Station song, "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn."
But we came back to that other version at the end. When the band stops and then he and I have to hit the next note together, it's not a counted note. It's not like, 1-2-3-sing. I watch him like a hawk. I think I could do it with my eyes closed but I'm not going to take the chance, so I'll go ahead and watch him and when he sings the note, I'm trying to nail the note at the same time in the same tempo. Then we play it free again all the way out to the end. We worked a long time on that but it came together pretty fast.
So we figured out what we wanted to do and Alison really wanted to do it that way. She said, "What do you think about this?" And we were like, "Let's see, let's try it."
I think we nailed that one. I think we got that one right. A lot of people really like that song because it's so different and it's so old-timey and it does have a message: it's all about a courtship and a farming deadbeat [Laughs].
Songfacts: What was going through your head when you were creating "Choctaw Hayride"?
Douglas: That was three different songs that I put together. I had the basic melody for the big body of the song - I had that together, but I had to throw in a few surprises so there are some dropped bars.
That is a very uneven-bar song. Two sections of it have uneven bars and the end of it is even crazier. Most musicians who play with me hate the endings of my songs because they know there's going to be some kind of mathematical quiz later. But music is math, right? Especially timing.
I wasn't asking her about it. I was just going to write these things to force her to play it and that's what I did. I wasn't there when she put her fiddle part on because she didn't want to do it in the studio while we were cutting the track. She told me she threw her bow across the room a couple of times. She said, "Why did you add that part? You didn't really need that part. You just added that part because you could." And I said, "No, no, it's an essential part of the song. You'll see by the time you get to the end of the song, and you learn the song, you'll understand why it's there." And she did. But at first listen, it's like, why did you do that? But after you've heard the song a few times, you would miss that part if it wasn't there. That's how my head works.
Songfacts: When you worked with Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett, how much creativity did they give you to come up with your parts?
Douglas: Total. Even to what instrument that I played. I played different guitars on different songs, just because of the nature of what the substance of the song was. Like on "Slow Drag With Josephine" [from National Ransom, 2010], this must be Josephine Baker, right, so I was thinking old-time, like a French show band, a cabaret band kind of thing.
I played dobro on some songs, played lap steel on some songs to just be atmospheric and not really solo, just create an atmosphere around a lyric. That's something you have to learn in recording and become savvy to: not just thinking about yourself, about what you're going to play, but be thinking about supporting the vocal and holding it up and creating this atmosphere around it to make the subject matter work. It can get really involved.
First record bought with own money: "Penny Lane." "I bought it for my girlfriend in like second grade. I paid 74 cents for it."
First concert paid to see: Average White Band and Elvin Bishop in the 1970s. "Ricky Skaggs and I went together."
Oldest dobro he owns: 1928
Hardest-rocking song ever played on: AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." "We did a TV special and we played that with Shania Twain. It didn't come out sounding like it, but it rocked."
Ancestry: Scottish. "My people were from the borders down there on southern Scotland. We had castles, we had lakes, we had lochs, we had everything. We ruled! But we also stole sheep and cattle to keep the English mad."
Some of the best records were cut at once, because you can hear that there are imperfections in some of them that you would miss if they weren't there. It's part of the song now.
Songfacts: When you were recording with the Earls Of Leicester, was there a song that was more difficult to nail down for you on the dobro?
Douglas: Yeah, there were some difficult bar positions that Josh Graves used in those original recordings and we were trying to stay as true to the original recordings as possible - to the most popular versions of them. There was a song called "On My Mind." It's a slow song and the dobro plays a major part in it. It has a long slide with a bar slant, so I would be on one fret with my first string and another two frets back with my third strings. Those are the kinds of things that really, really threw me for a loop. I actually sat down and practiced them and I didn't just try to remember from muscle memory. They were something I had to concentrate on and really practice and be spot on with this thing every time. They were hard. There were hard techniques in there, techniques that I use now that I didn't use before in my playing.
Bluegrass is played too fast most of the time, but people like to see how fast they can play it and it's actually easier to play fast because you can leave things out. If you have to play it six beats, 10 beats slower, there is a lot more involved because at that breakneck tempo you leave things out. What you're showcasing there is how fast you can play, not how musical you are. I've gone through my fast playing period and I still do it, but I choose the time and the place. It's not something I want to do constantly. I don't want to make something fast - I want to get the full essence of something. I don't want to skip over anything. I want the whole song to come out.
Songfacts: Are the Earls going to be doing some more music?
Douglas: Oh yeah. I think we're going to do another record in the next six to eight months.
Songfacts: Being that you are a connoisseur of the dobro, what do you think about Lindsey Buckingham's playing on "Gold Dust Woman"?
Douglas: He's an electric guitar player so I noticed that technique right away. He's using it for more of a texture. He's not going to be a bluegrass dobro player and he's not trying to be. He's a great guitar player and I think he chose to use the dobro in that situation for a texture more than for a guitar part. It went deeper than that for him. He needed to set that song apart from the rest of the songs and one of the ways to do it and one of the ways to actually get to the subject matter quicker, change it from the rest of the songs, was to use a different kind of guitar, and the dobro was perfect for that.
Douglas: One thing that jumped out at me when I was a kid was hearing John Fogerty play it on Creedence records. Green River came out and he's standing on the front and he's got a dobro. I was 10 years old and I played the dobro. I took the record to school and I said, "Hey you guys, you see this? This is the same kind of guitar I play. I'm going to play with this guy one of these days." And they all just looked at me. It only took me like 30 years, but I did finally play with him and we've been friends ever since. But I heard it and I knew that's what it was. I knew he wasn't using it the same way, same as Lindsey Buckingham wasn't using it in the same way.
Songfacts: Who do you think is an innovator nowadays?
Douglas: Well, there's this guy named Henri Novak from Prague and he is a great player. Andy Hall with the Stringdusters, he's an innovator. Rob Ickes is an innovator. There is a kid named Gaven Largent, who's not a kid anymore but I met him when he was 10 and I always think of him as that little kid that could play. Josh Swift is another one that is really coming along and I love his playing. He plays really fast right now and he's into the speed, but I hear where he's really striving for the tone now and that's what happens. You find out you've got this weapon, like a machine gun, and you slowly revert until you're carrying a flintlock musket again - you're just going for the tone and your aim has to be true.
I learned a lot about that playing with the Whites – Buck and Sharon and Cheryl – and just backing their vocals. Beautiful vocals, and so in tune that I had to be spot on and I had to sound like one of them - I had to sound like a singer. So I reduced the amount of notes, played maybe two notes, something that complemented what they were doing instead of detracting or taking the accent off of them and putting it on me. It's not the way it should go. You shouldn't get in the way of the singer. You should be sort of invisible but complementary.
July 27, 2017
Jerry Douglas Website
Live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough; publicity portraits by Patrick Sheehan
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