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EXCLUSIVE: Dobro Legend Jerry Douglas Talks Past And Future Of Bluegrass

Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas has pretty much done it all at this point in his career. His session numbers are mind-boggling, with over 1,500 appearances to his credit. Over the course of those seeming infinite recording experiences, he’s worked with everyone from Phish to Dolly Parton. He’s paid homage to bluegrass masters Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with his incredible tribute The Earls Of Leicester. Now, with a new band and a new record, What If, Douglas is ready to make some noise of his own again. Before hitting the road with his new band, Jerry Douglas took a few minutes to talk with our own Rex Thomson about the history and future of bluegrass, his hundreds of awards, and the importance of learning the rules before breaking them. Enjoy!


L4LM: Over the course of your forty-plus years in the business, you have won basically every award, including fourteen Grammys. Is there a full-on wall of stuff or a shrine at your house?

Jerry Douglas: I don’t like looking at that stuff, honestly. My wife has a closet that is full of that stuff, and that is way too visible for me.

L4LM: That’s good though. Have you ever been in an argument with her and pulled out the “Honey, are you questioning the word of the ten-time IBMA Dobro Player of the Year?”

JD: Ha! That’s one I haven’ t used yet, but I’m waiting. You gotta pick your battles, man.

L4LM: We spoke to Anders Beck a while back, and he credited you with inspiring his love of the dobro. Do you remember your first encounter with the instrument?

JD: Totally! I loved the sound of it the first time I heard it. The thing that brought me to the instrument was a guy named Josh Graves—”Uncle” Josh Graves—who played with (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs. Graves was just so ahead of his time. He could play fast, he could play slow. He apparently learned the blues from an old black man, and it had really served him well.

John Fogerty put it better than anybody I ever heard. Fogerty is a big lover of the dobro too. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “It has an emotional sound that hits you in the heart and never leaves.” It’s such an emotive instrument. It’s a lot like the human voice. It can emote the same way. It sounds so real, and it is real. It’s your head to your hands to your heart.

There’s a lot of things that you can do because you’re playing with a slide. You’re not stuck with a fret that tells you how far you can go. You’re not a dog on a chain. You can do other things that a guy with a fret can’t do.

Check out our interview with Anders Beck about the role of Jerry Douglas in his own dobro playing here.

L4LM: You have been playing professionally for almost five decades. You’re probably the first dobro player that literally thousands of players heard. Do you feel the responsibility of being an ambassador for the instrument?

JD: Oh, absolutely. I’ve had to explain to so many people over the years what a dobro is, though I find I don’t have to do that as much anymore. I think I’m doing something right. All those guys like Anders and Andy Hall, Rob Ickes—we’re all doing it. I kinda started a train, and those guys all came on board. I love Anders’ playing. I love his whole idea of how the thing works and how to use it. Andy Hall too, right there. Those guys are both playing in front of a different audience than I play in front of. But I’m gonna be out there real soon with an eight-piece band, and we’re gonna be hitting it real hard. We’re really looking forward to getting down at The Festy with Andy and everybody.

Check out our chat with Andy Hall about The Festy and his dobro love here.

L4LM: You have a new album, What If, coming out August 17th. After all your work with others and with the Earls, how does it feel to be back to making your own music again?

JD: It’s just really great. I wrote this record when I really inspired to jump back out there and just write. Plus, it was an inspiration to play with my band a bit and play my older material with these players, because then they can go in and put their stamp on it. That’s when the music really grew up. Every time we play this stuff now, we find new stuff we want to exploit. It is just getting better and better. They are just great musicians. I just wrote the songs, they made them their own. This is a real band record. I didn’t tell everybody what to play. The secret is hiring the right people and turning them loose to do what they do. That’s the secret.

Check out the title track to Douglas’ new album, What If, below:

 

L4LM: You’re busting out your vocal skills on this album, which is pretty rare for you outside of harmonies and such. Are you able to play and sing, or is it like the chewing gum and walking thing?

JD: Dobro playing and singing at the same time. You’re playing a slide instrument, and if you aren’t paying attention you might not have any idea where you end up. You can end up anywhere. You can end up on stage with some other band. I don’t proclaim myself a singer and a player simultaneously. I would rather lose one or the other. Just like playing fiddle and singing. You don’t see too many people doing it, and if you do, they really rehearsed it. I’ve got such a good band, I don’t need to play while I sing. Their playing sounds fine to me. I’ll sneak in a fill from time to time to, you know, kinda cap off whatever I just said, but I don’t need to play and sing at the same time.

L4LM: I like the idea that you could get so lost that you end up on a different stage. Like you look around and you are onstage with Metallica.

JD: Maybe even an alternate universe. That would be cool. String theory is alive and cooking. Maybe traveling through universes is something I should try more often. I’ve been on everybody else’s stage enough in my life. I think I’m gonna let other people handle that for now.

L4LM: With all the guest appearances you’ve made on other folks’ work, do you ever get tempted to call them all up and get them to make a super band album or something? 

JD: That’s coming, it’s coming. I do that from time to time. This record, for, What If, I just wanted it to be the band and I wanted it to be me. I didn’t need to call any singers in—if there was any singing to be done, I was gonna do it. I’m sure they all sing better than me, but it’s my band! [laughs] In the end, it’s time for me to try things. I mean, why not? I’ve been around a lot of great singers and have sang harmonies for them, written for them, fed them funny lines when they didn’t have anything to say. It’s time for me to keep some things for myself.

L4LM: There is a lot to be said about letting an artist act on their particular, personal vision. A lot of truth in there.

JD: I’ve had a long career, and I have played lots of different kinds of music with lots of different people. It’s all in there. What If has stuff on it that I have been waiting to try for a long time now. It feels pretty good to me.

Check out the Tom Waits’ cover of “2:19” from What If below:

L4LM: Besides helping propel bluegrass forward, you’ve done a lot to help honor the past. Your work with The Earls Of Leicester has been a wonderful way to keep the memory of the Foggy Mountain Boys, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs alive and well.

Jerry Douglas: The Earls had gigs last week, and that music is really soul food for me. It was the first music I ever played. To get to play it with those guys in that band is as close to playing with Lester and Earl as I’ll ever get—heck, as anyone ever could.

L4LM: You present a pretty authentic rendition, all the way down to the fancy dress. Do you need the clothes to get in the mood?

JD: NO. [Laughs] Actually, some of that thinking is wrong. They didn’t all wear suits. Lester and Earl did, but the other guys were poor men. They couldn’t afford suits. They had shirts and ties. As long as you had that tie, that country string tie, you were good. That is kinda The Earls’ model. Doesn’t much matter what you got on as long as you are wearing a white shirt and that tie. You got that, you’re in the band, man.

L4LM: I think Rob and Ronnie McCoury might just appreciate it if you spoke to their dad.

JD: [Laughs] That’s why they get out away from him sometimes. They found freedom! I’ve gone backward. For years, I fought the suits. I wore the t-shirts and the tank tops, but now I’m wearing a tie on stage.

L4LM: Within the past Flatt & Scruggs catalog, are there any tunes you are dying to play?

JD: Oh yeah, there are plenty more great Flatt & Scruggs tunes left. I am kinda wondering what the next step for that band is—what we are gonna morph into. There are lots and lots of great songs left to play though, no doubt about that.

Check out The Earls Of Leicester nailing the Flatt & Scruggs’ classic “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” below:

L4LM: We have bands like Greensky Bluegrass and The Infamous Stringdusters heading in a jamgrass direction and other bands choosing to go the more traditional route. How healthy does the future of bluegrass look to you?

Jerry Douglas: It looks great! Obviously, I fall in the middle of that spectrum you described. All of those guys can play bluegrass. They just choose to play other things to go along with it. And that’s great. I think that’s wonderful. With them, my test is whether they can play the real thing or did they jump immediately to jamgrass music. I really appreciate the musicians who can go back and forth and have learned the basics before they speed up and start to jam. I like the ones who learn to play a melody first, then they can learn how to speed it up.

L4LM: You need to know the rules before you can break them.

JD: Exactly. There are some rules with me. I respect them more if they can play melody. But I don’t respect them less if they then go into the jam. I’ll go right along with them. I’ll go deep into the jam.

L4LM: Well, good luck with the new album and the tour. And thanks for representing the music so well.

JD: My pleasure!