Interview: Jerry Douglas

Does Jerry Douglas play dobro in his sleep? “Lord I hope not, there has to be some time when I don’t have that thing on. It’s like a little brother,” he laughs. “Sometimes I hate the damn thing, but I can only be away from it for a couple of days before I’ve got to play.”  It’s a safe bet that dobros all over the planet quake at the very mention of his name. You may recognize the fourteen-time Grammy Award-winning (and three-time winner of the Country Music Association’s ‘Musician of the Year’ award—no big deal) Douglas from his numerous solo recordings, his sideman gigs with everyone from Ray Charles to Mumford & Sons, his tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station, or his band the Earls of Leicester. Soon, however, you will know him by his latest incarnation, The Jerry Douglas Band…or by his flashy fashion sense. “Three or four years ago, I was in Hyde Park in London with Alison, we were playing there, and I was also playing with Paul Simon; I met this guy who had these two coats and a pair of pants—they were Tennessee pants, and I can’t stand UT. The coats though, Dan [Tyminski] took one with the Union Jack on it, and I said ‘that one is mine’ about the other one,” Douglas explains of the psychedelic jacket he dons on the cover of The Jerry Douglas Band’s new album, What If, set for release on August 18th via Rounder Records. “I threatened to wear it on stage that day, and Alison was begging me not to, all the managers were begging me not to wear it, I definitely freaked them out. When it came time to do this record, I was all in, and the coat was coming out,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s the probably the most talked about thing on the whole damn record.”

The Jerry Douglas Band is sonically different than the musical territory previously charted by the prolific Douglas, and encompasses the jazz, blues rock, soul, and everything in between that he has absorbed throughout his life and lengthy career. “I think the only bluegrass-y thing on the record is me,” he says. “I turned it over to the band and let them have their way with it. I love what happened. Jamel Mitchell, our saxophone player, he has ‘good papers’—his dad wrote all the horn parts for Al Green’s records, and his uncle Willie produced all those records. He comes from that world. I threw a bunch of songs at him a few years ago and asked what he would do with them. I’d always imagined horns with these songs, and he was the guy to make it happen. It was exactly what I wanted,” he recalls. “People are swooning over What If, it’s a good thing for the planet right now. It’s so much fun. I get to play all the bluegrass I want to with the Earls of Leicester, we sold out The Ryman last night. This is my everything-else band. I’ve been headed in this direction, writing in that vein for the last few years. I wanted to take a few chances, and I thought my audience was ready for it. So here we go. It ain’t weird enough for me yet.”

After releasing What If, Douglas and company will hit the road, making their way back to Tennessee for the scene’s most talked-about newer ticket, Pilgrimage Festival, in September. “We’ll be pretty hot by then! We should know what we’re doing by the time we get there. Either that, or the songs will be unrecognizable,” he laughs. “Either way, I’m having a blast playing with these guys. Someone told me once ‘Don’t ever be the best guy in the band,’ and I’ve finally figured out what that means. This band kicks so hard, I’d play behind The Rolling Stones with this band, which is probably the worst gig in the world,” he admits. “We’re having a wonderful time. I’m putting everything I’ve got into it, it’s what I want to do now. I stay busy with this band, the Earls of Leicester, and I’m heading into the studio with Union Station next week. I’m happy,” he continues. “I just love to play.”

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Susan Hubbard

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