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Jerry Douglas: Intrepid Traveler

JPG: Back to the album, the opening track, a cover of Leadbelly’s “On a Monday,” features your lead vocal debut on a record. Who forced you to sing?

JD: I did. My manager and Russ said, “You sing. Why don’t you sing on your record?” I work with Alison Krauss, the best singer in the world, I don’t wanna sing. I’ll sing harmony parts with her but singing is a completely different animal. You’re naked. You’re out there for all the world to see. I feel like I’ve been doing that with the dobro for so long, and it takes up the same center of the brain when you do that. When you play a slide instrument and it doesn’t have frets and to stop that note from going somewhere else and to be in tune at the time and being on the note, I think it’s the same brain center as singing.

When I started playing dobro, as a kid, I stopped singing. Before that I was a guitar playing, singing kid and that all stopped when I started playing dobro. I didn’t feel comfortable singing words. It’s got me pretty far. I never worried about it too much but singers rule the world. It’s true. You don’t see too many top 40 instrumentals against Celine Dion. It’s a fact. Singers, people are gonna remember them because they can sing along with the crowd, where nobody can hear what they’re singing and that’s okay.

So, I decided to sing this song because it wasn’t a big stretch. It wasn’t a song where I had to be Frank Sinatra. It’s a period song but Leadbelly sang it like he was happy. He may have been happy to go back to jail. It seemed like half his life was spent in jail. It was a fun song to sing so I just went ahead and let it go. I wasn’t really inhibited by singing. I felt like I needed to sing as well as I play. I would like to, and I’m working on it. And I’m not there.

JPG: It came out nice.

JD: Yeah, it came out fine, and the whole time I was thinking about singing it and while I was singing it in the studio I was thinking Del McCoury has to sing this with me ‘cause that will make it cool. That will be the cement to hold it together. I heard him the whole time. Then, when he stepped in the studio and sang it was like a completed thought.

I did it on Letterman. I sang the song and Del was able to come with me. And I thought, “Wow! This is so cool to be able to sing on national TV like this and have Del McCoury as my backup singer.” He was just humoring me. He’s also a good friend. So…I think that probably answers you question. (laughs)

JPG: I was gonna joke with you that maybe Del just wanted a free trip to New York…

JD: Yeah, well, he needed meet some managers that work with him.

JPG: …and he wanted to meet David Letterman and shake his hand after the song.

JD: Yeah! Dave’s a good guy. He does get a bad rap about being a curmudgeon but he’s always been really nice.

JPG: He always seems really enthusiastic about the bands that play. I don’t know if he approves them or…

JD: He does. He approves the bands and he is really into what happens there. It’s the end of the night and he’s under a lot of pressure.

JPG: And it’s always cool to see musicians so excited to greet him. You see drummers jumping from behind their kits.

JD: (laughs) Yeah. He’s iconic. He’s a good guy. So is Leno. Leno’s a good guy. Leno actually mixes it up with people before the show. Letterman doesn’t. He stays up in his man cave and does whatever he does. Then, he comes down the stairway. And they clear the stairway for him to come down. I actually was in the stairway when he came down and we talked for a little bit. (laughs) I later heard that it was against the rules.

*JPG: Back to the singing, it’s interesting because the next number after you sing has vocals by Eric Clapton (Douglas laughs) and he didn’t want to sing either. He was forced into it. He just wanted to concentrate on playing the guitar. *

JD: He didn’t want to be a singer?

JPG: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I read.

JD: And he’s gotten better.

JPG: He sounds great on this (a cover of Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got”).

JD: That is something he cut his teeth on. When he was learning to play that’s what he played. I called him up and asked if he would sing on that particular song and he said, “Yeah.” He recorded it just a little bit faster and in the same original key. So, he knew the song. He just never recorded it. And he was wailing. He was thinking about [Kenner] when he was cutting the track. I think his voice has gotten better over the years. And he played great. In the last few years the stuff that he’s recorded hasn’t been what you would call cream of what he’s playing but I thought he stepped up. He was pretty raw and there wasn’t a lot going on around him; just fighting it out with me. I was playing lap steel.

(I describe to Jerry a scene from The Love We Make, the Paul McCartney documentary that follows him as he organizes the Concert for New York City in 2001. In it the legendary Beatle’s been asking other musicians to join him in singing his brand new song, “Freedom.” Most are openly wary of doing a new track in front of a sold out arena and a TV audience of millions. He gives Clapton the scoop and requests a short solo in a particular key. The guitar legend doesn’t hesitate to help out.)

JD: Yeah, yeah. (laughs) That’s the way Clapton’s been at all those Crossroads [Guitar Festivals]. He would jump up there and play with anybody that asked him. I met him a few years before that but then I did two of them. It was like that. Everybody was just kinda elbowing around and talking backstage and he was just roaming. He’s God but he doesn’t act like God.

McCartney’s the same. I met McCartney, just shook his hand and said, “Hello, nice to see you,” in London a month ago when we did Hard Rock Calling. It was the night after he and Springsteen had been pulled off the stage. I was there playing with Alison and we opened for Paul Simon for like 60,000. Afterwards, there was a party and McCartney’s there. I had just played with Paul [Simon] and we had just come offstage and went over. And I thought, “I’m gonna go talk to Paul McCartney.” I started over towards him and he looked at me and stuck his hand out. We stood there and talked about all kinds of stuff for 20 minutes. He’s just a regular guy. And he’s a very good businessman, just like Mick Jagger. Those guys, they didn’t always have the best careers but they turned ‘em around, and you can’t deny business-wise. Eric’s got his way together and Paul always has except for the short time that Michael Jackson was involved. Paul Simon, all those guys, they’re businessmen. They were musicians first and then they saw they were gonna get ripped off if they didn’t start paying attention. But they’re all outstanding guys.

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