Jerry Douglas: Intrepid Traveler
JPG: Earlier you mentioned about playing dobro when you were young. I know your dad played in bluegrass bands but you came up in a time of the Beatles and when rock ‘n’ roll was such a huge cultural phenomena. What was it about the dobro and bluegrass that you stuck with that rather than…?
JD: Rather than becoming a rock musician?
JPG: Yeah, where you’d be strumming the guitar like Clapton.
JD: I was so in love with the sound of the dobro and especially the way that Josh Graves played with Flatts & Scruggs. That’s it for me. That was what started all of this for me, and I just loved the sound of it. It was everything I wanted to be, just that sound. That’s strange for a 10 year old kid in Ohio. That’s really weird. But, I played football all the way through high school. I ran track. I did everything that everyone else did but I had this secret life on the weekends where I’d go play in bars with my dad’s band and play dobro. So then, all my friends found out about it my junior year in high school and they all started showing up at the bars and getting kicked out for having a drink.
At the same time I was close to Cleveland so I was hearing all this good…it was ’69, ’70, right in there. I think that was the best music ever made, was right in that time period. That was the explosion of everything to come after. I had a cousin that moved into the house who was 18, 19 years old and he turned me on to Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas & Papas. And then I went Stones, Byrds…the Beatles had already happened by then. And I loved that. Loved it. My dad’s band wasn’t doing any of those songs. If they did anything outside of bluegrass, it was some country song. But, I loved it all and it all stayed in there and it all got all mixed around.
This record comes the closest to really being that mishmash of what all’s been going on in my head all this time. It’s the closest I’ve come to making a real…I don’t know what you’d call it…the sound of the music my brain listens to, (laughs) what’s locked up in there.
JPG: It makes sense that all those influences have combined to make you comfortable in a variety of different musical situations.
JD: I was listening to bluegrass in the morning and rock ‘n’ roll at night because I’d go to sleep listening to Cleveland stations. I wake up in the morning. My dad’s going to work. I’m going to school. So, I’m listening to Flatt & Scruggs, live on the radio in Nashville, Tennessee, if the weather permitted. There wasn’t Clear Channel to make it to us. So, it confused me a lot for a long time until I was playing the dobro well enough to make those sounds, too. Then, John Fogerty comes out with a record [with Creedence Clearwater Revival], standing on the cover with a dobro, “Green River.” And that made me legitimate with my friends. (laughs)
It blew my mind. It blew my mind. And I remember telling one of my friends, “I’m gonna play with these guys someday.” It only took like 30 years but then Fogerty and I became friends and I have played with him, recorded. So, it all came around. Took awhile but it did come.
JPG: What about the improvisation, jam aspect of your work? Is that a result of this combination or a jazz influence?
JD: It’s definitely a jazz influence. And that all began with when Tony Rice introduced me to David Grisman, probably. That aspect of playing…I was improvising all along but not really thinking of it that way. Improvise is more of a jazz term. It’s a part of the music. In bluegrass or string band music it’s sort of like, “Okay, I’m gonna play the melody. Nah, I’m not gonna play the melody but I’m gonna play something kinda like the melody.” (laughs) Well, then I found out that was called ‘improvising’ through jazz musicians. And I thought, “Well, it’s a big deal for them to give it a name.”
Then, I started learning the ways to build a solo and the ways to legitimately improvise where you use the melody as a springboard to something else. I like music that does that but comes back; that makes the return trip. A solo should be a round-trip ticket. It should start out with a little bit of the melody and then jet off somewhere for awhile, and then come back, state the melody again. And that’s the signal you’re gonna hand off to somebody else. When I’m out there, if you don’t hear me playing the melody it’s not your solo yet. That’s sort of the way we all tend to listen to each other and we know it’s coming. If somebody comes back to the melody they’re handing off. It depends on how they feel that day how long their solo is.
JPG: That makes me think of how Jerry Garcia would do that and the Grateful Dead would do that, going between him and the keyboardist.
JD: Yeah. They looked up. His head was down all the time. When he looked up he looked at who was gonna solo next. “Here it comes. I give this to you. A nice little present.”
JPG: Was there anyone that you watched or listened to that taught you that this is how you should approach improvising?
JD: I listened a lot to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. That’s like the crash course. That’s like Jazz 101 pretty much, before Charlie Parker…before jazz got really complicated. Those guys were giving you the rudimentary crash course on how to improvise and how to…They weren’t playing 16 bars and then handing over. They were going take chorus after chorus after chorus until they wrung it out, until “Here you go.”
I was around when David Grisman and Tony [Rice] and those guys were rehearsing before they ever did their first gigs, and it was some of the most amazing music I had ever heard. Intricate arrangements played by these guys who were so great on their instruments. It was a real wake up call for me and a step. It was like, “There’s no turning back at this point. You gotta go.”