Jerry Douglas’ Musical Variety Is Instrumental to His Success

IBMA Nominee Also Serves as Country Music Hall of Fame's Artist-in-Residence

Jerry Douglas has established himself as one of the most versatile musicians in Nashville, both as a studio musician and a featured member of Alison Krauss & Union Station. And he’s still hungry — but not in the same way as hundreds of other pickers in Music City.

“It’s a hard ladder to climb, and once you get up there, respect means a whole lot to musicians,” says Douglas. “They revere each other, and you can be a very revered musician and still be starving. You have to have more hooks and lines in the water than you used to.”

On Tuesday (Sept. 30), he’ll perform the last of four concerts as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2008 artist-in-residence. At Thursday night’s (Oct. 2) International Bluegrass Music Association Awards ceremony at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Douglas is nominated for Dobro player of the year award — an honor he’s won eight times before.

In 2007, Douglas used his sabbatical from Union Station to tour with Paul Simon, and he also picked up his third CMA Award for musician of the year. At the beginning of 2008, he took his first extended vacation in 30 years, spending two or three months just catching his breath. However, that gap was bookended by irresistible studio invitations from pioneering jazz bassist Charlie Haden and pop icon Elvis Costello.

Now, Douglas’ own band — drummer Doug Belote, bassist Todd Parks, violinist Luke Bulla and guitarist Guthrie Trapp — is in the spotlight with an eclectic new album, Glide. Some of it sounds like bluegrass, especially when Earl Scruggs starts picking banjo with him on “Home Sweet Home.” Meanwhile, “Route Irish” was inspired by a road in Iraq that one of his military friends was telling him about.

There’s also a strong country presence. Travis Tritt offers a commanding performance of “Marriage Made in Hollywood,” one of Douglas’ favorite songs from songwriter Paul Brady. Later in the album, Rodney Crowell musically reminisces on “Long Hard Road,” a No. 1 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1984, which Douglas originally played on and Crowell wrote.

“I really don’t enjoy completely instrumental records,” he says. “I kind of get bored, and I figure a lot of other people do, too. And I don’t want to have one of my records out there boring people, so I like the idea of just reversing the situation. They’re mostly instrumental records, but there’s the vocal interruption I call it, which is good. It’s a palate cleanser. It gets you started in a different direction.”

Asked if he arranges his songs prior to going in the studio, Douglas says he sometimes has it written in advance, but employs the jazz mentality of occasionally letting the players zoom off in their own unscripted directions. He also seeks out unfamiliar bands at music festivals to get turned onto new music from other parts of the world. However, some of those discoveries simply come right through his front door.

“I have two teenage daughters who’ve been just bringing stuff into the house for the last five years, saying ’Dad, listen to this.’ It’s not something I would hear otherwise,” he says. “I try to remember the days when the Beatles were huge and my parents did not want me to hear them, and I don’t ever want to be that way because I think it’s very stifling.”

Douglas indicates that Alison Krauss & Union Station might start working on a new album early next year because they’d like to go on a summer tour in 2009. In the meantime, however, he’s thrilled by the reception that Krauss and Robert Plant have received for their album, Raising Sand.

“The whole time I’ve been in the band, I’ve always pushed her to get out of her comfort zone, because you don’t want to do that,” he says. “You don’t want to get stuck as the soft, touchy-feely singer of bluegrass music. We all have to take our ears out at the end of the show, because otherwise when we do ’Oh Atlanta’ and she starts belting, she’ll kill us. She sings soft all night long and then all of a sudden there’s this big strong voice. It’s like, ’Whoa! Where did that come from?’ She’s capable of doing so many things. She’s really careful about how she treats her voice, and she’s a smart singer — a great singer and a really intelligent person.”

Already her longtime friend (and sometime producer), Douglas said he joined Krauss’ band as a featured musician in 1998 so he could hear her voice every night. “So much of what I do is trying to be the interpreter, in one way,” he explains. “I’m trying to support her, compliment her, embellish whatever she says and at the same time not get in her way. Not get in the way of the lyrics, not get in the way of the song and her deliverance of it, but frame it in a nice way and to accent it — to direct the ups and downs, the swell of the song, to heighten the emotion of the song.”

It’s working. He’s picked up eight Grammys as a member of the band, plus four more for other collaborations. It’s clear he’s a team player.

Douglas recalls driving back from a show in the Gulf Coast with a nagging feeling that Glide wasn’t quite complete. After six hours on the road, Tritt came on the radio, with “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.” (Douglas played on that No. 1 hit and many other Tritt cuts.) Suddenly, with a few phone calls, the last piece of the project fell into place with their collaboration on “Marriage Made in Hollywood.”

“We had rehearsed the song a couple of days before at my house, and we went into the studio to cut the song and the vocals all at the same time,” Douglas remembers. “How often does that happen in Nashville anymore? But that’s the way all the good recordings, the ones we remember, that’s the way they happen. You know all that stuff flying around, meeting in the air? That’s what makes a good record.”