Dobro master Jerry Douglas has taken his resophonic slide guitar on a journey far beyond its bluegrass and country origins. As a solo artist, band member, session player or producer, Douglas has left his distinctive sound on thousands of recordings during nearly 40 years. Jerry grew up in Warren, Ohio. It’s a steel town. His father John Douglas worked the mill. On weekends John led a band of Appalachian natives called the West Virginia Travelers. Son Jerry played bluegrass with the Travelers in high school, but hit the road after graduation to play with “newgrass” innovators, the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and eventually Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Jerry Douglas: It is difficult to do sessions day in and day out. I did a good solid fifteen years of five days a week, three sessions a day, and I really started to burn out, I mean really seriously worrying that I had just played the same phrase in a different song on the session before and not remembering if I had or not. To me then, that wasn’t music anymore; that was work. And just my luck, right at the end of it, right when I was about to explode, I got this call from Alison Krauss, and they said, “Well you know one of the guys in the band has quit,” so she called me up to see if I would do a couple of weeks or do the summer or whatever. I was ready to do something different and they were giving me a vehicle that I could really sink my teeth into. You know, I think that what we’re playing out there as Alison Krauss and Union Station is a different kind of music, and there are no other people that can play it, I mean it only sounds that way when those five people play together.
Nick Spitzer: Let’s take a little walking tour of the dobro, maybe demo some scales and chimes for us if you don’t mind.
JD: Well okay. It’s shaped like a guitar, it has a chamber back here in the big end of the guitar, and they created a spun aluminum cone, much like a speaker cone that projects sound, and the strings- you play the guitar, and the sound goes down into the guitar and is instantly projected back out a lot faster than a normal guitar. It sounds different and has a little bit of a metallic influence in the strings.
NS: Jerry Douglas, in all the different styles you’ve absorbed and music you’ve taken far beyond the old West Virginia Travelers of you father’s era of music, what does your father think on hearing the different kinds of sounds you’ve made over the years? Has he given you feedback on this?
JD: Yeah he’s given me feedback, you know, he keeps asking me, “When are you going to cut just a real straight bluegrass record?” And I know he’d love me to, but at the same time he loves what I’ve done, he’s a big fan of what I’ve done, and he’s proud of it. He realizes that he’s responsible for what I’m doing. It’s his fault that I went and played with the Country Gentlemen when I was sixteen. I asked him the other day, I said, “I wouldn’t let one of my kids go on the road with a band when they were sixteen!” He said, “That was my dream,” he said. “You were doing something that I always wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to stop you from doing it.”
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