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Jerry Douglas: Intrepid Traveler

JPG: You’re known for playing the dobro yet on “Traveler” you’re using lap steel on seven of the album’s 11 tracks. How long have you been playing lap steel and why decide to feature it so much here?

JD: Well, I’ve been playing lap steel for quite awhile. The “MCA Masters Series” was the first place that I got to really experiment with that. It’s a different animal in that there’s so much gain because you’re playing through an amplifier; you’re playing an electric instrument. So, you don’t have to beat it up to get loud sound out of it, just volume pedal or turn a knob and you’re louder. With an acoustic instrument, part of learning how to play is to learn how to play dynamics, how to play soft with a different tone. And if you’re playing with different people, you want to dial your dynamic down so that you can hear them, so that you can play off of them, so that you can get ideas from them, so they can be heard by the audience and you’re not drowning them out by playing over top of them. When your turn comes then you increase and dial up a little bit and you get a little bit more physical with it. It’s all about how physical you can be, what attitude you play with.

The lap steel was like…I said this a million times is like I’ve been playing with a handsaw all my life and then somebody hands you a running chainsaw. It’s like, “Wow! What I can do with this!” and some things I can’t do with this, like a lot of the really fast, wide-open, rolling banjo-y kind of stuff that I do with the dobro I can’t do with the lap steel. It just runs together. It’s indecipherable. You learn how to phrase differently. There’s a l lot of different right hand techniques, left hand…it’s a different instrument. The only thing that’s the same about it, maybe the tuning and the tuning intervals and that you’re playing it with a slide. Otherwise, there’s all these different tones you can get without changing anything about how you play the instrument. So, I just started messing around with distortion, all the things I always wanted to do but I couldn’t do with an acoustic instrument and played and played and played and played, and listened to people like Clapton and Jeff Beck and became friends with Derek Trucks; people like that who played electric their whole lives and that’s what they’re thinking. My whole thing was acoustic so we’d talk about it a little bit but mostly listening, getting ideas and trying to be different.

JPG: That’s interesting. I’m just so used to seeing you play the dobro. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you use lap steel.

JD: I was using it but I wasn’t using it like a lead instrument that much. I’m playing at Chautauqua Auditorium [on Sept. 7] in Boulder with Omar [Hakim] and Viktor [Krauss], and I’ll play mostly lap steel that night. Marshall [amplifier]. It’s a completely different world.

JPG: You’re going back to your high school rock days. Maybe throw in some Hendrix licks…
JD: Yeah, it gives you that opportunity to recreate those kind of sounds instead. It gives me that opportunity. As soon as I hear that all this stuff floats to the top. I’m like, “Oh! Wait a minute. I can do this now. This instrument lets me do this.” It drags out a lot of stuff out of the closet that I’ve never been able to do with the dobro, not through a microphone.

JPG: Back to the album, in the press release there were a lot of juicy quotes by you (Douglas laughs) such as “I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m not afraid to try anything.” Based on the fact that you’ve contributed to more than 2,000 albums by a variety of artists as well as numerous guest appearances onstage, I’d say you’ve already done most everything.

JD: (laughs) It’s good but trying to do it all on one record was…and I got to this point in my life where a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done like walking up to Paul McCartney or singing on a record.

What gave me the incentive to sing on the record more than anything was a gig I did with James Taylor at Carnegie Hall, and I’m not trying to drop names. I was doing a gig with him and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to sing ‘Hey Joe.’” And I hadn’t even thought about it ‘til then. It just flew out of me. And he said, “Okay,” because he didn’t know that I didn’t do that all the time. So, I did it that night. I sang “Hey Joe” and everybody went, “What the…? Where did that come from?” So, I started my singing career in Carnegie Hall, and I just figured it’s not gonna get any better than this so I might as well just go. (laughs)

That’s what I mean by I’m not afraid to do anything. I just reached this point in my life that I’m not as inhibited, maybe, as I was for a long long time and not as worried about what I think somebody might think. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to play at this level. So, I’m gonna go for it.

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