Jerry Douglas: Music, movies and Mumford
If you’re not a big fan of bluegrass music, you might not know what a dobro is. Simply put, it’s a type of guitar, proper name "resonator guitar" – with strings that are further from the neck than usual, that has a bigger and louder sound, that’s played laying flat, sometimes on the lap, sometimes hanging from a strap, with a metal bar and fingerpicks.
If you want to become a fan of the instrument, all you have to do is give a quick listen to what Jerry Douglas does with one. He’s not just a master of it, he’s currently the master of it, as a longtime member of Alison Kraus & Union Station, as a solo performer, as a session man who’s played on an uncountable number of albums, as a member of the Soggy Bottom Boys on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, and as the leader of the Jerry Douglas Band, the quartet that’ll be performing tunes from the new album "Traveler" at the First Parish Church in Harvard Square on Friday, Nov. 9.
"My dad is a guitarist, and he’s always had bands," said Douglas by phone from his home in Nashville. "So I was playing guitar when I was very young. When I was 10, he took me to see the Foggy Mountain Boys. I already loved the sound of the dobro by then, but I didn’t realize how cool it was until I saw Josh Graves play live in that band. I just couldn’t think about anything else. I wished I could make that sound. So I took my Silvertone guitar and I raised the strings up, just a little bit, and took a piece of copper tubing to use for a bar.
"I didn’t get a proper dobro till I was about 12," he added. "But when I did, it just opened the flood gates for me."
Douglas was playing in local bars with his dad’s band by the time he was 15.
"It was nice," he recalled, laughing. "There were little old ladies trying to give me vodka and Squirt ... and I took it!"
When he was 17, he was performing at a bluegrass festival, was noticed by members of the well-established band the Country Gentlemen, and was asked to join, going on the road with them during the summer between his junior and senior years in high school. Before finally carving out a solo career, and hooking up with Union Station, Douglas also had stints with string wizard Ricky Skaggs in J.D. Crowe’s New South and in Boone Creek.
The Union Station relationship began with a right time, right place scenario. Douglas was hired as a studio musician to play on Alison Krauss’ first Rounder Records album when she was 16. He went on to produce her second album, and has since played on most of her recordings.
"Fifteen years ago I was in the studio, producing someone else’s record," he said. "Alison called and said, ‘[mandolinist] Adam Steffey has left the band, and we have a bunch of dates and have to fulfill them. Could you go out on the road with us for these dates?’ So I went out on the road with them, and what was going to be a couple of months has turned into 15 years."
Krauss and the band are guest players on "Traveler," as are Douglas’ old pals Eric Clapton and Paul Simon. As are his newer friends Mumford & Sons, who share singing on "The Boxer" with its composer, Simon.
"I play a festival in Telluride, Colorado, every year," said Douglas of working with the British folk-rock band. "The producer of the festival was a huge Mumfords fan, and so was I because of my kids bringing stuff to me to listen to. They ended up playing at the festival, and I started playing with them there. That was four or five years ago, and I’ve watched them take off. They’re playing roots music, but taking it to a completely different place. We’ve been talking since then about doing something together, so when I was making this record, they were among the first people I thought of. I made the call and they said yes."
It was Douglas who said yes when he was approached to be in and play on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ bluegrass-drenched 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
"All the boys in Union Station are in the movie," he said. "We’re in the part in the hall where the Soggy Bottom Boys are onstage singing."
Douglas happily talked about the film being a huge boost for bluegrass music upon its release.
"It was the biggest one ever," he said. "I heard from people who had bands that were just a bunch of guys that would get together and play a birthday party once in a while. They’d say, ‘Hey, man, now we’re doing corporate gigs! Everybody’s working, a lot!’ And it was all on account of that movie. I was very pleased to be a part of that."
When the Jerry Douglas Band comes to Cambridge, it’ll be in quartet format, with Douglas on dobro and lap steel guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Luke Bulla on violin, and Doug Belote on drums.
"We have about a 40- or 50-song set list to choose from, and we’ll do a lot of the new album," said Douglas. "What we play depends on the audience. I take that into account at every show, and sort of build the set around what kind of audience I’m playing for. I can go back to play an old Josh Graves tune or I can do [Duane Allman’s] ‘Little Martha.’
"I’m havin’ a blast. I’m playing with people I really enjoy playing with, all the time. Alison, the guys in my band, it’s a wonderful musical world out there right now."
The Jerry Douglas Band
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 9, 8 p.m.
WHERE: First Parish Church in Harvard Square, Cambridge