Artist-in-Residence: Jerry Douglas

September 16, 2008
Jerry Douglas, the world’s preeminent Dobro player, shed light on how musical genius develops during the third of his four concerts as the 2008 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

By inviting important influences and collaborators as special guests, and by encouraging them, through example, to share stories about each other, Douglas revealed how young musicians often achieve their breakthroughs after absorbing the inspired work of pioneers who forged paths in front of them.

Across the three-hour concert, Douglas went from recalling his earliest musical memories to highlighting his current status in two of America’s most impressive bands. Along the way, he performed with his childhood hero, Earl Scruggs; one of his primary influences and mentors, guitarist Tony Rice; his long-running collaborator and boss, singer Alison Krauss; his close friend, harmonica player Buddy Greene; and the young, talented members of the Jerry Douglas Band, with whom he also tours.

“This is like a great big old birthday party,” Douglas told the sold-out audience filling the museum’s Ford Theater.

As the evening progressed, a theme emerged in how each performer shared important career turning points with others guests. Douglas recalled that at age six he began to share his father’s love for Flatt & Scruggs, especially the groundbreaking fret work of Scruggs. Krauss remembered hearing, at age twelve, the albums of Tony Rice, and how she obsessively listened and absorbed his progressive style of acoustic music.

“Life was never the same after that,” Krauss said. “For as long as I live, there’s that to reach for, when it comes to music. I’ve never heard anything like it since. So while we’re doing his music, at the same time I’m completely a fan of his.” She paused, smiled, and in her inimitable way, added, “It’s a little bit creepy.”

Douglas told of meeting Krauss, when she was fourteen, after a record executive brought her to Nashville and introduced her to the Dobro specialist and his friends, banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh great, another one,’” Douglas said to a round of laughter. “But this time it was really, really different. As soon as she opened her mouth and sang and played the fiddle for us, we knew we were onto a brand-new road. It was something that was going to change everything for everybody, and she has not let any of us down, and really surpassed anything I thought could ever happen in bluegrass music, country music, anywhere.”

He also spoke of joining J.D. Crowe & the New South, at age nineteen, and what he learned by playing with Rice, the band’s guitarist, and mandolinist Ricky Skaggs.  “For me, joining the band was a chance to play with some musicians who were breaking ground everywhere,” Douglas said. “Tony was way out in front of that. I thought, ‘If I don’t take this opportunity to go play with these guys, this is a musical education I could not get anywhere else.’”

He then paused, his eyes twinkling, and added, “That’s a complete lie. I was probably not thinking anything like that at nineteen. But something told me I better go do it.”

Douglas and Rice acknowledged the influence of guitarist Jerry Reed, the country music great who died on August 31. Douglas’s friend and golfing partner Buddy Greene spoke of his years as a member of Reed’s band and of playing Rice’s rendition of a Reed song and the enthusiastic reaction of his boss.

Douglas began the evening with his band—fiddler Luke Bulla, drummer Chad Melton, bassist Todd Parks, and guitarist Guthrie Trapp—on a couple of instrumentals, the rampaging “Takarasaka,” from Douglas’s 1998 album, Restless on the Farm, and “Future Man,” a composition by Douglas and fiddler Mark O’Connor that opened the 1989 album, Telluride Sessions, by the acoustic super-group Strength in Numbers. The group ended its opening segment with a rousing, traditional take on Bill Monroe’s classic “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” with Bulla taking lead vocals and Douglas singing high harmony.

Krauss followed, joining the band for a beautiful version of “Till the Rivers All Run Dry,” a #1 country hit by Don Williams originally released in 1976. At song’s end, Douglas called Rice to the stage. He walked out dressed elegantly in a double-breasted suit and tie.

“I always worry about what I’m going to look like on stage when Tony shows up,” Douglas quipped. Later, he added, “One of the most fun things I ever get to do is just to stand next to this guy and play music.”

With Douglas’s band still backing them, Krauss sang Rice’s song “Shadows” while Rice and Douglas revealed why both rank among the most highly regarded string players of their time. Krauss then departed, while Rice, Douglas, and his band performed “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a Tom Paxton song Rice recorded on his 1983 album, Church Street Blues.

In introducing Scruggs, Douglas recalled annoying his elementary school teachers by drumming out Flatt & Scruggs tunes on his desk and, after being reprimanded, mimicking the banjo runs of the songs by chattering his teeth together. “He’s been the inspiration for millions, and he will be for millions more,” Douglas said as the Country Music Hall of Fame member walked on stage to a standing ovation.

At Douglas’s request, and with Rice still on stage, Scruggs led the musicians through Flatt & Scruggs’s instrumental “Home Sweet Home,” which Douglas recorded with the banjo great on his recent album, Glide.  Douglas also requested another Flatt & Scruggs tune, “Farewell Blues,” with Scruggs, Douglas, and Rice again trading solos. Following the song, the crowd stood as Scruggs left the stage.

With Rice still on guitar, Bulla performed the contemporary country song “The Suit,” written by Hugh Prestwood and originally sung by James Taylor on Douglas’s 2002 album, Lookout for Hope.  Scruggs returned to close out the first half of the program with a rollicking take on “Reuben,” another traditional tune from the Flatt & Scruggs repertoire.

Douglas welcomed visitors to the second show with a solo display that started sweet and soulful and turned into a showcase for the breadth of Douglas’s skills. Songwriter and harmonica player Greene sang a tender version of the Washington Phillips gospel tune, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”

The pickers paid tribute to the late guitarist and singer Jerry Reed with a growling “Amos Moses,” sung by Greene, and “The Likes of Me,” one of several Reed songs covered by Rice over the years. Douglas then pared down to a duo with Rice for a stunningly evocative take on “Summertime,” from the George Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess.

Rice again took a break, as Douglas’s band returned for three instrumentals, ranging from a lovely ballad to a complex, improvisational jazz tune, the latter titled “Cave Bop,” after a dream Douglas had that included Charlie Parker and Fred Flintstone.

Krauss and Rice then returned, with Krauss lending her beautiful tone to Autry Inman’s “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” a country classic made famous by the Louvin Brothers that both Douglas and Krauss have recorded. She then sang a Gordon Lightfoot song, “Sixteen Miles,” that she learned from a 1986 Tony Rice album, Me & My Guitar. Krauss and Rice finished their performances with Ian Tyson’s great “Summer Wages,” which Rice recorded in 1988.

“Wow! What an unbelievable chance to play for you all,” Douglas said at the end of the night, just before his band tore into the closing instrumental, “We Hide & Seek.” “This is as much fun to do as I hope it is to watch. It’s nice to throw all these people into the mix and see what happens.”

What happened was magical, and a one-of-a-kind experience encouraged by the museum’s artist-in-residence series. The music these virtuosos made together, and the stories they shared of their artistic development, proved once again that the circle does remain unbroken. More than that, it’s rolling forward in good hands.

 

—Michael McCall