April 15, 2010

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Mixing it up on the Dobro
Jerry Douglas loves his work
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

You’d be hard pressed to find a musician who enjoys his work as much as Dobro player Jerry Douglas. That he happens to be the undisputed master of his instrument is a bonus.

“I don’t worry about politics, or global warming,” Douglas said recently during a break from a family visit in Virginia. “I mean I’m involved in it all, I do benefits … but I’m not really thinking in those terms. I’m having such a great life playing so many different kinds of music.”

Douglas is among the most in-demand session players in the world. He’s contributed to no fewer than 1,600 records; the number of musicians he’s collaborated with could fill a book — and that’s just the cream of the crop.

Douglas has backed many great singers over the years, including Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Dan Fogelberg, David Gates, Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Taylor and Allison Krauss — he’s a de facto member of her band Union Station.

He attributes his prolific sideman career as to his unique instrument, a lap steel resonator guitar: “It goes with vocals really, really well,” Douglas said. “It’s like a voice itself so it can really hide and masquerade as a voice behind the singer.”

But the real reason Douglas is the only name on many a list of go-to Dobro players is his unique ability to carry on a musical conversation and be an equal in the studio.

“We just kind of ricochet off each other and they’re great listeners,” Douglas said. “The people I work with and have the most fun with are the people who use you as a sounding board. They trade off with you. It’s sort of a stream of consciousness situation where you’re not just, OK, this is my part and I’ll do this, and you do whatever you’re going to do. We’re really listening to each other, and that’s the way it’s got to work. That’s the best music you can make, it’s music that feels very collaborative.”

Most recently, Douglas worked with Elvis Costello on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. He’ll join Costello’s band on tour shortly after he plays two area shows with a fellow virtuoso, guitar player Leo Kottke.

The rare double bill came about after a promoter learned Kottke and Douglas had jammed together two years ago in Colorado, and pitched the idea of a brief New Hampshire swing. They’ll each do a solo set, and then take the stage together.

“We can’t let that kind of chance go by,” Douglas said. “I just love playing with him, I love listening to him.”

Douglas first hooked up with the guitarist for Kottke’s 1989 album My Father’s Head, an experience he remembers vividly.

“I had one of the wildest rides of my life after the session,” Douglas said. “It was in the middle of winter, and Leo put Edgar and I both in this little K car he had that had some kind of policeman’s engine in it. It would outrun the word of God.” He and bass player Edgar Meyer squeezed into the back seat and watched with a mixture of awe and fear as Kottke sped down the icy highway.

“Leo was talking like it didn’t matter,” Douglas said, “like it was the middle of summer of something, and Edgar and I are doing the white-knuckle thing.”

Kottke and Douglas have been friends since, and play together whenever they can. “We tour every 10 years,” laughs Douglas, who says they stay in close contact. “Just talking to him before a show sets me off onto another planet, and makes me play different.”

Douglas’s long history with so many musicians comes in handy when he heads into the studio to make a record of his own. On 2008’s Glide, Travis Tritt and Rodney Crowell provided lead vocals on a pair of songs. Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice and Sam Bush also pitched in.  

“Yeah, I’ve got quite the musical bank account going on,” said Douglas, who recently completed a European tour with Bush, Meyer and a 20-piece ensemble that included pipers, whistle players, bouzoukis and other tradition instruments. “It’s such a great musical world out there … I’m fortunate. I really wish that everyone had the same opportunities and chances that I’ve had to play in all these different situations because it just makes you feel so good.”

Who hasn’t he played yet with that he’d like to?

“Wow, I don’t know,” he said with a pause. “I don’t really think of it in those terms. It just happens.”

When pressed, he mentions Sting, and says, “I feel at some point Mark Knopfler and I are going to work together, and that would be great.”

For the moment, though, his mind is on the upcoming shows with Kottke. 

“This fell out of the sky,” said Douglas. “Leo and I have a great rapport with each other and we’re good friends.  It’ll be great to see him and to talk to him but really, really great to have a musical dialogue with him. We’re both kind of quirky musicians, and there will be a few surprises for us. I’ll be inspired by whatever he does.”


Double bill
Leo Kottke & Jerry Douglas
• Friday, April 16, at 8 p.m. at the Lebanon Opera House, 51 North Park St. in Lebanon
• Saturday, April 17, at 8 p.m. at the Stockbridge Theatre, Pinkerton Academy, 44 N. Main Street in Derry.
Tickets are $45 (Lebanon) and $44 (Derry) at www.mktix.com/heptunes