Finger talking

“Sometimes it sounds like a barefoot boy going down the dirt road to the fishin’ hole. Other times, it’s that impossibly beautiful woman that you can never have. And in the right hands … it just doesn’t get any better.”

That’s music luminary John Fogerty on the magic of the dobro — and he’s right about at least one thing: It doesn’t get any better, if the horizontally played slide instrument (once described as “looking like a guitar that had a carved pie plate embedded in it during a nasty brawl”) is in the hands of one Jerry Douglas of Nashville, Tenn.

Douglas, a six-time Grammy-award winner whom Life magazine recently named “one of the Top 10 best country musicians of all time,” coaxes sounds out of the dobro that you’d swear were human cries and wails and sighs — which isn’t so surprising, when you learn that Douglas considers the instrument his voice. He’s been exercising those dobro vocals since age 11, after starting on mandolin at the age of 5 (he became a full-time, touring musician at 18, with the Country Gentlemen).

“What first got me interested in dobro is, I always sang a lot, from the time I was a little kid,” he relates. “And I started playing guitar and mandolin and things like that, and when I finally got to the dobro, it was the most vocal kind of instrument. … You can bend notes, you can do everything you can do with a voice. I mean, it’s better than a voice in some ways, because you run out of air with a voice. … And I worked on playing dobro so much, and worked so hard on it, that I finally gave up the singing. I’ve wondered about why and how it happened that way, and what I came up with is, the dobro became my voice.”

Douglas — who grew up around live music, courtesy of his bluegrass-musician father — was most influenced by Josh Graves, of Flatt & Scruggs fame. Douglas calls Graves “the guy that introduced dobro to the world.” The instrument — an adaptation of the Hawaiian steel guitar — was actually invented in the late 1920s; for a time, it was considered a “mainstream” instrument (played by blues musicians in particular). Then, as Douglas puts it, “the electric stuff came in, and that wiped out everything acoustic.”

Not anymore, though. In the last decade or so, acoustic music has enjoyed an unprecedented comeback. Douglas thinks that’s because people are getting bored by society’s seemingly boundless high-tech capabilities. “It’s like, OK, we have the technology — so what?,” he asks. “We can do all the high-tech stuff anytime we want, so why not be different?”

What’s more, he points out, there’s a practical reason acoustic music must stick around. “There’s always going to be a time when the electricity’s out and you can’t just plug something in,” says Douglas, with a laugh, adding, “plus, in the year 2000, all the electronic, computerized stuff will shut down anyway, and there’ll be nothing left but acoustic.”

Though deeply rooted in bluegrass music, Douglas is famous for experimentation in practically every genre. His latest CD, the brilliant Restless on the Farm (Sugar Hill, 1998) — which features a veritable Who’s Who of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, including Steve Earle, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Maura O’Connell, Tim O’Brien and Sonny Landreth — finds Douglas exploring everything from exotic Middle Eastern sounds (on the haunting, multilayered Douglas original “Turkish Taffee”) to down-and-dirty blues (on the Johnny Winter classic “TV Doctor”) to straight-ahead country (on Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” which features Steve Earle on vocals) to traditional bluegrass (on Don Stover’s “Things in Life”).

Douglas admits taking some criticism from bluegrass purists over the years because of all that experimentation, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he says, it’s a given that a bluegrass musician would have no trouble playing pretty much any kind of music. And as, arguably, Nashville’s top session musician, Douglas has to be able to adapt to most every genre.

“Bluegrass music is hard to play,” he says, “if you play it right. … It’s not, OK, let’s go buy a guitar and play some bluegrass. … It’s a physically demanding kind of music, and it takes a pretty broad encyclopedia of techniques to pull it off. To reach the upper echelons of bluegrass, you have to be a good player. And I think that … makes it easier for me to cross into different kinds of music. Bluegrass is just as demanding physically and mentally as jazz, for example. And I just don’t think most people realize that.”

Douglas is well aware that many people dismiss bluegrass as either easy to play or some sort of hillbilly novelty. “There are some so-called bluegrass bands out there who kind of do it as a hobby, and they chase a bunch of people away,” he continues. “People will hear that and say, ‘I hate bluegrass music.’ … But you know, through time, there have been a lot of great musicians who made their names in other kinds of music, but were originally bluegrass musicians — the guys in the Byrds, for example. Bluegrass can take you a lot of places, but you can’t go from the other direction. You can’t go to bluegrass music from rock ‘n’ roll, but you can go back the other way.”

Besides the multiple Grammies, Douglas has been named IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year six years running (and been on pretty much every other “best of” list there is), and has played with everyone — from Paul Simon to Reba McEntire, from Tammy Wynette to Michelle Shocked, from Garth Brooks to Joan Baez. He says he hates to drop names, but relates that a Sting rainforest benefit at Carnegie Hall, which found him onstage with one of his biggest musical heroes, James Taylor (not to mention Tina Turner — and, of course, Sting) was probably the high point of his career. “I was thinking, ‘God, I’m standing up here with a dobro in the middle of all this,” he remembers. “That was pretty much ‘it’ for me.” He’s produced CDs by Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, among many others.

Douglas plays in a style that can only be called virtuosic, employing a fluid, take-no-prisoners grandeur reminiscent of slide-guitar master Leo Kottke (with whom Douglas has also recorded). But unlike Kottke –who often seems vaguely amused by, but ultimately somewhat detached from, his talent — Douglas embraces his gift with the gushing warmth of an unabashedly proud father. He’s in love with music, pure and simple.

Sure, the awards and the accolades are nice, he says, a great ego boost, but they’re just not the point. “When someone goes, ‘Oh, man, I really like what you do. Your music’s gotten me through a really hard time in my life,’ well, that’s what does it for me,” he relates.

In fact, this father of four — who’s excited to be flying home for Halloween in the midst of a heavy touring schedule, the day of our conversation — says that, as far as he’s concerned, he plays the music out of pure love, for free. “It’s the time on the road, all that other stuff you deal with, that’s what I feel I get paid for. The music’s free: It’s the getting there that costs something.”

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