Jerry Douglas

Dobro player
A man holding a guitar.

Photo courtesy of the artist


At different times critics have called Jerry Douglas the Charlie Parker and the Jimi Hendrix of the Dobro. The Dobro, a resophonic guitar played with a slide, emerged as an instrument of choice in bluegrass, country, and Western Swing bands following the Hawaiian steel guitar fad in the early 20th century. Douglas, who was playing acoustic guitar in his father's string band in the steel belt town of Warren, Ohio, first heard the Dobro played by "Josh" Graves when Graves was touring with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Having taken up the Dobro shortly thereafter, Douglas soon was touring with bluegrass bands. Before long he gained a reputation as both a technical master and a stunning innovator on the instrument. Today, having performed on well over 1,000 recordings, he can be heard playing with musicians as diverse as Stephane Grapelli, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Vishna Mohan Bhatt, Bela Fleck, Phish, and Yo Yo Ma. A recipient of five Grammy Awards, Douglas recently toured and recorded with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Music critic Tom Grill of Sydney, Australia, says of Jerry Douglas, "He may have peers in the future, but at the moment he stands alone on a musical pinnacle he created, eager for good resophonic company, but still quite alone after more than twenty years of touring and backstage teaching.

Interview with Mary Eckstein

NEA: Congratulations on your award. Could you tell me what it means to you?

MR. DOUGLAS: I never expected anything like this. I just love playing music and feel really lucky to be able to do it for a living and fortunate that my family supports it. They really believe in me. I've been gone pretty much since the 5th of May and I was really looking forward to being home a lot more this year in the summer time. Then a tour fell on me and changed everything, and I was gone for most of the summer. My family just took it in stride, no one objected. I try to make it up to them every chance I get. But having kids and being away from home is hard. The life of a musician is hard. Things like this award make it a little easier.

NEA: What led you to start playing the dobro?

MR. DOUGLAS: My father played the guitar and sang -- he had a bluegrass band for as long as I can remember. He worked in the steel mills up in Northeastern Ohio and the first thing I would hear when I woke up in the morning was Flatt and Scruggs. There was a dobro player named Josh Graves who played with him and I just loved the sound of it. I just wanted to play that particular guitar. Nobody even knew what it was -- if I asked about buying one at a music store, they just looked at me like I had some awful disease or something.

I learned the fundamentals of dobro on an old guitar my father set up with strings up high enough that I could play it with a metal bar. He found a real one for me when I was about 12 and then I really started learning how to play. I was lucky to have live musicians to play with -- the guys in his band let me play with them and by the time I was 13, 14, I was playing in bars with them.

Playing dobro came easy to me. I didn't sit down and practice 20 hours a day or anything like that. I did all the normal things kids do all the way through high school, played football and did everything. But I didn't have a lot of dobro musicians to listen to. It wasn't the kind of instrument that you could just kind of copy four or five different guys. There were only one or two guys that I could even listen to on record and I learned as much as I could from them. I just used my own intuition on what to do after that.

NEA: When did you start performing on the road?

MR. DOUGLAS: I was 16 when I started traveling with a band called The Country Gentlemen. They had scouted me out at a festival that I was playing at with my dad. It was sort of like being recruited for college football or something. They asked me join the band and go out on the road with them but I wanted to finish high school and go to college. So I went out on the road with them between my junior and senior year of high school and then left home immediately after my high-school graduation to tour with them. Then things just happened pretty fast. I moved to D.C. and started playing on the road. I just decided that that was going to be college for me. It was a crazy two years and I did a lot of growing up and got a lot of musical and life education.

NEA: Has dobro playing changed over the years you've been playing?

MR. DOUGLAS: It has changed a lot. When I started playing you could count the number of popular dobro players on one hand. I got in these situations with a lot of really good players of other instruments and sort of just traveled in different circles than a dobro player normally would.

I moved to Nashville in 1978 to record with Buck White and his daughters, Sharon and Cheryl. They had beautiful vocals and gave me another avenue to explore. I was heard on the radio a lot so a lot more people started hearing dobro -- the instrument became more popular and more people started to play it. More people learning how to play it and learning different ways to play the instrument.

Basically it's played the same way physically, but there are different influences. I've played on all kinds of different records with different musical styles. I’ve tried to keep the dobro from being a limited instrument. A lot of people thought it was a limited instrument, that it only had one sound and that it could only be used in country music. I've tried to prove that theory false.

It's really good for backing vocals. It fits against a vocal. I can play harmonies against a vocal to complement or supplement a singer. I try not to distract from the vocal but to add to it. I think that it’s an art form to stay out of the way, to be subliminal in a way and to enhance whatever the vocalist is saying and trying to put across.

It’s such an emotional instrument -- you can do things with it that you can't do with just any instrument. Because you play it with a slide, you can move the note and sustain the note and do all these things with it that you can't do with a normal guitar or another stringed instrument. The violin is another instrument that allows you to go as many places and display as many emotions and feelings. The dobro has a sound that is so vocal it allows you go a lot of different places that normally you wouldn't get to go. It’s an outlet for me, a way that I could talk, you know. It's another way for me to communicate.

NEA: What do you find are the challenges to carrying on the dobro? Is there a thriving vibrant community of practitioners now?

MR. DOUGLAS: Compared to what it was 20 years ago, it is a thriving community. But there’s still a lot of room for it to grow and go farther. I'm not giving up. I'm not anywhere close to that. I'm going right on just like I did when I was 18 years old. I'm having just as much fun playing, maybe more, now that I really know what I'm doing and have all these great friends to play with.

NEA: You also do some teaching.

MR. DOUGLAS: I do, but not nearly as much as I used to. I used to do these big clinics with as many as 40 people. I've never been afraid to show anybody anything they want to ask me about. Some people feel like that's stealing or giving away, you know, but I think that stuff should be passed on. I don't think it should be kept under wraps anywhere.

NEA: What are the important things for the student to master?

MR. DOUGLAS: The most important thing is to advance your ear training, tune up your ears as best you can. To be in tune is the most important thing. And pitch, pitch is the most important aspect of playing this particular instrument. You can sit down and learn theory -- a lot of music is just math, you know -- but I think to be really effective you need to be in tune. You need to be able to hear pitch very well. That's the most important thing.

NEA: What advice do you have for young musicians embarking on a music career?

MR. DOUGLAS: When you reach a plateau in your playing and you think you'll never learn anything else, that’s when it starts to get really hard. And that’s when you just have to keep playing a lot. You have to play through those plateaus and eventually something will push you on to the next level. You need to really turn it on and play as much as you possibly can because something is going to jump out at you that's going to send you in another direction. Your development never ends.

NEA: What has compelled you to continue playing through the years?

MR. DOUGLAS: I don't think that there's anything else in the world that could make me as happy. Playing music is both my therapy and my way of making money. In fact, it’s more important to me as an emotional therapy than it is as a job. Once in a while when I'm really, really tired and I've worked too much it feels like a job -- but the rest of the time it's a friend to me. It's a teacher of all things, a lot of things about life in general. Traveling around, seeing different people and different lifestyles, talking to people, getting different opinions all the time -- musicians and creative people are very opinionated, so you get a lot of different looks at life and reality. And I think that's what being a musician is to me. It keeps me happy and keeps my family happy. It's my job but it's also my quest.

I've never had more fun in my life than I'm having right now. Playing and traveling and then the importance that it places on being at home with my family. It's all working.

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