Interview: Jerry Douglas


Jerry Douglas has been called the “Jimi Hendrix of dobro players” in honor of his skills on the resonator guitar and inspiring musicianship. His playing can be heard on over 1500 albums, including the O Brother, Where Art Though? soundtrack and recordings with James Taylor, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Elvis Costello, Garth Brooks, Earl Scruggs, and Ray Charles. And since 1998, he has been a key member of Alison Krauss and the Union Band, both on recordings and on tour.

This interview was for a preview article for Jerry Douglas’ solo concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on 8/28/15. It was done by email, with his reply received on 8/21/15.

Jeff Moehlis: You were in town not too long ago with Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and you said, “I think I like the Lobero better.” What has been your favorite experience so far at the Lobero?

Jerry Douglas: While on tour a few years ago I celebrated a birthday in the Lobero. I know that the company I was keeping, a run of dates with Maura O’Connell, Tim O’Brien and some of my favorite musicians was important, but being in a beautiful part of the world, Santa Barbara, with a friendly audience, seriously enriched the occasion.

JM: What can people look forward to at your upcoming concert?

JD: I really enjoy doing these solo shows. They allow me to explain my songs in detail and get me a little closer to the audience than the normal show with Alison or The Earls [of Leicester]. I also think the folks that come get to know a lot more about me. It’s a two way street. The evening should be more like a conversation than a formal concert.

JM: What initially drew you to the dobro?

JD: Many people I have talked to had the same experience I did when they first heard the Dobro guitar. It brought forth a sound that I was instantly enchanted with. Went straight through me like a knife. Most important was the fact that Josh Graves of Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys was playing it. I was playing guitar when I first decided I would rather be have a Dobro. I was ten or eleven years old and after raising the strings on my Sears Silvertone Christmas guitar, going into this new territory came fairly easy to me. My Silvertone exploded from the pressure and I was forced to find an actual Dobro guitar. This was a difficult thing to find in Northeastern Ohio, but after a couple false starts I found one.

JM: How do you find the right balance between tradition and innovation with your playing?

JD: When I was first beginning to learn the Dobro, I focused on the traditional playing of Josh Graves, even though he was progressive against all other players of the instrument. As I moved on into the musical landscape, I heard others like Mike Auldridge and realized that if I was going to make my own mark, I needed my own language on the instrument. I was able to play fiddle tunes because of a personal need to really know the complete melodies of these complicated songs and that carried over into exploring the substitutions and counter-melodies hidden inside.

Knowing when to dive into which lake comes from surveying my surroundings and blending into the painting. This is all after spending a lot of time with different singers and musicians and knowing when to accent the words and emotions of the music I am playing.

A good example is the difference between playing a show with Alison Krauss or The Earls of Leicester, a Flatt and Scruggs respect band I have recently played in. I approach them from totally different directions. One is from a completely traditional place, and the other from a more lyrical position. With Alison I react to her voice, her phrasing, and stay away from the range she is singing in. That way we can have almost a call and response conversation and make an already interesting song more intense.

JM: You’ve recorded and performed with a number of amazing musicians. Who are the ones that particularly stand out to you, and why?

JD: James Taylor has always been a hero of mine. The phrases he has coined in the American language through his songwriting are huge and I have always had a deep respect for him. Recording with him and getting to know him have been a big deal to me. I have worked with wonderful musicians all through my career. Alison, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Derek Trucks, and T Bone Burnett come to mind. I’ve had an amazing brush with some very talented people, and from that brush, have tried to be thankful for the chance.

JM: Is there anyone that you haven’t had the chance to play with yet that you’d like to?

JD: There always will be. I hear people everyday that I can imagine collaborating with. But… Peter Gabriel is someone who has always amazed me. Maybe someday. It would have been great to hang and play with Django Reinhardt.

JM: What were the sessions like for the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? And were you surprised by its success?

JD: The sessions were a party with your best friends and we were playing songs we had been told years ago we could never make any money with. The immense success was a surprise, but I have always believed it was the beginning of another musical cycle. The sessions created a soundtrack with a movie for a vehicle instead of the other way around.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

JD: Leave your comfort zone as often as you can. Take every gig you’re offered and trust your instincts. With every run at a solo, a new idea will present itself.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?

JD: My work with Alison Krauss, also the Earls of Leicester will go on. I am starting work on my next recording project of duets in the next year.


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