Jerry Douglas: Stirring the Gumbo
Backed by an ace horn section and a killer band, the resonator master serves up a daring fusion of jazz, rock, and bluegrass on his new album, What If.
Few musicians have put their imprint on as much music as the resonator specialist and 14-time Grammy winner Jerry Douglas, widely considered the preeminent square-neck resonator guitarist. As a sideman, Douglas has logged over 2,000 recording sessions and worked with such prominent artists as Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and Elvis Costello.
Whatever the context, Douglas plays with fastidiously good and often jaw-dropping technique—a result of his having spent his formative years woodshedding on fiddle tunes, with their flurries of notes. Few players can match the effortless speed he achieves on his instrument, not to mention his accuracy with the bar in terms of intonation. Playing most often in open-G or open-D tunings, he uses nonstandard techniques, like a range of slurs, to achieve a richly singing sound. At the same time, his complex pick-hand work—he uses a thumb pick, along with two finger picks—adds depth to his sound.
A cross section of Douglas' recorded output might speak to his breadth and diversity, but like many resonator players, his playing is rooted in bluegrass and traditional country, and he's a longtime member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
As a leader, beginning with 1979's Fluxology, Douglas has pursued a synthesis of all that catches his ears. And he clearly has catholic tastes. On his latest album, What If, Douglas and his band mix country, bluegrass, rock, bebop, fusion, and R&B in a set that's as technically deep as it is thrilling to hear.
One summer day, right before he kicked off a tour in support of the album, Douglas called to talk about how he reconciles the worlds of bluegrass and fusion, how he views his instrument mathematically, and how Joni Mitchell and other vocalists have led him deeper into the realm of the square-neck resonator guitar.
You come from a bluegrass background, but one of your most transformative moments came when you first heard fusion as a young musician. Can you describe what happened?
I was predominantly a bluegrass player, though I'd been influenced by jazz musicians like Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. I grew up close to Cleveland, so I also had access to the powerful rock stations coming out of the city. And then one day when I was living in Lexington, Kentucky, playing with J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, a friend set me down on his porch and played me Light as a Feather [Return to Forever's second album] and Heavy Weather by Weather Report, and it blew my mind. I'd never heard anything like that before and it was just overwhelming to hear that kind of music. I had to go out and find more music like it, because I couldn't believe so much was happening. I had to adapt it to my instrument and try to find a way into it. It was so far ahead of its time, and no one's really even caught up to it yet.
My friend Béla Fleck and I were in Nashville, and we went together to Vanderbilt University and listened to the reunited Return to Forever. Our jaws were just on the ground the whole time. Neither one of us could believe what we were hearing. It was another one of those landmark moments in my life.
Douglas' debut album, 1979's Fluxology, was a trailblazing study in bluegrass packed with a host of other formidable youngbloods and veterans that included banjoist J.D. Crowe, guitarist Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle, fiddler Darol Anger, and bassist Todd Phillips. Photo by By Jordi Vidal
Béla, of course, jumped right on it and after his time with the New Grass Revival, formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and went out and pretty much started writing his own material that kind of bordered on [leader of Return to Forever] Chick Corea's stuff. And then eventually he and Chick became friends and they started working together and still are.
But I didn't go at it the same way. I kind of stuck with my base and worked on the fringes of that along with David Grisman and Tony Rice, and sort of pushed the envelope out to make the kind of music I was steeped in relate to it.
At this point, I have a horn section in my band. So it's pushing it even further—in a way that still hits my ear in a nice way. I'm not trying to be a jazz musician. I'm trying to be more of a hybrid musician and connect all of these influences.
Were you playing the resonator guitar when you first heard fusion?
That's always been my main instrument. At that point I'd dabbled with lap steel and electric guitar, but Dobro was my instrument of choice and the conduit between my head and my hands.
You didn't set out to be a jazz musician, but listening to your new record it's clear you have quite a command of the language. Did you acquire this skill through formal study or just by ear?
Just by ear, by osmosis, by being around musicians. When I used to go out to San Francisco, to Marin [County], to work on a David Grisman or a Tony Rice record, I'd go to Tony's house and we would sit up all night and listen to Miles Davis. And it soaks in. I guess you're studying it, but not really.
I was just submersing myself in the ways that Miles played and the reasons why—directions and misdirection in turning things upside down, playing alternative melodies and things like that. I could never know everything that he knew. But it was a nice lesson, and that's kind of the way I soaked up the jazz area.