Artist-in-Residence: Jerry Douglas

August 27, 2008
Jerry Douglas, the world’s preeminent Dobro player, gathered other paramount instrumentalists for the opening half of his second concert as the 2008 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The results resembled a special exhibition of Olympic gold medalists: an elite group of musicians performed at master level, pushing each other to spectacular feats and mind-boggling turns. The sold-out crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater sat awestruck by the daring displays of talent in this one-of-a-kind performance.

Joining Douglas were several players who pushed acoustic music to new heights in the 1980s, including his longtime friends and collaborators Sam Bush on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, and Edgar Meyer on bass. They brought along two younger players who have drawn notice in recent years for their outstanding skills, Luke Bulla on fiddle and Bryan Sutton on flat-top guitar.

“You’re about to see some of the best friends I have in the whole world,” Douglas said before starting the three-hour concert. “I’m very privileged and honored to call them friends. We’ve been through all kinds of things together. It’s not just the rough hours on the road in the van. It’s a lot more than that. I don’t know what I’d do without any of these people.”

Later, for the second half, Douglas returned to the down-home music that first led him to Nashville and brought attention to his talents. Describing father-daughter trio the Whites as “family,” Douglas introduced Buck White and brought his daughters Cheryl and Sharon White to the stage. Their performance gave Douglas a chance to display his skills as a support player, while spinning humorous tales about their years of traveling the world together, playing bluesy, acoustic country music.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young began the proceedings with the convivial greeting, “Welcome to the Emerald City, you’re about to meet the wizard.” Young explained that the museum names only one artist-in-residence annually, and that previous honorees were Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, and Kris Kristofferson. Douglas’s initial artist-in-residence concert on August 19 focused on his new album, Glide, and special guests were steel guitarist Lloyd Green, songwriter Ed Snodderly, and country music star Travis Tritt.

The Dobro king opened his first set by bringing out Fleck, acknowledging the depth of their friendship by noting that the two of them were best men at each other’s weddings. They performed as a duet on “Another Morning,” a song Douglas said “the two of us have been playing together for a long, long time.” Like friends pedaling on a bike trip along a rural, hilly landscape, the two musicians started leisurely but soon reeled ahead, playing one dazzling run after another, while following each other as they eased through curves, chugged up peaks and raced at downhill speeds. The two originally recorded the Fleck original in 1984 on the banjoist’s fourth album, Double Time, a collection of instrumental duets.

Douglas expanded the party by introducing Bush and Meyer, who, along with Fleck and the guest of honor, made up four-fifths of the acoustic super-group Strength in Numbers, which released the cult-favorite album The Telluride Sessions in 1989. Bush, Meyer and Douglas performed “Bounce,” a song from Douglas’s new album. “We did a little tour last fall, the three of us, in a bus,” Douglas said. “A lot of space, a whole lot more than we’re used to. Before we did the tour, we wrote some songs together, because we wanted some new stuff to take out there.”

Adding Bulla and Sutton, and with Fleck returning to the stage, the six specialists tore into “Spanish Point,” a Fleck song from his 1999 album, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2. “What would you do if you had these guys for friends and they came over to your house?” Douglas said as he looked down the line, shaking his head in amazement at the collection of talent. “I keep telling my kids, ‘Don’t take any of this for granted.’”

The same group also played the funky “Green Slime,” a Meyer tune recorded with Fleck for the 2004 concert DVD Music for Two. They also stayed on stage as Douglas introduced his father, John Douglas, “who has had a bluegrass band for as long as I can remember,” the Dobroist explained. “When I was crawling around on the floor, I was watching bands rehearse in my living room. Very, very few people have gotten to do that, and I think that really had an effect on me growing up. I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars.”

With John Douglas on vocals and acoustic guitar, the big band performed “When You Are Lonely,” a classic Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys tune, and “This Morning at Nine,” a Sid Campbell song.

After Douglas’s father left to a loud ovation, the band offered four more tunes: The high-speed “Who’s Your Uncle?,” which Douglas wrote in tribute to Uncle Josh Graves, who brought the Dobro back into popularity as a member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s band, the Foggy Mountain Boys; “Lochs of Dread,” a Douglas and Fleck co-write that combines a reggae rhythm with passages of traditional Irish music; “Lights of Home,” a beautiful Bela Fleck ballad; and the traditional “McKinley Blues,” also known as “White House Blues,” which featured  Bush on vocals.

For the second half, Douglas introduced the Whites, recalling how they drove in an ice storm to West Virginia in 1979 to help him move to Nashville so he could join their band. “They turned me on to a whole lot of things I had no idea about—musically, spiritually, and just how to be a good person,” Douglas said. “They’re just very wonderful people.”

They opened with “Hangin’ Around,” a Top Ten hit in 1983, which featured Douglas’s Dobro as its primary instrument. It launched a run of songs taken from the tours Douglas did with the trio from 1979 into the mid-1980s, including “You Put the Blue in Me,” “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling,” “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone),” “Lonesome Wind Blues,” “Making Believe,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and a couple of instrumentals, “Fancy Dan” and “Abilene Gal.”

The group played without a set list, telling humorous stories about the old days between songs. Douglas recalled the time Buck White played a boogie-woogie piano tune at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia. During the song, Janette Carter—the daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter of the Carter Family—rushed on stage to tell Buck to stop playing the song. “There’s a woman out there doing an awful dance,” Carter told the group.

Carter dragged the woman up on stage for doing “the bumps and grinds,” said Buck White. “She was shining some boy’s buckle out there,” Douglas added. Janette Carter asked the woman, “Why are you dancing like that?” The woman replied, “I’m only dancing the way he’s playing.” They kept the number in the set, Douglas said.

They also spoke open-heartedly about their long-standing friendship and about how special it is for all of them whenever they get a chance to play together.  “The first time Cheryl and I sung with a Dobro accompanying us, it felt like, ‘Oh, now we can really sing,’” Sharon White said. “The music changed. We’d had a fiddle player occasionally, but usually it was just the three of us. We never had an instrument that was sustaining like a Dobro is.”

Douglas called the opening segment of super-pickers as “the brainiac” set. If so, the second part represented heart and soul, with the group expressing their close connection through the music and the stories. “This has been one of the highlights of my life, to be able to do this in this magnificent building,” Douglas said. He then looked to the Whites and added, “It wouldn’t have been the same without having you here.”

—Michael McCall