Dobro Master Jerry Douglas on Building Musical Conversations

Jerry Douglas

Jerry Douglas seems to be everywhere. Apart from fronting his eponymous Jerry Douglas Band, he boasts a 20-year tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station, as well as a crucial role in a supergroup of sorts, the Earls of Leicester, whose recent release, Live at the CMA Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame, documents the outfit’s dedication to bluegrass music of a vintage variety. A first-call session player and perennial festival favorite, Douglas can be counted on to share center stage whenever or wherever a jam occurs, or, for that matter, any time he’s offered an invitation to share in some spontaneity.

That said, the role he’s played as a recording artist is equally significant. Besides the 14 albums Douglas has made on his own, there are some 1,600 other LPs that feature his support, primarily on dobro and resonator guitar. His studio credits include recordings by Garth Brooks, Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, Phish, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons, and Tommy Emanuel, as well as production work for the Steep Canyon Rangers, Jesse Winchester, and the Del McCoury Band. He’s been accorded 14 Grammy awards and 31 nominations, as well as ten top honors as IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year.

Amazingly, Douglas’ list of accolades doesn’t stop there. He’s the recipient of three Country Music Association Musician of the Year awards, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lifetime Achievement Award given him by the Americana Music Association, and a designation as Artist in Residence for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Those are considerable accomplishments, and yet Douglas never offers the impression that he’s anything other than a journeyman musician, not to mention a proud collector with some 70 guitars. Nevertheless, the day we caught up with him backstage at the Jam in the Hills festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina, he was taping up a dobro that had fallen out of the back of his van. Happily, the fact that he didn’t have a back-up with him didn’t impair his performances, first on his own and then later when he guested with Shooter Jennings’ band. As always, he seemed right at home.

What kind of music were you brought up on?

I was really bluegrass-minded, and I knew who all the bluegrass bands were, and who played in the bands because my father had a band. I got to watch them rehearse, arrange, do all those things. So early on, I got a crash course in how to run a band and work out music. I just loved the sound of the dobro and it seemed to come so easy to me because I had gained all those influences. I was listening to Clapton and Josh Graves. When Graves joined Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt in the Foggy Mountain Boys, he gave them a kind of town-and-country feel, and I latched right on to it. Graves could play as fast as Earl, but he could also slow everything down and just breeze everything out. I just loved the sound of it. It was for me. So I learned to play from that.


What was your first guitar?

I had a Sears guitar, but it was hard for me to push the strings down. It was like a cheese grater.

How did you overcome that?

I asked my dad to move the strings up. I’d play with a piece of copper tubing my fingers. From listening to records and watching my dad’s band, I could figure out what the tuning was, and how to do the rolls and different combinations. Every once in a while, I’d have an epiphany and realize, “Oh, this is how he did that!”

These days your right-hand playing is so fluid it seems almost effortless. Can you describe your technique?

As far as my right hand goes, my fingers have “stations,” as I call them. My little finger takes care of the first three strings, my thumb is sort of a free agent, and my index finger takes care of the second string to cover for my little finger and up to the fourth string. But my thumb is a free to do its own thing, and I use it on the down stroke. So it’s kind of like a flatpick in the tone it creates. It’s my lead player.

What originally drew you to jamming?

As I said, I grew up going to bluegrass festivals. My dad worked in a steel mill and would get a couple of weeks off each year, and he would base his time off around the festivals. Everybody would play there, and so we hung out and met a lot of people.


I met Josh Graves when I was 13. We were at a festival in Ohio where he was playing with Lester Flatt. Josh was like the rock ’n’ roll dobro player, and he could just adapt to whatever situation he was in. We were sitting by a campfire and he came over to have a drink with his good-ol’-boy buddies. They told him about this kid who was hanging around backstage and who was pretty good. He came toward me with his guitar and handed it to me, which was about the biggest gesture anybody’s ever made to me . . . at least in a musical sense. He handed me the Holy Grail as far as I was concerned. This guitar that I had heard on the radio, on records—here I was I was holding it in my hands. It was like gold. After he let me play it, he said, “We’ll see you again, kid.”

These days, it seems like everybody wants to jam with you.

Well, I’m certain not everyone wants to play with me, but I would imagine that those that do reach out have certain reasons in mind. I have a long history of collaboration, built in the studio and in live playing situations. Also, the company I keep helps to build my own vocabulary in these situations. Sometimes I would say I am pulled into a musical conversation because of that company or because of a certain party of that company.

What is it about you as a musician that makes you so successful in those situations?

I would hope it’s because I’m thought of as a listener. To me, the most important aspect of jamming, or becoming an integral part of a recording, is being aware of what people are doing around you. Listening to them and building on a theme is where I start. If I hear someone start their part of this conversation with a very outside musical comment, I will begin restating a version of the melody or build a countermelody to give us another branch to climb out on and to use as a springboard into building the conversation. That’s my touchstone.

Taking what someone else has just stated and elaborating on it makes for a good jam, and it can include as much of your own personality and vocabulary as you care to put forth. Your instrument and note choices are important to separate you, the same as if you are working with a vocalist. Staying out of the same range as the instrument playing before you can help to set you apart. Usually, building a solo or section to an explosive crescendo ends in the higher register. Coming back down from a frenzy in the higher notes to lower notes can be anticlimactic.


How do you communicate when you’re in a spontaneous situation?

There’s a lot of eyeballing that goes on. You can rehearse, but that goes out the window when you’re onstage. When you’re in the moment, you don’t remember what you rehearsed, and yet it just takes off. When you’re in a band, the first rule is to listen to what’s going on around you, especially if you’re soloing. If you’re soloing, and soloing after each other, you become an extension of what came before. And after you solidify the extension, only then does your passage take over. The next person takes it from there, and it’s like links in a chain, and sooner or later it gets back to the original idea. It’s like jazz. When you build a solo, it’s like putting a song together. You make the statement. You state the melody, and then you explore all the tangents of that melody and create counter melodies. Then you turn the whole thing inside out and hand it off to the next person and they do the same thing. At the end, it always evolves back to where it originally was.

You’re primarily known as a bluegrass player, so how does that strategy differ from what takes place in the jam band world?


In the jam band world you just extend the solos. Instead of a 16-bar solo, you go ahead and flesh it out and figure out what all is going on in there and then explore all the tangents and use your own vocabulary. You may have a different vocabulary than someone else up there. The same rule should apply to who you hand the baton off to, and then they take off in that direction and make a hard left and do their thing. That’s what gets my attention—when I hear bands do that. Then there’s the more traditional route of just playing the melody. If you can’t play the melody of a song, you shouldn’t improvise one. The first thing you have to do is know the melody of a song to play that melody. If not, you have no right to improvise.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Lee Zimmerman
Lee Zimmerman

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