Artist-in-Residence: Jerry Douglas

August 19, 2008
Jerry Douglas apparently enjoys challenges. Throughout his first concert as the 2008 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Douglas challenged himself and his band with difficult arrangements, dazzling ensemble interplay, and daring improvisation. After each astounding display, Douglas responded with a deep breath and a joyful exclamation. “How fun was that?” he said at one juncture, echoing a sentiment he repeated throughout the night.

The sold-out crowd of more than two hundred in the museum’s Ford Theater let him know they agreed, exploding in applause after each tune during the three-hour concert.

Douglas’s August 19 performance launched a four-part series of concerts marking his term as the museum’s artist-in-residence—only the second non-singing instrumentalist to be named to the prestigious post. Past artists in residence include banjo master Earl Scruggs, as well as Cowboy Jack Clement, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, and Kris Kristofferson.

On this night, Douglas concentrated on showcasing his new album, Glide. He played the majority of the show backed by his band, a quartet of young instrumental hotshots. He also shared the stage with guests, including country star Travis Tritt, steel guitar legend Lloyd Green, and singer-songwriter Ed Snodderly.

Douglas’s show traced his career as well. He referred to his days playing Dobro for the acoustic family group The Whites when introducing Green; he talked of his emergence as part of a young set of amazingly accomplished acoustic pickers when mentioning his former neighbors Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck and their group Strength in Numbers; and he spoke of touring the United Kingdom and playing with Celtic musicians like fiddler Aly Bain.

Throughout, Douglas proved why he is considered one of the most inventive musicians of all time—and the greatest player ever to pick up a Dobro.

Museum Director Kyle Young, in his introduction, said, “Like Bill Monroe on the mandolin, Charlie Parker on the saxophone, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, and Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Jerry has forever altered the sonic scope and expressive capabilities of the Dobro. Jerry’s friends call him ‘Flux,’ a nod to his speed-of-light dexterity with the slide. One of Jerry’s fans has said, ‘If they had to pay for every note they heard at a Jerry Douglas concert, nobody could afford to go.

Indeed, the notes flew fast and furious at Tuesday’s concert, but each was steeped in intelligence, taste, and soul. The reigning CMA Musician of the Year, an award he has won three times, Douglas has risen to career heights rarely visited by an acoustic string musician. He has appeared on more than two thousand albums, including those by Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Phish, Earl Scruggs, Paul Simon, and James Taylor. He has won twelve Grammy Awards and is currently in his tenth year as the featured soloist in Alison Krauss & Union Station. The New York Times has described him as “the Dobro’s matchless contemporary master.”

Douglas began by introducing his band, “the guys who travel with me all the time, and I’m very proud of them”: fiddler Luke Bulla, drummer Chad Melton, bassist Todd Parks, and guitarist Guthrie Trapp. They kicked it off with “Unfolding,” an Edgar Meyer composition featured on Douglas’s Glide album, which went on sale the same day as this concert. (The Dobroist also played on the original recording of the song, the title cut on Meyer’s debut MCA Master Series album in 1985.

The opening set found the band tearing through “Wild Rumpus,” a Douglas tune inspired by the Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are; the darkly unsettling “Route Irish,” named for the road between the Baghdad Airport and the city’s coalition-controlled Green Zone; the beautiful “A Remark You Made,” written by saxophonist Wayne Shorter for the jazz band Weather Report; and “Emphysema Two Step,” a Douglas and Russ Barenberg composition from Douglas’s 1987 MCA Master Series album, Changing Channels.

Adding to the outstanding musicianship, Douglas told the kind of stories only a master musician would know. For example, he told of appearing in a segment of the CMA Awards with Marty Stuart, the two of them supporting Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Monroe. During the rehearsal, Monroe kept playing new tunes for the two younger players and telling them, “Now you play it.” Game for the challenge, Douglas said, “I couldn’t figure it out, but I tried it anyway. I played it, and he said, ‘That’s wrong.’” Monroe repeated the challenge to Stuart, also telling him he got it wrong, too. “We finally got it, and Bill said, ‘That’d make you a powerful number,’” Douglas recalled, noting the interplay went on for two hours.

Douglas then introduced Travis Tritt, who joined the band for “Marriage Made in Hollywood,” a cover of a song by Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady that is on Douglas’s new album. They also performed “Drift Off to Dream,” a 1991 hit from Tritt’s debut Warner Bros. album. They started into it, but Tritt had only sung a few lines when Douglas stopped playing, walked over and tapped Tritt on the shoulder to get him to stop, too.

“We’re in the wrong key, aren’t we?” Douglas asked. Tritt laughed and nodded, saying, “It’s your night, Dog. I was going to go with it.” Douglas responded, “You’re a friend, I’m not going to do that to you.” They then performed a memorable version showing what a strong singer Tritt is and how empathetic Douglas’s accompaniment can be.

Next up, Douglas brought out steel guitarist Lloyd Green. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best steel player that ever lived,” Douglas said. “When I was playing with the Whites, I would really study every move Lloyd Green made, on all those Don Williams songs, and every record by Charley Pride, Warner Mack, all those things. I would listen to how he phrased, and how he framed-in the singer and would make the singer better every time. I think Lloyd Green had a lot to do with shaping country.”

Green played “Two Small Cars in Rome,” a steel-string duet with Douglas that’s also on the Glide album. Green then accepted a request from Douglas to play “Jukebox Charlie,” an instrumental tune the steel guitarist originally recorded with Johnny Paycheck in 1966. It also appeared as an instrumental on Green’s 2003 instrumental album, Revisited.

For the second set, Douglas opened with a meditative solo medley on Dobro, then was joined by fiddler Luke Bulla on the Scottish fiddle tune, “Trouble on Alum.” The band then went into “We Hide & Seek,” an intricate instrumental that showed off the band’s agile skills.

Douglas introduced Johnson City, Tennessee, singer-songwriter Ed Snodderly, who played two of his sweet folk-country compositions, “Diamond Stream,” which has lyrics quoted in a stone engraving in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Rotunda, and “Pearlie Mae,” which Snodderly sang on Douglas’s Grammy-nominated 1992 album, Slide Rule. The band then tore into “Pushed Too Far,” a song on Douglas’s new album that originally appeared on an MCA Master Series sampler.

Tritt returned to perform “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde,” another of his hits featuring Douglas. The band closed with three more instrumentals, showing their breadth and their ability to play amazingly fast while always staying together.

“Man, I’m loving this,” Douglas said after one of the instrumentals. “And just think, I get to do three more of these.” (Remaining concerts are scheduled for August 27, September 16, and September 30. Each will feature a different lineup of special guests and backing musicians.

—Michael McCall