Last Record Store Day, Dobro master Jerry Douglas reissued an item from his massive discography, which is north of 60 albums strong. It was his one and only studio album with the forward-thinking newgrass group JD Crowe & the New South. And just as it was in 1975, Douglas doesn't actually appear on the cover, because he played on the album before he actually joined the band. In fact, he'd barely just left his previous group, the Country Gentlemen, a venerable bluegrass ensemble whose second-generation members included Douglas, Ricky Skaggs on fiddle, and Doyle Lawson on mandolin.
"I can't believe it's been that long," he says with a wry chuckle. "Jesus, it makes me feel old. Yeah, I wasn't actually in the band when they took the picture. They knew I was coming, but ... things happen. So I came on after that. I was officially in the band when the record came out."
It figures that Douglas, a.k.a. "Flux," was in two classic bands before he turned 20 years old and that he left them both quickly. Few musicians on Earth are as restless stylistically and as prolific as Douglas.
His Dobro playing is fantastically flexible. He can make his instrument as tender as a whisper (as he's done in Alison Krauss' Union Station) and as sharp as a blade (check out his work as part of the all-star bluegrass group Strength in Numbers). His solo recordings can swing from old-school bluegrass to jazz to some sort of experimental hybrid and still maintain a sure melodic footing. And if you like one of his albums, you'd best cherish it, because he'll probably do something completely different next time around.
As an example, here's a bit of Douglas' recent itinerary. "A couple weeks ago I kind of ran the gamut," he says. "I played Merlefest with my band, then I flew to Los Angeles and played Stagecoach Festival, which is the country version of Coachella, then I took the redeye from LAX into New York City and played with [classical pianist] Lang Lang and Regina Spektor at Lincoln Center. And it's great to play all that stuff; it's nice to be able to float between these genres."
During individual shows, Douglas will create a setlist but not assign any order to the songs. "I kind of know what we're going to play, even if I don't know what order it's going to be in," he says. "I kind of jump around within it, and the guys in the band are used to that. We'll go through tunes that I've written over the years, plus a lot of stuff from my newest record, Traveler, and I'm working on a new record, so there may be some new ones that no one's heard. I don't really know exactly what's going to happen, but I gauge it by the audience. I try to keep them included, because they're part of the band."
Douglas is a versatile enough player that he can handle sessions with Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Mumford & Sons with ease, but he says that whatever genre he's working in, bluegrass forms the spine of his sound. "There's always a bluegrass thread running through it," he says. That's my background, which most people know about. It's a difficult form of music. It's very physical, and it's kind of a secret music in a way."
Secret music? "A lot of people don't know about real bluegrass music," he says. "They know about O Brother Where Art Thou, and things like that. But they don't know about the great history and the great bands. We have a baseline that we work off of, and it's expanded through the years, through JD Crowe to Tony Rice and Sam Bush and Bela Fleck and all the stuff we've done. All the influences we've had, we've brought into bluegrass. It's also a very instrumental music, so you have to build up some chops. That allows you to go into different genres of music."
There's also an honesty in bluegrass music that Douglas says makes it difficult to master. "It's country," he says. "It's really country. It's not Florida-Georgia Line, for God's sake. It's hard to come in from another genre and be convincing. We can spot you in three notes [laughs]. It's harder for people in those genres to come into your circle, but a lot of bands have come from bluegrass music and become huge, like the Byrds. They're all bluegrass guys. They had the chops to go into these other forms of music and just slay 'em, because they had that instrumental prowess at their fingertips. A lot of great rock guitar players can't play a Brian Sutton or Tony Rice solo. They can't play the melody. Bluegrass music is all about the melody. If you can't play the melody, you're not going to be able to improvise over it and be convincing. So I have this bluegrass background, where I can look at the band and say we're going to launch into something completely different than what we were just playing."
And his current band — drummer Doug Belote, bassist Daniel Kimbro, and fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer — is skilled enough to handle more or less whatever Douglas throws at them. "They're comfortable with that unpredictability," he says. "Everybody's capable. They have the same background, they're game for anything. We can go completely jazz or we can go completely bluegrass, and I think my audience knows that. They don't know what they're going to hear, but they know that we're going to keep it interesting and keep the different voices coming."