Artist-in-Residence: Jerry Douglas

September 30, 2008
Garth Brooks, proving once again how capable he is of seizing a moment, looked across the stage at Jerry Douglas and summed up why the Dobro master ranks among the most admired instrumentalists of his generation—and why he was named 2008 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“When you’re moving here, thinking you’re going to change the world, we all want to mean to our gift what you have come to mean to yours,” Brooks said.

Brooks joined several of Douglas’s esteemed creative colleagues—including country star Trisha Yearwood, Brooks’s wife—in the final of four artist-in-residence concerts hosted by the Dobro specialist. Like the other Ford Theater concerts, the sold-out evening revealed, in breathtaking musical terms, why Douglas is such a revered figure among other performers.

As always, Douglas played with unparalleled technique and an ability to make his instrument express a variety of tones and emotions. He also underscored his range and made brilliance look easy, whether leading his band through a tricky instrumental, or backing Brooks on a country rocker, Tim O’Brien on a bluegrass tune, Maura O’Connell on a Celtic-flavored song, or Yearwood on an aching ballad.

Beyond that, Douglas and his guests shared their sense of what well-written, well-played songs can communicate about the breadth and depth of the human experience. As Brooks’s comment intimated, Douglas’s dedication to excellence, and the way he nurtures the creative light within him, inspires others who have dedicated their lives to making good music, too.

As with other nights, the audience of a little more than two hundred realized they were participants in a one-of-a-kind musical event that could only happen at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“You are most certainly in the right place at the right time,” Museum director Kyle Young said to open the evening. “For a few hours, you’ll be able to forget about politics, forget about the economy and your 401(k), because you’re about to be swept high above the maddening crowd to musical nirvana.”

For this final program, Douglas opened with several instrumentals from his new album, Glide, accompanied by his ace band: fiddler Luke Bulla, drummer Chad Melton, bassist Todd Parks, and guitarist Guthrie Trapp.

“It’s been an honor to be here for these four shows, and I swear I’d do ten more, if it was possible,” Douglas said before starting his first song. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to lay out my life, through music, and have friends on, and just play good music. That’s what this whole place is for.”

Douglas introduced his first guest, John Cowan, and said he had requested “Good Woman’s Love,” a song Cowan initially recorded in 1975 as a member of New Grass Revival. “I remember John singing this song at bluegrass festivals when I wasn’t supposed to be there, because my parents told me I had to stay in the camper, that I couldn’t go watch those hippie boys play. I would sneak off and go see what I wasn’t supposed to see. I remember this song from way back then, and it’s always been a favorite. The man sings!”

Cowan’s rendition, which managed to sound tender while astounding the crowd with his vocal power, drew one of the most explosive standing ovations yet during the four-show stand.

Douglas told a story before revealing the name of his next guest. “This guy is the first guy I called when I started putting these shows together,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why not just shoot the moon, start out high, go ahead and call somebody, they’ll say no.’ So I called, and he said, ‘I’m there, I’ll do that, I’d love to do that. But first I have to do this thing with Billy Joel.’”

Brooks walked out wearing jeans and a blue Kansas City Royals baseball hat. With Cowan still on stage to sing harmonies, Brooks tore into “Don’t Cross the River,” a song by country-rockers America that Brooks covered on his album Scarecrow. Before he reached the chorus, Yearwood walked out unannounced to join in.

“This is not a two-for-one,” Douglas quipped, referring to the famous husband and wife standing beside him. “You might think that, but it’s not. I talked to them separately.” Yearwood confirmed, nodding toward Brooks and joking, “I didn’t know he was going to be here tonight!”

Yearwood performed “Walkaway Joe,” with Brooks on harmony and Steve Cox on piano. She also praised Douglas’s role in the hit recording. “This is one of those songs that, when you finished, you didn’t know what was going to happen with it, but you knew something really magical had happened, and you were such a big, big part of that,” she said. “I’m excited to hear you play this again tonight.”

Yearwood  also performed a tender “The Nightingale” at Douglas’s request. “It’s kind of like karaoke with real people,” the Dobroist joked. Then Brooks and Cowan returned, and the singers joined forces for a rousing take on “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” a Brooks hit originally recorded by Cowan and New Grass Revival.

For the night’s second set, the Jerry Douglas Band again showed their stuff with three dazzling numbers, opening with the swinging “Emphysema Two Step.”  Bluegrass stalwart Tim O’Brien—“one of the most gifted and natural singers you’ll hear in your whole life”—offered a spirited take on his own “Look Down That Lonesome Road” and a mountain-music arrangement of “Hey Joe,” the blues-rocker best-known in its version by Jimi Hendrix.

Also appearing in the second set were guitarist Russ Barenberg, who recorded with Douglas and bassist Edgar Meyer on a 1993 album, Skip, Hop & Wobble, and singer Maura O’Connell, who Douglas noted that, upon her arrival in Nashville in 1982,  “took this town by storm and hasn’t let up.” Barenberg led Douglas and his band on the instrumental “Through the Gates,” while O’Connell showed off her grand interpretive abilities on two Paul Brady songs, “Helpless Heart” and “Crazy Heart,” and a tune built upon an age-old Celtic melody, “The Isle of Malachy.”

Before closing with a sweetly touching solo, “A Peaceful Return,” Douglas reflected on his artist-in-residence experience. “It’s been such an extreme honor to get to do something like this, folks,” he said. “It probably happens once in your lifetime. I’m a very lucky man…It’s been a great pleasure to be your artist-in-residence this year. I’ve enjoyed every second.”

—Michael McCall