20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published February 12, 2021
In part 21 of our series,
Jerry Douglas —Dobro bro, songwriter, producer, bandleader, band member, and session player extraordinaire—
is our latest guest in our continuing Q&A presentations.
Join us as Jerry discusses time travel, discloses his favorite composition, and dissects the conception and creation of bluegrass as Earl Scruggs was added to the roll call of Blue Grass Boys by Father Bill Monroe.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Douglas
20:20 with Jerry Douglas
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Jerry: My name is Jerry Douglas. I am an Ohio born player of the Dobro guitar. I have a birth certificate proving that if I am pushed to present it during this interview.
NWM 2): What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Jerry: I think for many reasons, my favorite song of my own is ‘We Hide and Seek.’ This song began as an exercise and grew tangents that eventually became a song that was interesting and challenging because of the changing meter that still conjures the game ‘hide and seek’ because the solos can take on their own direction, but return to the game by popping back up again after going through a maze of melody sections.
I originally recorded it on the record Slide Rule, but then it was reanimated for AKUS on our Live recording, then even raised its head on a Cracker Barrel record. It’s fun to listen to where different instruments take it. And it was hard—at first—for Béla Fleck to play. So I felt as if I had reached some happy plateau.
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Jerry: My wife Jill’s laugh, any act that makes me proud of my kids, and a solo or voice that excites me because of its taste—musical that is. And a good deed.
NWM 4): Among so many notable gigs, you have had a long-running history with a little combo called Alison Krauss & Union Station, Featuring Jerry Douglas. Tell us what it’s been like to work with Krauss and the other top-shelf players in the band.
Jerry: When Adam Steffey suddenly left the band, Alison called to see if I would play a few dates they had on the books and to give the band time to decide if they wanted to continue. So I thought my addition was temporary. After the third day the band asked me if I could stay. That was twenty-three years ago now.
The old adage that ‘you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with’ is in this case a slam dunk.
There is no doubt in my mind that this group is the top of the mountain as far as the sum of its parts. A once-in-a-lifetime voice like Alison holds, and her thoughts on how she can embellish with her violin talents is the starting point. Then, it takes a very particular type of musician to surround that and raise it up while creating underpinnings that are unique in themselves. Ron Block’s whole approach to guitar or banjo, Dan Tyminski’s voice and guitar, Barry Bales complete control of the foundation of the groove and the Dobro to ghost her and create counter-melodies in the songs make that group of individuals unique.
The old adage that ‘you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with’ is in this case a slam dunk. Without any of those parts, some of the magic disappears. It remains a mystery to me if we are indeed a band. I think if we were to go out and perform now, it would be more of a reunion.
Photo by Patrick Sheehan
NWM 5): You have been nominated for 32 Grammy Awards and received 14. One of them was for your work on O Brother, Where Art Thou?. What was it like to be involved in that project?
Jerry: We were playing all the songs that we were told would never make any money because nobody wanted to hear them anymore. Off the top of my head I asked how many [T-Bone Burnett] thought the record might sell. He said eight million. Last time I looked I think it was about to pass ten million.
NWM 6): You are a successful working parent whose job over the course of decades has included a lot of time on the road. What challenges has that presented, and what are/have been your most rewarding workarounds?
Jerry: It’s true that I have been gone at some downright unforgivable times. Birthdays, graduations, one birth. … But when I am home, my aim is to give of myself one hundred percent to my family.
Now they are giving me grandchildren, and that is a joy and a chance to revisit some things I missed.
This almost impossible task is something that I have struggled with all of my career. My children are grown now. Many times I have read their stories when—innocently in first or second grade—they would write ‘Daddy was gone’ in their little stories they shared. It broke my heart. I have asked them if I let them down as a father, and they all say no. That helps, but I wish, and maybe this is just me giving myself a beating, I had been there more. All of my relationships with my children are great ones. It makes me so thankful that each of them is making their way in the world in their own savvy ways, which I hope I helped instill.
Now they are giving me grandchildren, and that is a joy and a chance to revisit some things I missed.
Jerry on his bus being interviewed by Dale McCurry at the 2014 Yonder Mountain Festival on Mulberry Mountain, Arkansas. | Photo by Mollie Hull Photography
NWM 7): In a previous interview atop Mulberry Mountain, Arkansas, you told us flatly: ‘There was no bluegrass before Earl [Scruggs].’ Bill Monroe is widely regarded as the father of bluegrass.
What was it about Monroe hiring Scruggs to play banjo in 1945 that sealed the deal and brought a new genre together?
Jerry: Bill Monroe tried everything under the sun to complete his idea of what bluegrass music could be. Two fingered banjo and accordian did not work. Until Earl Scruggs walked onto the Ryman stage with Bill’s already amazing band of Chubby Wise and Lester Flatt, there was no bluegrass music. Monroe had found the end of his search and picked up a ringer in the process. Someone whose talent would bring throngs to Monroe’s shows to build his own case and install him in the Hall of Great Minds.
[With Earl Scruggs] Monroe had found the end of his search and picked up a ringer in the process.
NWM 8): Speaking of Earl, The Earls of Leicester is a band you assembled in 2013 to present the music of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and their band the Foggy Mountain Boys to contemporary audiences. The Earls’ self-titled album earned you (yet another) Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2015.
Tell us something about that venture.
Jerry: Well, let me first say, I don’t make records to get Grammys, though it’s nice when that happens.
This was one of those times when—with that band—all we needed deep down in our souls was to try to recreate the music of our early recorded memories, and do it with the same conviction Lester, Earl, and the Foggy Mountain Boys had. Sometimes I think of what the Earls of Leicester did as what Lester and Earl might have done if they had one more day in the studio. The next day’s reflections on what they had laid down. Of course, they didn’t have that luxury because they had a show date to get to, and they were going to mess with it over the next two-hundred shows.
Sometimes I think of what the Earls of Leicester did as what Lester [Flatt] and Earl [Scruggs] might have done if they had one more day in the studio.
But what we, the EofL band, did had already been done, and we hold that as the Holy Grail. What ended up happening was we gave a new audience an old music done in the original choreographic way. It was brand new to some, but others were witnessing something they thought they would never see again in their lifetimes. These were people like us, the band, that had seen the real thing. No matter it may have been made greater in our minds with time.
NWM 9): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Jerry: Maggie Rogers, Halsey, El Shankar, Ivar Bjornson and [Einar] Selvik (Viking music), Devo, Disturbed.
NWM 10): What are your before-you-go-on-stage rituals?
Jerry: Tune the guitar. Play some simple passages or phrases finding the best tone. Then going through a series of exercises to get both hands communicating. When I was 30, I could hit the stage cold with confidence. Now I like to get my hands speaking the same language before walking out on stage.
Jerry Douglas Band | Left to Right: Doug Belote (drums), Daniel Kimbro (bass), Jerry Douglas (Dobro/vocals), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), Jamel Mitchell (saxophone), Mike Seal (guitar) | Photo by Patrick Sheehan
NWM 11): What are your special interests beyond music?
Jerry: I would love to devote more time to reading. History is my favorite subject, turn of the twentieth century—Caleb Carr, Eric Larsen. These authors take some liberties, but their research is spot on, and I’m willing to take their word for the inaudibles.
Golf was my adult go-to game for years to the point of carrying my clubs on the bus to play before the show if possible. We get to play some interesting venues often with golf courses accessible by that venue. I started developing some arthritis in my hands and decided to let that one go for the more serene sport of fly fishing.
There is nothing more zen-like than standing in waders with water up to your waste in pristine water looking at the fish you are trying to entice onto the fly you have cast at them because that is supposedly what they have chosen to strike and eat this particular day. It’s a sport and a battle of intelligence. With the fish winning most times.
NWM 12): Forgive us for asking the impossible, but here we go: The official count of the number of records you have played on now stands at 1.1 gazillion. You’ve also appeared live with ev-ery-body. Please share a couple of outstanding stories from your history of meeting the studio needs of, and sharing bills with, some of the great musicians of the past several decades.
Jerry: In the late 80s, I played at a Rainforest Benefit with James Taylor and his band at Carnegie Hall. Mark O’Connor was also with me in the band. We were set up stage left. In the middle was Sting and the best band he ever had with Dominic Miller on guitar and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. On stage right was Bryan Adams’ band.
The emcee was Dustin Hoffman, who I knocked off a stool as I was rushing onto the stage from the left.
During the night, others performing included Tom Jones, Tina Turner, and the emcee was Dustin Hoffman, who I knocked off a stool as I was rushing onto the stage from the left. He just looked up as I was apologizing and helping him up and said, ‘That’s all right, Jerry!’
There have been other events that stand out, but I don’t think I can beat that one right now.
NWM 13): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Jerry: Ten Summoner’s Tales [by Sting]. An album that rolled 5/4 and 7/4 right past pop music fans without any hint of arrogance. I like it for its way of rolling musicality, math, and truth into one neat ball. Of course that comes after Foggy Mountain Banjo.
NWM 14): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Jerry: Paganini. He wrote musical pieces meant to bamboozle the musicians of his time. His dexterity enabled him to create such music puzzles. Today you hear his influence through our own geniuses such as Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Béla Fleck. Oh how I loved being in Strength in Numbers [a bluegrass supergroup of the late 80s, featuring Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, and Douglas]. A band we jokingly referred to as one with four impresarios.
NWM 15): During the aforementioned interview for a story for High Notes Magazine—a primary line of NoteWorthy Music’s ancestry—titled ‘Bluegrass Revolution: The Mythology of Truegrass’, you said: ‘That’s terrible; I love those bands!’ when we recalled both Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass and Erik Berry of Trampled by Turtles telling us, separately, that they had received hate mail for not not playing mandolin like Monroe did. In the same story, Sam Bush declared you ‘totally responsible for revamping’ Dobro play ‘for all these young players who are so good.’
You’ve been on the frontlines of what Peter Rowan called ‘all the slashgrasses’, and you created the Earls in tribute to early bluegrass progenitors. Where is the line—or is there a line—between paying homage to the early greats while embracing growth and evolution across all genres of American-born music?
Jerry: It is way too easy to ridicule something you don’t understand. Ignorance breeds fear and has been a part of us since the first caveman ran away from lightning because it caused fire. Didn’t he argue with Caveman Two when the latter found out using fire made the fucking dinosaur more appetizing.
It is way too easy to ridicule something you don’t understand. Ignorance breeds fear …
I’m sure I’ve been on the sharp end of that stick at some point. Ha! Probably with Peter Rowan.
There is no dividing line visible to me. I play with the same attitude as those around me. For someone to write ‘hate mail’ to a musician is to show the fear that resides in themselves. We—and I am including jamband/thrashgrass/disco-infused folk bands in this statement—are all dragging what we have learned from all those icons who came before us onto the stage to entertain the people in front of us. Salt and pepper to taste.
NWM 16): Strangest road story?
Jerry: Once, many years ago, I was traveling to Yosemite from San Francisco to play at the ‘Strawberry’, as it was called. A beautiful spot surrounded by tall pines known as Mather Camp. Right near Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the Bay Area’s fresh water source.
I was traveling and playing with Tim O’Brien and the O’Boys. We rented two vans at the airport. One tan and one maroon. Tim, Frank Edmonson (soundman par excellence), and I were in the maroon van. Nick Forster, Mark Schatz, and Mollie O’Brien were in the tan. Somewhere along Route 580 we became separated, but quickly caught up to the tan van again.
We followed it about thirty miles when it suddenly got off on an unplanned exit. There were no cellphones as yet so we just figured they needed food or something. We stayed with them through winding roads and twists until they turned into a driveway and the garage door went up. At this point we bolted before they could go in and call the cops on these guys following them home to rob them.
Somehow we found our way off the hill, back down to the interstate and quickly back on the road. We flew past exit after exit until we needed gas. When we pulled into the gas station, Mark Schatz said, ‘Where have you guys been?’
There has to be a word for this kind of experience, but I don’t know what it is yet.
Jerry Douglas Band | Photo by Patrick Sheehan
NWM 17): What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Jerry: How fast it all goes by. Just yesterday, I was playing at a little bluegrass festival in my dad’s band, being scouted by Charlie Waller, Doyle Lawson, and Bill Emerson. I was asked to join their band that day and left with them on their bus for the next show. I was 15.
Today I am 60-something and live a stone’s throw from Sam Bush and John Hiatt. All of the music I have made in that stretch of time took fifteen seconds.
The cool part is I remember every bit of it and will eventually release a time-travel book called That’s Not The Way I Remember It.
Just yesterday, I was playing at a little bluegrass festival in my dad’s band, being scouted by Charlie Waller, Doyle Lawson, and Bill Emerson.
NWM 18): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal?’
Jerry: Picking out one person in that audience and watching them cautiously go from, ‘I can’t believe we’re able to do this again!’ to the point when that big smile of satisfaction comes across their face and we are all home again.
NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Jerry: I care deeply about my Country. I travel the world and listen to what the people of other countries say about the greatness of the United States. We have given the world so many really grassroots ideas in the last three centuries and done our best to give them a feeling of inclusion.
I saw that deteriorate recently and am going to work like never before to get it back.
NWM 20): What’s next for Jerry Douglas?
Jerry: I’m going to travel to the places that interested me most, and this time, explore them. There is only so much you can do with 24 hours, most of it spent in some kind of aluminum tube traveling through the night. In this job you meet some very interesting persons with whom you could spend hours discussing whatever, only to get 5 minutes then never see them again.
I would like to change that.
Jerry Douglas “We Hide and Seek”
Dobro master and 14-time GRAMMY winner, Jerry Douglas is to the resonator guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar—elevating, transforming, and reinventing the instrument in countless ways.
Called “Dobro’s matchless contemporary master” by The New York Times, Jerry is a three-time CMA Musician of the Year award recipient and one of the most innovative recording artists in music—as a solo artist, band leader of The Jerry Douglas Band and his Grammy-winning bluegrass band The Earls of Leicester, as well as member of Alison Krauss & Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas. He was also a member of such ground-breaking ensembles as J.D. Crowe & The New South, The Country Gentlemen, Boone Creek, and Strength in Numbers.
Jerry has added his distinctive sound to more than 1,500 albums with such artists as Garth Brooks, George Jones, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, Ray Charles, Dierks Bently, Tommy Emmanuel, and many others.
In addition to touring and recording, Douglas has produced albums for Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, The Whites, Steep Canyon Rangers, and more.
To learn more and to buy stuff, visit https://jerrydouglas.com/
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