PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
August 7, 2007

O Dobro, Where Art Thou?

by Jim Newsom

You’ve heard Jerry Douglas play the dobro. As a Nashville studio musician in the 1980s and ’90s, he played on somewhere north of a thousand albums, from Randy Travis to Reba McIntyre, Joan Baez to James Taylor, Paul Simon to Phish.

"I moved to Nashville at the end of 1978 to play with The Whites," he said in a recent telephone conversation. "About five years into being with them, I got so busy in the studio that it got really hard to go on the road. And it was a lot more money to just stay home and do sessions. I stayed in the studio for about 10 years doing 10 or 15 sessions a week. And I’ll tell you what—it gets old; it gets boring. There’s no feedback like you get from an audience. I had really missed playing for live audiences.

"I was completely fed up and felt like I was being given material in the studio that I couldn’t do anything with. The thing that you want to do as a musician is leave something better than you found it. And it got increasingly harder to do that. It was a pretty bad period in country music there. I was really ready to do something else about the time Alison called and asked if I’d come out for the summer."

"Alison" is contemporary bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss. That 1998 summer tour turned into a permanent job for Douglas, and Sunday night he’ll be at the Ted Constant Center as a featured member of her band.

"I missed that camaraderie of a band," he said, "and the chance to keep refining and polishing a repertoire. Having that much control over the music that you play is something that people don’t think about that often. It was really good timing and it turned into a very lucrative position at the same time. The only drawback to any of this is the traveling. But we do it in style."

The dobro, or resonator guitar, is an instrument with which most folks are probably unfamiliar. It is an acoustic guitar, but instead of a hole in the middle of the body there’s a metal "resonator" that gives the instrument its unique sound. It’s usually fretted with a slide bar, tuned to an open chord and held parallel to the ground. In the right hands, it is a most expressive instrument.

"I really liked the sound of it the first time I ever heard it," Douglas said. "And I heard it a lot. I’d wake up to Flatt & Scruggs, either on the radio or on the record player, every morning when my dad was going to work. He had a bluegrass band so I grew up listening to that stuff and watching the band rehearse all the time. When I got a chance to see Flatt & Scruggs play, and got a chance to see somebody actually play one in front of me and see what it looked like, I was in. It had such a wonderful voice that I was drawn to it. It was a natural choice for me, but for a kid in northeastern Ohio, it wouldn’t have been the first thing you’d have thought of.

"I was listening to Flatt & Scruggs in the morning, and The Beatles and Stones at night. There was real good music then. It wasn’t programmed by a guy in some cubicle in Dallas; we weren’t forced to hear just one kind of music. We were subjected to everything."

That eclectic mix is reflected in Douglas’ music. He was a charter member of the "new acoustic" movement when moonlighting from session work in the 1980s, with other young instrument slingers like Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Mark O’Connor.

"We were pushing the envelope on bluegrass music by the influences that we were bringing," he said, "mostly jazz and rock. It changed the landscape a little bit. Most of us didn’t want to infringe on the real traditional bluegrass people that much, so we took it a little farther outside. We were almost forced to be a different music.

"Now we’ve sort of met in the middle. The music has turned more in our direction but at the same time we’ve figured out what is a little more mainstream."

I asked if any particular recording sessions stood out for him.

"There are a lot that were really fun," he answered. "One of them that stands out was the second Dirt Band record that was Will the Circle Be Unbroken. That was the most like having a job. They were filming it at the same time, so we’d come in every day and sit down in the same chair that we had the day before. We’d have fresh charts and somebody else that would come in and just blow us away. It was creative, and some of the best music that I’ve ever gotten to play, all on one record.

"The first time I ever played with James Taylor—that really stands out in my mind. It’s been a wonderful stretch, the people I’ve met and getting to learn the business. It’s been enjoyable; it’s not a grind. I don’t dread anything about my job. It’s a wonderful life."

When I wondered if there’s room for a dobro in the hard rock trappings of today’s country music, he laughed:

"I’ve lived in Nashville long enough to know that it goes in a cycle. It starts out with roots, and this time it was O Brother, Where Art Thou? Everybody went, ‘Oh yes! Finally, so refreshing.’ Then it goes around the dial and when it gets down to around the six o’clock mark, everybody goes, ‘OK, we need to start polishing this up; it doesn’t matter how good the song is, we need to make it sound like this other stuff.’ So they do more production until it finally gets to where they say, ‘We can’t stand this any longer; more roots music!’

"I came into Nashville right after the big Urban Cowboy scare, and that was another cycle that it went through. Remember Barbara Mandrell and how bad it got? That kind of thing is why I quit doing all those sessions. I didn’t want to play on Toby Keith’s records. That was something I really couldn’t bring myself to do. I didn’t want to be responsible for turning it in that direction, so I didn’t do it."

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.