Musically, guitarist Jerry Douglas is a jack-of-all-trades, and certainly a master of at least one: the dobro, a resonator guitar designed in the 1920s by Slovakian immigrants. He has become something of a spokesperson for the instrument, both in interviews and wordlessly across thousands of albums — he has lent his skills to more than 1,600 albums, working with musicians like Ray Charles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Elvis Costello. He is widely known for his work on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and as a member of Alison Krauss’s band, Union Station. You can hear his remarkable playing when he joins Alison Krauss & Union Station Wednesday, July 22, at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I talked to him on the phone about the dobro, travel, and the legacy of bluegrass music.
How are you, and where are you right now? I’m good, I’m great. We’re in Paso Robles today. We were just at the Orange County Fair, but it got rained out and the Angels were rained out, too, for the first time in 20 years. It was a freaky kind of a thing, but there was no roof over the stage. I think we would have played if there had been a roof, but they didn’t have one because it never rains.
Maybe you guys brought the rain. It rained on us in L.A, too. I know you need the rain, but I won’t take credit for it.
You’ve been touring a lot this year, especially with your band the Earls of Leicester. How does that experience compare with playing with Alison Krauss & Union Station? I’d say the difference in doing all the bands is its different music. Earls of Leicester is a real close copy to the original Flatt and Scruggs repertoire. I play with guys that grew up listening to that music, it’s like instant recall from being 10 or 11 years old. All the stuff that I’m doing out here with Alison, there’s a little more room for improvisation after you get by the signature movement in the songs. I try to take my liberties with the solos and things like that, just to keep it fresh and give myself a challenge. It’s beautiful music, and to get to stand next to Alison every night on stage and that’s a pretty wonderful thing. And being on tour with Willie Nelson, I go out and watch his show every night — he’s doing all the guitar solos and singing all the leads, it’s the Willie Show and everybody’s wrapped around that. I’ve always loved his playing and I’m getting a really good dose of it this summer.
How did the Willie Nelson-Alison Krauss connection come about? It began as a booking agency management sort of deal, but the two draw from different places and the attendance has just been amazing, so we both have our crowds and they both they seem to interact really well. You’ve got your Willie folks with their Willie T-shirts. I asked someone who was wearing one, “Who did you come to see, Willie?” and they said, “No, I’m here to see you!” That confused me right there.
You’ve been on over 1,600 recordings — how do you keep challenging yourself, and where do you see room for growth? Well, you know, the instrument challenges me. Because as long as I’ve been playing it, it’s been a new instrument, and making it fit into different places every year is a challenge. At Telluride, I get to play with my band and with people like Bela Fleck, Edgar Myer, and other bluegrass stalwarts, and we are constantly throwing things at each other that are next to impossible to pull off, and we keep doing it. I keep playing with bands … I’m not afraid to jump up on stage with anybody. That’s where I get my challenges.
You know, there’s a different kind of challenge in keeping something fresh and doing something in repeated fashion like we do. To just keep polishing the song and making it better, hearing places where you didn’t play before or places where you did but could do differently … it gives the whole picture a different color. I’m into that. It’s like being an artist and painting with a brush. You can move the picture around by how much information you put into a different area and change the complexion of the whole thing. I am playing a slide instrument, so I can add a blues inflection, which takes the subject matter to a different place.
I’m looking forward all the time and I still do a lot of recording, I have another record to make pretty soon of duets with people that I really admire and we’re gonna write together and record together. That’ll come out some time next year. I have to get started on that soon.
There’s a real challenge of time. It’s how much can you do in a month, in a year, in a lifetime. I’m constantly playing, and constantly thinking about music when I’m not playing it — probably too much. I have a family too. I have a brand new granddaughter and I saw her the day she was born. Two days later I had to leave on this tour. She’s gonna be almost a month old, and there’s so much that I miss, you know? But I’m gonna try to make up for it soon as I get back. There’s that kind of time, too.
Looking back, is there anything you feel you wish you had made time for, or something you would like to make for time for in the future? I love history. I read history all the time. I’m constantly trying to stay current, you know? I woke up this morning and turned on the TV, and the first thing I saw was Donald Trump, and it’s just funny. Everybody has the same opinion I think … He’s a good sideshow for right now, and if it’s time to have some comedy injected into politics then it looks like he’s doing a good job at that. I do really try to stay current with the world, but that could be a fulltime job, and sometime I miss the news a few weeks at a time. But that doesn’t seem to matter; the world is still turning.
I wish I could travel back to places I went to that I really loved. I went to Spain with Elvis Costello a couple years ago. I would love to go back, it was so beautiful and I have such good memories. There’s Thailand and other places outside this country, but so many places in this country, too. I’m taking my vacation this year in Maine. My family’s always wanted to go in Florida, but finally the kids are all out of college now so we’re gonna go where I wanna go. So we’re going to Main. It’ll be cool and nice in the evening and beautiful. I love to travel. So far all my travel seems to involve sound checks — if there’s a sound check, then it’s not a vacation.
Where in Maine will you go? It’s beautiful from what little I’ve seen. I used to read a lot of Stephen King and had quite an affinity for the place. I think Bar Harbor. It’s a very touristy place, but you can see some beautiful places not far from town. I played a festival in Bangor a few years ago and hung out by [Stephen King’s] house but nothing happened. I hope to play with him one of these days; he’s a good musician. I used to read all of his books, scared the heck out of me.
And Elvis Costello in Spain — what was that like? We were playing at the end of the St James walk. There’s a 500-mile walk that people can do, and where the walk ends, we were in this medieval courtyard playing on a stage. Before us, Kris Kristofferson opened and he kept playing song after song, and I kept saying, he wrote that? He wrote that? After the concert, we all went up stairs to a great tapas bar that was open just for us, and they were throwing food at us. That was just amazing, we ate some amazing things. That’s one of the standout nights … there was some good stuff in Rome, too. Spain captivated me. There are some really good things about traveling when you get into that realm. It’s not so much fun when you’re out there traveling with a bunch of guys in a van, just doggin’ it, but you can always think that some day you may be bussing through Europe. It pays off if you keep your nose to the grindstone I suppose, has for me.
Did you ever foresee yourself as being the ambassador of the dobro? No, when I started playing nobody else was playing, especially kids my age. I was sort of a freak I guess: a 10-year-old kid that wants to play the dobro, and nobody even knows what it is. I had no idea it was going to happen, but the longer I played and the more situations I fell into. I just put one foot in front of the other, and here we are. I’m just trying to play well, and being in the right place at the right time has made a big difference. I always try to approach a song and leave it better than I found it. Sort of my motto. If I can do that, then I figure it’s a good day.
But it has become a situation where I am sort of am ambassador of the dobro, explaining what the dobro is and where it came from. I’ve done that a million times, but I don’t mind, because life should be educational, and if somebody hears a dobro they should know what it looks and like where it came from. You hear it every day, but lot of people just don’t know what they are, and so when you explain it to them they go, “Oh yeah, my uncle had one of them.”
You have a great humility toward the instrument, in a way, as something that channels a long music history and a very deep sound. We’re all blessed to play any kind of instrument and be a conduit of that instrument. To take things that are floating around in your head and pour them through this instrument, and if they come out pleasant the way they were intended…When that happens, when everything has worked out the way it was supposed to, that’s a good thing. I’ve been really lucky with that. Yeah, I’m totally happy with everything that’s happened with the dobro. If I played a different instrument, I’d be a number. It’s just such a different, unique instrument that comes from a very art deco period in the U.S. and the design reflects that. The beautiful sound that it makes and all the different emotions that you can get out of that instrument … It was a lucky choice, it was a good choice for me. There’s a lot inside there that I couldn’t express with words that I can do with that guitar. I hope that the transfer does happen, that people know what I’m talking about with my instrument.
How do you balance more traditional roots music with more individualized improvisational music? Well I think they’re all related, first of all. All musics are related. What I try to do is follow the singer if I’m in that situation and try to sometimes really point out what they’re singing with accents, to accent the subject matter, accent certain words. There are different things I can do to spy into something or play a substitution chord against what they are saying that can kind of evoke more of a mystery; to take it deeper, take the meaning of words even deeper in the subconscious by the note choice you make. There’s a science to it. I’ve just been doing it for so long and blessed with all the great singers that I’ve been able to play against and sing with sometimes. It’s the closest thing to actually being a singer that I could think that I could be. Sometimes better, because I don’t have to use words or remember what lyrics are coming I can just concentrate on the ones right in front of me. It’s really better for me that I have discovered this instrument than if I had stayed a singer like I was when I was a little kid. When I started playing dobro, I stopped singing, this took over that part of my brain I suppose where I was formulating opinions about what was happening at that moment. That’s the science part.
You’ve been on so many recordings. Are there any, looking back, where you think “Oh boy… that was not a good one.” Any you regret? Everybody has a bad experience once in a while, but I can tell you there have been very, very few. I try to leave it better. Sometimes you can turn something around that somebody has lost hope with. There are ways to rejuvenate a song, even if it’s a tired old beast. We played songs that were on O Brother Where Art Thou? that we thought we’d never play again. We were all told, “You can’t make any money playing music like that.” All of a sudden there was 9/11, and all this stuff happened the whole country was shocked by and had to recalibrate in a way and find out what was honest and what was real, and there was that record, and it doesn’t get any more real than that. It’s not complicated, it’s got words and substance and subjects you can live by, trials and tribulations. It was a huge hit because of the timing. It would have been a big record, but I don’t think it would have had the impact if the country hadn’t been in trouble. People were searching for something real.
Do you feel bluegrass’s moment in the spotlight has waned a bit, or is it enduring in the same way as it did a decade ago? Music is very circular, you know. And fickle. There’s always attrition after a time, where people say, “Okay everything’s okay now and everything can go back to the way we were.” You know and I know it’s gonna happen again; when you get complacent in your life, bad things happen. I think that for a while it was really hot, red hot, and a lot of very old timey music really came up in popularity and it was sort of hip to do that then. Then it became the hip factor. And at that point there’s been some popularity. Some people fell off from it, but they will go back to it because it’s okay to listen to it now when before they thought it wasn’t.
Would you say that’s what drew you into bluegrass music, the truth and simplicity? I was sort of born into it. I had a hardscrabble existence in West Virginia. My father found work in the steel mills in the north. He found guys who were from the same place and loved the same kind of music as him, and he had a band and I would see them as a little tiny kid. So I gotta say that has always been in me, so I come from that background, and it’s always gonna be with me. That kind of music — whatever I play is gonna be a part of it, even if I’m in a jazz situation, I’m gonna revert back to it at some point, because it’s me, it’s my personality. And your real personality does come through when you’re playing music. It’s sort of like how you’re more honest when you’re drinking — the same thing happens when you’re playing music, you can’t hide from your real self. It’s gonna come out. At the same time, there are a lot of things I learn that are jazz-inflected that I’m gonna use. I’m gonna stay in the music I’m playing, but there’s no way that bluegrass music can’t come pouring through there at some point.
Have you ever wanted to do a whole 180 or different direction, like a hip-hop album? Maybe not a complete, direct change like that, but I think it’s great to go outside my comfort zone and I try to do that from time to time. It’s good for growth. My last record Traveler was all about that, to get outside and try something new.
Anything else you’d like to say? Basically, I love playing Santa Barbara. Some of my best memories of Santa Barbara have been in the Lobero [Theatre]. I love playing in that place. I had a birthday there one time. Santa Barbara, what’s not to like about it? And playing up on the hill there, it’s gonna be a nice day.
Yes, and the rains appear to be gone by now, so you should be all good. Have you had rain? Oh great! I came there at the end of a long drought once, end of a five or six year drought, you guys need the rain. Glad to hear we won’t have to bring it and we can have a show — I’d rather play.
Jerry Douglas appears with Alison Krauss & Union Station and Willie Nelson & Family Wednesday, July 22, at the Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas. For tickets, call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.