"It was shocking to me," Jerry Douglas says of the invitation to serve as the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum's artist-in-residence this year. "I wouldn't have thought of that in a million years. And then when my wife told me that they had called to see if I would do it, it was like, 'Are you kidding? I would do anything for them.' ...So for two days I felt like I was ready to cry all the time, just thinking about what an opportunity it was show how much I knew about that music, to give something back."
With two of four residency shows already under his belt, the world's most famous resonator guitarist has already done both of those things—guests have included Travis Tritt, Bela Fleck, pedal steel legend Lloyd Green, bassist Edgar Meyer, The Whites and more—but really, Douglas has already given far beyond his share. Though he's still in his early 50s, he's nearing the 40-year mark in a career with a dizzying number of facets—bluegrass road warrior, studio denizen, soloist, band member and producer, to name a few, all built around his unparalleled mastery of an instrument that, until he got hold of it, was relegated mostly to the realms of hillbilly and Hawaiian music. Douglas isn't the first genius to play the resonator guitar—popularly known as the Dobro after its original brand name—but he's taken it farther than anyone else, and with the release of his latest album, Glide (Koch Records), he shows no sign of slowing down.
Born in 1955, Douglas grew up around Warren, Ohio, and began playing in his father's bluegrass band when he was barely in his teens. By the time he was 16, he'd gone to work with the Country Gentlemen, then one of the bluegrass world's premiere (and progressive) acts and one that had featured the work of another big hero, Mike Auldridge. "Hearing Mike solidified some thoughts I'd had already about what else was in my head," he remembers. "It was the first time I'd heard someone apply it to the same instrument. And so that kind of freed me, to go ahead and know that it was OK not to play exactly like ['Uncle Josh' Graves]."
From there, he ascended rapidly, from the Gents to J. D. Crowe & The New South to a regrettably brief partnership with Ricky Skaggs and others in the pace-setting Boone Creek—and as it did, his musical vocabulary expanded. "Clapton, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck," he says with a laugh. "Those kinds of things were creeping into me, and I didn't even know who they were at the time. Then I became a real student of musicology, and the history of rock 'n' roll and jazz, and knowing who Barney Kessel was and Charlie Byrd and knowing the difference—knowing why they did what they did and when, that's important to me. And then later came Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and that whole school. Ricky and I jumped into that at the same time, when we were still with the Country Gentlemen and living in Manassas, Va. He'd come over and we'd just listen to those records, just listen and absorb. And then it started creeping into the way we played, we'd start to swing, and the rhythm changed."
When Skaggs left Boone Creek in the spring of 1978 to join Emmylou Harris's band, Douglas found himself at something of a crossroads. He returned to the Gentlemen, giving himself a year to see what would happen—and eight months in, he was tapped to join The Whites in a job that would not only prove satisfying on its own terms, but bring him to Nashville, a move that would pretty much change everything.
"I did a record with Emmylou Harris almost right away," he recalls, "and I think that was a big eye-opener for some people—to hear the instrument sound like that, not to be whiny and thin, but to be full-bodied and actually be a solo instrument, and not just a flavor. And then Ricky went into the studio and did his first country record, and after that I really started getting lots of calls; from 1985 on, when I left The Whites, it was just wall to wall."
Douglas took to the studio with seeming effortlessness, bringing a sharp mind, quick creativity and, as he says, a new tone to the resonator guitar on country records. "It was an education process, both for me and the engineers," he says. "I remember sitting down in a studio early on, and an engineer coming out and putting a microphone down at the butt end of the guitar and walking away. I said, that's not where the good sound comes from. And one engineer said, when you're on this side of the glass, you can put the microphone where you want. So I just moved my chair—I didn't move the microphone. And he didn't act like he knew the difference. But it was an educational process of changing the tone of the instrument, of recording it a different way, recording it where it had a full tone. And I learned it depended on the track, how much was going on in the track; if I could figure that out, I could find my slice of the pie, whether it was to play down low or get up in the high register and just kind of float over it all, like a violin."
From 1985 through 1998, Douglas was among the city's busiest musicians, playing on what he calls a ridiculous number of sessions—"and then," he says, "I just got burnt out." He'd supplemented his studio work with a variety of outings with the likes of Peter Rowan, Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice, John Cowan and many more. He made solo records that took him well beyond bluegrass territory, and become a sought-after producer (Nashville Bluegrass Band, Del McCoury, Maura O'Connell, the Lonesome River Band), but he was ready for something else—and again, a providential call came that would reorient his career.
"I was in the studio with the Lonesome River Band when Alison Krauss called to see if I wanted to go out and do the summer with them, because they weren't sure what they were going to do. [Mandolin player] Adam Steffey had just left Union Station, and they weren't sure whether they were going to continue with the band or wrap it up or what. So I went, and three jobs in, they just asked me to stay and we'd continue on that way. And I was loving it—hearing her sing every night, and becoming good friends with everyone, and the whole organization. It was the first time I'd gone out feeling like I was making a real contribution, and the thing was successful—it was lucrative at the same time it was artistic, and there's no better combination. So at that point I had to choose, and I chose to stop doing sessions."
But while the AKUS gig continues to be a priority, it's been supplemented by a long list of special projects and guest appearances that have included work with artists as varied as Paul Simon, Norah Jones, Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya and John Fogerty—and, perhaps most importantly, by work with the Jerry Douglas Band, a tour de force ensemble that's all over Glide.
"I wanted something to do outside of AKUS that allowed me to experiment on my own," he says. "Because I have all these things in my head all the time. I'm listening to all these different kinds of music, and yet we're playing the same show every night, polishing it, making it tighter and better, but still the same show.... And now it's taken on a life of its own, it's becoming a completely different career. I want to continue that, too, and the next step is to give the band an identity, not just mine." n
Still, whether it's with AKUS or the Jerry Douglas Band, this year's artist-in-residence—the youngest yet by a considerable margin—holds onto a lesson he learned early, one that fits well with the community that, he says, he's giving back to with the gig.
"When I was playing that bar with my father, the people there, they were blue collar folks, and they were bent on having the best time they'd ever had in their whole lives every Saturday night. They were having a good time, they were dancing, and it was so funny to watch—I'll never forget any of that. That's where I got the idea that if people are having a good time, you're doing your job.... It doesn't matter what you're up there trying to do, how many chops you have or how good you are, if you don't give them something that's accessible to them, they won't come back. And so to me, I've always felt like anything I wrote or played, it could be brainiac but it better sound easy—at least until they try to play it."
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