Dobro great Jerry Douglas was all over the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention (IBMA WOB), which took place in Raleigh, NC, in September. The influential and award-winning musician performed twice during the IBMA Awards Show, made an appearance at the Beard Custom Dobro booth at the bluegrass business expo and was a part of an all-star band that headlined Raleigh’s sold out Red Hat Amphitheater.
Douglas, who is an eight-time IBMA Dobro Player of the Year winner, is a veteran of the yearly bluegrass conference. And, like most of the people who attended the first-ever IBMA WOB to be hosted in North Carolina’s state capitol, he believes the city of Raleigh stepped up in a big way.
“I loved Raleigh, and Raleigh seemed to love it,” says Douglas. “It makes sense to me that it should be in Raleigh. I’ve always called North Carolina the Cradle of Bluegrass Civilization, and it seems that way to me more than Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Snuffy Jenkins, Del McCoury, Bobby Hicks, and you can keep on naming the bluegrass stars that have come from there. And, they learned it from all of the old time guys and the good fiddle players from around there. I think there was more going on down there the whole time than anywhere else. I think it is in their blood. They heard it, they liked it, they heard it on everybody’s back porch. So, I think it belongs there and I think that is why it was such a success.
“That and Raleigh has the venues to do it in, and they did it in the right way,” continues Douglas. “They put all of the acts in different venues downtown where people could walk around and go in and see the bands in their real habitat and not in a hotel room while standing on a platform. In Raleigh, it didn’t seem forced. It seemed like it was very natural. And, having that big, open venue downtown, with the weather cooperating, everything was lined up really good. I thought that Craig Ferguson and Planet Bluegrass and all of those people did a great job and a very professional job. At no time did I feel like I was doing a benefit for anybody. It felt like I was doing a show. I like that a lot of the money went to the right place. It went to folks who get into trouble who can go to the IBMA and get some money if they need it. I thought the whole thing was a big win for everybody. It was done really well, the best that it has ever been pulled off. It was professional. These people went all out. The community supported it. I think that is where it belongs. I think they finally hit the nail on the head.”
At the 2013 IBMA Awards Show, Douglas performed with the Earls of Leicester, an all-star group playing the music of Flatt and Scruggs, and with Tony Rice’s Manzanita Band. The Earls of Leicester features Douglas, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Johnny Warren, Tim O’Brien and Barry Bales.
The Manzanita Band was there to perform following Rice’s induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Douglas’ history with Rice goes back to the mid-1970s when the two were band mates in the legendary ‘Old Home Place’ version of J.D. Crowe and the New South. A few years later, Rice released perhaps his best and most influential album in Manzanita, a celebrated project that also featured Douglas.
As the music world now knows, Rice’s Hall of Fame induction speech was poignant and dramatic. The great guitarist had lost his singing voice almost 20 years earlier, yet as he spoke, Rice seemingly willed his original voice back for a few minutes, which stunned the crowd. Douglas, who was behind the curtain with instrument in hand, took in the moment from a few feet away.
“It was one of the most dramatic things that I have ever seen or heard,” says Douglas. “I mean, I was behind the curtain while it was happening, but I watched the Youtube video of it. For years now, I’ve been hearing that voice. The thing is, if he doesn’t force his voice beyond a certain decibel, his original voice will work. That was what the rest of those thousands of people heard for the first time that night. It is not a parlor trick. It’s something that he really had to concentrate to do, but he had to get really quiet.
“He knows how to command a room,” continues Douglas. “He knows how to do it on an album. When Tony would come in for a solo, we’d all hunker down. The whole dynamic would drop so we could hear Tony play. It is sort of the same thing (with his voice). He still has a voice, but it is way down in there and it takes a lot of work to get it. I’ve worked with him a lot in the last ten years, and Peter Rowan has and a lot of people have as well. In a real quiet time sitting in a hotel room, the real Tony Rice voice can be found. It’s not a singing voice, but it is a part of his original speaking voice. That night he was able to let the whole world in on the fact that it is still there.”
After Rice’s dramatic oration, the Manzanita Band performed “Old Train” from that landmark album.
“I was doing both, as in listening to his acceptance speech and standing at a microphone ready to play and do my part with the Manzanita Band with Ricky Skaggs and Todd Phillips, and Sam Bush was out there,” says Douglas. “Wyatt Rice was also there (Tony’s brother, who did not appear on the original Manzanita recording). I really wanted Wyatt to be there because if Tony wasn’t going to play, and we didn’t know for sure at anytime if Tony was going to play or not going to play, I wanted to be covered and I thought Wyatt was the guy to do it. He’s the guy that knows more about it because he’s got the DNA to legitimize the whole situation, and he pulled it off. I thought Wyatt did a great job. He was pretty nervous because his brother was standing over there, and then suddenly his brother was going to play. We didn’t know if Tony was going to play so I thought, ‘Wyatt’s perfect,’ and everybody agreed and went with it. As soon as we started playing and I could hear Tony’s guitar come in on the other side of the stage I was like, ‘This is the complete picture. This is what it sounds like. This is what it feels like to be in the Manzanita Band for real.’”
Another aspect of Rice’s induction speech that caught the attention of the music world was his onstage message to his long-time friend Alison Krauss. Krauss was scheduled to perform at an all-star jam at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh the next evening. But, just days before the show, she canceled and announced that she was fighting a serious throat ailment called dysphonia which was threatening her singing voice. Rice had lost his voice to a similar diagnosis and he gave her some heartfelt encouragement from the podium.
News of Krauss’ vocal problems spread fast. One week later, Douglas is performing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco with his excellent solo band, featuring Doug Belote on drums, Viktor Krauss on bass and Luke Bulla on fiddle. Towards the end of his energetic and progressive set, Douglas brings Krauss onto the stage to sing not just one song, but four. While it seems as if Krauss is making a statement about her voice, Douglas says her guest shot had been in the works for a while. Still, the implications of her appearance were not lost on anyone.
“We had planned on her being at Hardly Strictly a month before that,” says Douglas. “But, she did it. She worked on it and she really wanted to do it. As soon as she found out what her problem was, she went straight into therapy that day and started working on it, and worked hard on it. She continues every day to work on it with acupuncture, with throat specialists, with therapists. She doesn’t want to lose her voice, so she is doing everything she can to keep it. And, it’s fine. It’s coming back. But, she’s going to have some rough days where it’s not going to work exactly like she wants it to.
“When you’re 25, you can sing a certain way,” continues Douglas. “When you’re older, sometimes your voice doesn’t work like it always does because you’re older and you have to warm up because you’re not in the habit of it. You’re still doing everything like you are 25 years old. You can’t do that. It’s just like any musician, and not just the singing but the playing. I can’t go straight out there and blast into (the classic Bela Fleck instrumental) ‘Whitewater.’ I have to work my way up to that. When I was 25, maybe I could have done that. But I can’t now. I know I can’t, so I work on getting my hands and my brain talking to each other before I’ll try something like that. It’s something you have to do. And, the older you get and the higher the bar is set for yourself and what others expect from you, the harder you have to work at it. Singing is the same thing. All great singers warm up, and they keep their throat warm. I learned that from Elvis Costello. When you see him walking around with a scarf all of the time, he is keeping his throat warm.”
Despite Krauss’ voice problems, Douglas says that her appearance at Hardly Strictly festival was a joyous one.
“She knew that Tony had said something about it,” says Douglas. “I don’t think she was dwelling on it. And, ‘dysphonia’ is an umbrella term for a lot of ailments for your throat. It’s also a stress thing. If you are worrying about having it, you are creating your own stress. But she is hip to that. I have never seen her as loose and as animated and as uninhibited onstage as I did that day. She was dancing. She was throwing her arms around everywhere. She was moving all over the stage and it was amazing. It was hard for me to play. I was watching her. I had never seen her do that before. I’ve seen her do that on the bus, but I’ve never seen her do it in front of people on a stage.” (you can watch that HSB performance below).
Many know Douglas as a part of the Grammy-winning band Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. But these days, that group is on a bit of a hiatus. However, Douglas has always been a solo artist and that is where he gets to stretch out and push the envelope with his music. His latest album is Traveler. Produced by the legendary Russ Titelman, the project features Douglas collaborating with artists such as Eric Clapton, Mumford and Sons, Keb Mo, Dr. John, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paul Simon, Omar Hakim, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck and more.
As for now, a new solo album by Douglas is in the works and will be announced soon after a pending deal is finalized with a new record company. And, the previously mentioned Earls of Leicester will be making an album soon as well.
Currently, Douglas is doing what one might call ‘legacy’ solo concerts. At these shows, he will tell some stories about the various stages of his career while performing songs that have influenced him over the years, as well as tunes that he has made famous. It is a type of gig that he has never done before.
“I’m having a blast doing it,” says Douglas. “The solo shows give me a chance to play Uncle Josh tunes, Mike Auldridge tunes, and sort of chronologically do a little history lesson while working my songs into it, too. I use some loops, but not a lot. Being able to talk to the audience while doing a solo show, it is really fun. If you make a mistake, there is really no one to blame. There is no one standing back there that you can glare at. You just have to glare at yourself.”
One project that Douglas is extremely proud of is the Transatlantic Sessions. Filmed for the BBC TV in the UK, the idea behind it was to bring together an all-star cast of Scottish, Irish, British and American musicians to collaborate in a castle in Scotland. The two musical directors of the Transatlantic Sessions are Douglas and the renowned Scottish fiddler Aly Bain. The venture has produced some incredibly moving, powerful and fun music over its six seasons, and the shows can be purchased on DVD.
“The Transatlantic Sessions is still going strong and the new season just played in the UK and in Ireland,” says Douglas. “That show is amazing. To me, that is as much my musical legacy as the things I have worked on here in the States including Manzanita and with Alison and all of my records. We have recorded and filmed about 250 songs over there for the six seasons of the Transatlantic Sessions. That is a lot of songs featuring a lot of people. We do 45 to 47 songs each season, and they are all different. Not a single song has been repeated. It is something that I love. It’s something that I am proud of, and it is something that is going to be around forever.”
There is also a special recording coming soon that will feature Douglas and multiple IBMA Dobro Player of the Year winner Rob Ickes performing with the influential Dobro legend Mike Auldridge. The album was made before Auldridge’s death in December of 2012, and it is nothing short of a labor of love.
"We never approached it that way," says Douglas, when asked if the album was recorded with the thought in mind that Auldridge was dying. “I think that when we finally got around to recording together, we wondered why we hadn’t done it before. Why did we wait this long and for this reason? We didn’t have to do that. But, I’ve never heard him play better. There is something about knowing that the end is near that, all of a sudden, you have less distractions and things are a little bit more clearer in your frame. He wasn’t distracted by things. He really wanted to put out there what he had been experimenting with for years. And suddenly, he had this platform. I said, ‘I want to do the record, but I don’t want to have a band. I want just the three of us to play and we’ll play different parts. One of us can play the chords, one of us can play rhythm and then we got a lead going. Whoever is playing the basic chords can stay low and stay out of the range of the guy who is soloing and so everything is clear.’ The music is transparent and you can hear everything, but there is a lot going on.”
Towards the end of Auldridge’s life, the final sessions became even more poignant and meaningful.
“Rob and I were flying from Nashville to Baltimore and then getting in the car and driving to the studio and meeting Mike at the studio, and then we’d record until he was tired,” says Douglas. “Then, we’d either stay over that night and then fly home the next morning, or fly home that night. Through a series of those visits, we got a record. The last time we were there, he said, ‘This is going to be my last session.’ That was really hard. You can imagine what it was like to hear that. After we cut what we thought was our last song, I went in the studio and just laid down a track by myself of ‘I’m Using My Bible as a Road Map.’ Rob over-dubbed on it and Mike over-dubbed on it after we had left. That was his actual final session. He did it himself at his house with an engineer. That was the one time that I could hear that he was struggling to get it together. But, he did it. And, it’s on the record, and it ends the record.”
Eventually, the inevitable began to creep in quickly and a final visit took place.
“Rob and I flew up there to talk with him about how he would like the cover of the album to look,” continues Douglas. “He was a graphic artist and he had all of this in his head. He had the cover all imagined and everything and we are going to try our best to honor all of that. And, we talked about the logistics of where the money was going to go and how we were going to structure the royalties situation and all of that kind of stuff. But for Rob and me, it was really kind of selfish. We just wanted to go see him one more time and hang out. He wasn’t feeling good, but he was feeling really good by the time we left. He was laughing. He was joking. He was Mike Auldridge again. He didn’t have a voice anymore because during a radiation treatment, it messed up his vocals chords. So, he sounded like Dirty Harry all of the time, which he kind of dug. He kind of liked it. But, the goodbye was a real goodbye, and then Rob and I went up and played at his funeral.”