As a session player on more than 2,000 albums and a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Jerry Douglas’ voice has been heard by most music fans, whether they know it or not. But it isn’t Douglas’ deep, rich baritone that astute listeners should listen for when trying to find him. It’s his other voice, emanating from a metal guitar with a funny-sounding name.
“When I started playing Dobro, I stopped singing. It took over the vocals for me,” Douglas tells Xpress. The Dobro is a singing, lyrical instrument, Douglas explains. “It took up that space in my head, and I didn’t think that I needed to sing anymore.”
Though Douglas often plays the supporting role—to acts as disparate as Ray Charles, Elvis Costello and Phish—he hasn’t exactly stayed out of the spotlight. This summer, he held a prestigious artist-in-residence concert series at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, sharing the stage with Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs, among others.
Douglas is a versatile maestro—it would seem he takes his cues as a sideman not from Music Row conventions, but from another artistic field.
“As a sideman, you have to take on the persona of who you are working for at that moment. They are telling their story, and you have to honor that perspective. It’s musical acting,” Douglas says.
With the summer release of Glide, his 12th solo album, Douglas again steps out of the shadows. The album showcases both Douglas’ musical dexterity and the superb playing of those around him, including Sam Bush and Tony Rice, and standout vocals from Travis Tritt and Rodney Crowell.
“I’m writing these songs as to what I think the band can do. I just turn them loose and they take off,” Douglas says.
When Douglas and his band do take off, they don’t limit themselves to their country and bluegrass roots. Instead, Douglas and company leap musical bounds, slipping effortlessly from country to bluegrass and jazz-tinged pop. The musician admits this isn’t a “normal” country record.
“When I finished this record, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve finally done a country record,’” Douglas says. “Then I started getting reviews back and everybody was telling me that it was all over the map. That’s not what I set out to do, but I guess that’s what I do. I thought it was cohesive, and viable. I knew this wasn’t a normal country record. It’s a country-funk-disco record, I guess. There’s no particular column that it fits in completely.”
Stretching the boundaries of the genre is what keeps the medium fresh and vital, Douglas explains.
“I’m all for people being in a bluegrass band and bringing other influences into it,” he says. “I totally understand it. Every form of music has to grow and evolve. The lines are blurry right now and I think it’s a great thing.”
In fact, blurring those musical lines is what allows Douglas to remain one of the top session players in the music world—and stay true to his roots.
As Douglas himself puts it: “Left to my own devices, I’m going to find completely different music, but it’s always going to be planted in bluegrass.”
[Jason Bugg is a Sylva-based writer.]
who: The Jerry Douglas Band with special guests Almost Acoustic Band
what: Genre-defying bluegrass and country
where: The Garage at Biltmore, 101 Fairview Road
when: Thursday, Nov. 13. 9 p.m. ($18 advance, $20 doors. www.thegarageatbiltmore.com)