Dobro master and 14-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas is to the resonator guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar: elevating, transforming, and reinventing the instrument in countless ways. In addition to being widely recognized as the foremost master of the Dobro, Jerry Douglas is a freewheeling, forward-thinking recording artist whose output incorporates elements of bluegrass, country, rock, jazz, blues and Celtic into his distinctive musical vision.
Called "dobro’s matchless contemporary master,” by The New York Times, fourteen-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas is one of the most innovative recording artists in music, both as a solo artist and member of groundbreaking bands including J.D. Crowe & the New South, the Country Gentlemen, Boone Creek, the Grammy-winning The Earls of Leicester, and Strength In Numbers. Douglas’ distinctive sound graces more than 1500 albums, including discs released by Garth Brooks, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, and Ray Charles, among many others.
Since 1998, he’s been a key member of "Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas”, touring extensively and co-producing and playing on a series of platinum albums. He has produced albums for Krauss, the Del McCoury Band, Maura O’Connell, and Jesse Winchester and is is co-Music Director of the acclaimed BBC TV series Transatlantic Sessions, and his latest solo album Traveler features guest appearances by such notable friends as Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, and Eric Clapton, among others.
As he continues his incalculable influence on Americana, bluegrass and their many related genres, Douglas forges as a true pioneer in American music.
The Jerry Douglas Band
Jerry Douglas was a teenager playing in a band in Lexington, Kentucky, the first time he heard Weather Report and Chick Corea — on the same day. More than 40 years later, he remembers the moment vividly.
"It blew my head off,” he says. "I loved it. And I thought, ‘Well, there’s where I could go with all this stuff runnin’ around in my head.’” "All this stuff” is the remarkable music Douglas has made on Dobro and lap steel in a career that’s earned him world renown as the top purveyor of his craft. On his latest musical foray, What If, Douglas decisively merges those jazz inclinations with the bluegrass, country, blues, swing, rock, and soul he’s spent his life absorbing and performing, forging a sound that flies beyond the boundaries of anything he — or anyone else — has done before. Like fellow bluegrass-rooted peers Fleck and David Grisman, Douglas has always balanced respect for tradition with a desire to escape constricting expectations. But there were places even he was afraid to go — until now.
"I’ve always heard horn lines in my songs, and I usually put something else there instead,” he explains. But after bassist Daniel Kimbro joined the Jerry Douglas Band in 2013, he introduced Douglas to guitarist Mike Seal, trumpet player Vance Thompson, and saxophonist Jamel Mitchell — a nephew of famed Al Green producer Willie Mitchell and son of James, one of the original Memphis Horns players. "They opened a door that I had hesitated to pass through before,” Douglas admits. It led to a place where he felt free to follow those previously stifled leanings. "A lot of what you do as a musician comes from fear; what you think the audience will stand,” he says. "But I think they’re with me at this point. Audiences are more broadminded than they were when I started playing.”
In the ensuing years, he often pondered, "What if?” Finally, that became What If. And then some. But this album wasn’t a sure thing until Douglas heard the band perform the Edgar Meyer composition "Unfolding.” He’d played with Fleck, Bush and O’Connor on Meyer’s original 1986 version, then covered it on his 2008 album, Glide. "It was way ahead of its time when we recorded it for him,” Douglas says. "We didn’t know how to play music like that, most of us. Though I cut it on my own, that’s another one I wanted to revisit. … When this band played that song, it let me know there was really something to this — that it had a future.”
On this elegant track, Dobro gives way to fiddle, then sax, then bass; each virtuosic solo simply seems to … unfold. That’s what What If did, too. Douglas says he initially planned to record the band’s performing set list, then realized he had unheard material these players could tackle. In some cases, their input radically changed the song. "I’d come up with the tune, and they would help me take it to some crazy places,” he says. Not coincidentally, What If marks the recorded debut of the Jerry Douglas Band — because, according to Douglas, it’s a real band effort (also including longtime drummer Doug Belote and violinist Christian Sedelmyer, who joined in 2014). Guitarist Seal had particularly heavy involvement in "Battle Stick,” a song with multiple time signatures, flipped-backward instrumentation, and other Beatles-influenced "tricks” Douglas loves using.
On an album containing one marvel after another, the title tune, with its symphonic sweep, might be the ultimate definition of a mindblower. What started out as an exercise "just to get my hands talking to each other” turns into an understated, yet dramatic sonic experience. "It’s almost a magic trick to play what I’m playing underneath the melodies,” Douglas says. "It’s all wrong for the count; really against the grain. You kind of have to find a spot on the floor and stare at it to take your mind off what you’re doing, because if you think about it too much, you’ll go completely out of time and just turn it upside down. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, this song is.”
It might be tricky to play, but for listeners, the operative word — for the whole album — is magic.