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Jerry Douglas: Intrepid Traveler

It’s altogether appropriate that Jerry Douglas titled his latest release, Traveler. Since June of 2011 the world-renowned master of the Dobro resonator guitar crisscrossed the world as a longtime member of Alison Krauss & Union Station. He used any free time away from recording and touring with that band to work on his own album in Nashville, New Orleans, New York and Banbury, England. And just as Krauss’ tour ends, he keeps his bags packed in order to hit the road again.

“Alison is finally slowing down and I’m gonna speed it up.”

I speak to Douglas just before he heads to the airport for a flight from his Nashville home to Denver for a date with Krauss & Union Station. Shortly afterwards, he begins touring with his band, which currently enlists Omar Hakim (Weather Report, Sting) on drums, Victor Krauss on bass and Luke Bulla on violin.

Only Bulla, who also plays with Lyle Lovett, remains from his previous touring group. Douglas is more than pleased to see his backing musicians work even if it means he has to start all over again. “When I went off the road a couple years ago to do Alison fulltime I got [bassist] Todd Parks a job with Sam Bush. Sam and I have traded players back and forth for years, he said, laughing.

Mixing originals and covers, Traveler is an album where Douglas feels he isn’t afraid to try just about anything. That attitude resulted in his recorded lead vocals debut on Leadbelly’s “On a Monday,” a dobro medley of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” Chick Corea’s “Spain” and his regular bandmates of 14 years, Krauss & Union Station, on “Frozen Fields.” A special guest appears on nearly every track including Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Sam Bush, Dr. John, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Keb’ Mo’, Marc Cohn and Jon Cleary.

Before we discussed the thinking behind and recording of “Traveler,” how growing up surrounded by bluegrass at home and rock ‘n’ roll at school shaped his musical mentality and his renewed interest in lap steel, I mentioned that I saw the Jerry Douglas Band perform on Jan. 15, 2011 at Seneca Niagara Casino’s Bear’s Den.

He recalled that day’s blizzard and how his corner suite had a ceiling-to-floor window. “I couldn’t see Niagara. It was like being in the middle of a big white cloud.”

With a tight schedule to keep as a traveling musician, he didn’t even have a chance to use the room’s Jacuzzi or even the bed. “I was there playing the gig and left.”

Asked if it’s worth it to get a hotel room if all it becomes is little more than a large walk-in closet, Douglas quickly responds, “It’s just nice to stop moving. That’s what it is. Buses are great. I’d rather be in a bus than an airplane to get to a gig anytime but every three days I’ve gotta stop.”

*JPG: You provided a nice segue to discuss Traveler. (Douglas laughs) You and producer Russ Titelman approached the album conceptually as far as the music and the different musicians appearing on it. *

JD: It was more motivational to go where they are. Mumford, I was at the end of a tour, and I had just enough time to go out in the country, about 70 miles by train. Get out of the city. Get them out of the city so we could all work and not deal with folks. So, that one worked out great.

The whole thing started in New Orleans. That happened on purpose and that’s pretty much where it ended, on purpose. Other than that, I knew I’d be going to New York to get Clapton to sing on it and then he and I would play against each other there. And the same with Marc Cohn. Then, I got Omar [Hakim] down here to record in Nashville and went to Connecticut and added Paul Simon.

The record didn’t take me all over the place. We ended up mixing a lot in Montreal and here. It wasn’t on purpose to get somebody, but we knew what songs we were gonna record and we knew who we were going to record with but the emphasis was on starting in New Orleans.

JPG: How long did it take to make this a reality?

JD: We started talking about it around Christmas of 2009. We started recording in 2010, February, in New Orleans and we finished mixing and everything in February of this year. So, it was a little over two years to do the whole thing.

The biggest time lapse — where I wasn’t working on the record but Russ was still working on the record, editing things, and in some cases editing things down where we overcut lengthwise – was because I was going out with Alison. That tour started late because the [Alison Krauss & Union Station] Paper Airplane record was taking so long. It threw my schedule off. Finally, I said I had to do what I have to do. (slight laugh) Pretty much what Alison said, too. “I know you guys have been waiting…” And she was having bad headaches. Threw the whole thing off, basically.

There’s a time period of any recording where all the publicity is done months before it’s released and then you can start touring. But that’s kinda the way it’s ending up for Traveler. But it’s good timing because I’m doing the final dates with Alison.

JPG: Looking at your schedule I see that you’re plugging in solo dates here and there between dates with Alison and Union Station.

JD: When Alison stops then mine begins.

JPG: During moments like that…I’m kind of joking here, do you have to take a few minutes before going onstage and look at who’s around you?

JD: (laughs) Look at the setlist! Yeah. Yeah, I do, but that only lasts for about a couple weeks then I’m settled down. After we’ve done four or five straight shows I’m in the groove. We get four or five under our belt then we can go off and not think about the songs.

JPG: So, have you had enough time to get in the groove with Omar, Viktor and Luke?

JD: No. The first one we’re going to do is the festival with Mumford…Even though you have management, a road manager, I’m still like, “Okay. Go do that.” (laughs) I’ve tried to take myself out of these situations and maybe I’ll be able to this time but I like to know what’s going on. I used to be a road manager. So, I like knowing where I’m going to wake up the next day.

JPG: So, you’re that rare type of musician because you pay attention to such things.

JD: it’s been a long time since it was just only music that I would think about. Sometimes, the gigs with Alison get me close to that. After awhile I can get in a groove with that stuff. Sometimes with Alison it’s like a vacation. I get on the bus and I don’t even care where I’m going. I know exactly what songs I’m gonna play when I get there. Not a lot on my shoulders but to play those songs with polish.

But I’ll get used to it. I’ll get used to it when I’ve got the band out for a little while.

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