One of the most beloved figures in Nashville and one of the world’s finest exponents of bluegrass and country music, Jerry Douglas, is a superbly eminent guitarist and banjo player. He has appeared on thousands of albums with a variety of artists including Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, Eric Clapton, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Randy Travis, and Ricky Skaggs.
Not satisfied with being the hardest working musician in Nashville, Jerry has released two ambitious albums this autumn: Three Bells with Dobro masters Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes (all three are considered to be the finest Dobro players of recent history); and the flawless Earls of Leicester: an all-star tribute to the phenomenal guitarist and mandolinist Lester Flatt, and the equally venerated banjo legend Earl Scruggs of Foggy Mountain Boys fame.
Three Bells is not only a celebration of the fine art of the Dobro, it was also the swan song for Mike Auldridge who succumbed to terminal prostate cancer after a 10-year battle not long after the project finished. Three Bells truly sounds like those six hands and three heads shared one big heart for the magic of the Dobro. Acoustic sat down with the always-personable Jerry recently to catch up on the latest in his inspiring world.
Three Bells is an unusual project to say the least, and the fact that Mike was seriously ill must have made it all the more emotional for the three of you.
That’s very true, and when we did it I thought to myself, “Why did we wait so long to do this?” But his illness didn’t hurt his playing at all. He was still in good shape when we did it. We flew into his place in Baltimore when our schedules matched up. But Mike was a mentor for me and if I play records from the early part of my career, I sound like a lot like him. Mike’s range was more cosmopolitan than say, Josh Graves. And Rob played Dobro because of Mike, so we divided the songs up where Mike would play lead, I’d play the chords and Rob would chop in the rhythms, and then we would switch around. You had to listen closely as to which one of us was playing what as it was like having three Mike Auldridge players playing at once. I played to off-the-wall soloes on this record.
Interestingly, the record wasn’t originally intended for release was it?
It wasn’t supposed to be a record. It was a selfish indulgence for Rob and me to play with our hero and then Mike wanted to make this his last record, so it was decided by us three to release it. The calibre of playing is so high that budding Dobro players could be inspired, although yeah, some may be intimidated by it. For a beginner it could be a bit crazy, but it was a huge leap for me to follow Josh Graves. So everybody has to start somewhere. Then again, it might inspire people to make the great leap into Dobro after hearing this.
What guitars did you play on Three Bells?
Mike and I were both playing our signature models by Paul Beard. They are pretty widely dispersed now; Rob played his Scheerhorn Dobro – that is his sound. For the last day of the session, we recorded on old 1930s Dobros all built around 1934. I brought a guitar owned by Josh Graves – model 37. Those original Dobros sound different to the others and you can really hear it. On the last thing we recorded, I played ‘Using My Bible For A Roadmap’ on my own and then Mike overdubbed his parts on that song which was the last guitar part he ever recorded.
It’s an album anyone can enjoy, not only players, as it’s so musically rich…
I think it’s a record anyone can relate to. We didn’t use a whole band – just three guitars. Guitar players should really get something from that record.
Why are three fretless instruments so difficult to match up without a rhythm section?
Intonation is really important, and with three guys landing on the same note – that is very important. But we worked on it so long and we all came from the same Josh Graves and Mike Auldridge influence, which helped. But we all played in tune and we pulled it off. I think our intonations matched up so well.
Working with Rob and Mike when you all have similar styles must have been interesting at first.
Both Rob and I are huge fans of Mike, so we divided up the songs to not sound like Mike Auldridge clones on a track. When Mike would play lead, I’d play chords and Rob would do rhythms. That differentiated us somewhat as we all have similar styles.
What single piece of advice would you impart on newbie guitar and Dobro players?
No matter how hard a guitar part seems, you can play through them if you stick with it. There are plateaus and you have to just play through them. You get to a point where you think you can’t go any further with your instrument and you feel stuck, then, 45 minutes later, you get the passage by playing through it over and over again. It’s like anything in life.
Let’s talk about the Earls Of Leicester project. How daunting was it for you to make a tribute album celebrating Flatt and Scruggs, as they are hugely important to you.
To me, they were the biggest musical inspiration. They were my model, next to my father in terms of playing guitar. For me, they are the models in terms of wanting to be like them, to emulate someone. Being a musician, they immediately came to mind and a very big influence on me. The same music that has evolved from them treats them like museum pieces rather than one of the building blocks that they are. What they did has never been surpassed. There hasn’t been a better banjo player than Earl Scruggs. There are very good players, but no one gets it all together like Earl did.
How did you make the time for Earls Of Leicester when your schedule is so jammed?
I found a hole in between my touring with Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson so that’s when we did that one. It was down to just finding the time for it. People would say that I’m too busy, but I don’t know what else I’d be doing. If I’m not doing something, then I think I’m going in a negative direction. I just have to be working with a full schedule.
You could be bringing Flatt and Scruggs to a new audience.
Yes, and one of the major reasons why I did this record was to introduce a younger audience to this music. I thought people might see my name and Tim’s name and maybe listen to this album and then get exposed to them.
The name Earls Of Leicester, plus the BBC Transatlantic sessions, suggests you likely have a fondness for the UK…
There is a lot of overlap. My family was originally from Scotland and I love the heritage. They are my people and not just because of my background, the people are direct speaking like me – I just get them. It’s a great place, too. We do Celtic Connections every year in Glasgow, and take it on the road for several days around the UK. I don’t drink anymore, but I agree it is the best whiskey!
So you gave up booze?
I drank because it’s conducive to the lifestyle of being on the road, but I drank too much and it took a year for my brain to come out of that fog and when it did the ideas were flying.
So you’re a better musician because of it?
Yes, I am – and a better person too.
You are now singing more as you did on your solo album Traveller.
Yes – and I hope to do more of it as it’s an instrument and you have to use it every day, work on it more, to keep it in good shape. I found that singing has given me a whole new respect for singing after all these years of being a musician of a certain calibre. Whether or not I have the ability to pull it off, that’s another matter.
Will you tour in the UK with Earls Of Leicester?
I hope so, although nothing’s for sure yet. Plus, we have big followings in the UK and we’d like to bring this to younger audiences, as Flatt & Scruggs never got to tour there.
What was your main goal when covering such iconic tracks on the Earls release?
We recorded it all live, no overdubbing on that record like the way they did it originally. In fact, it gave me chills at times as we came so close to the real thing. So it sounded like they did and we tried to keep it authentic to their intentions. It wasn’t about us putting our own stamp on it at all.
What’s next for you in 2015?
I’m looking forward to more producing and my projects will be with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Tommy Emmanuel.
Jerry Douglas’ Earls Of Leicester and Three Bells albums are out now.