The first time he met Eric Clapton, Jerry Douglas was convinced a crew member was playing a joke following one of Alison Krauss's concerts in Anaheim, Calif.
"We did the show and got back to the dressing room, and the road manager said, 'Well, do you want me to bring Eric Clapton back down?'" Douglas recalls. "We were like, 'Yeah, sure, bring him on back, Yeah, go ahead.'
"Then I heard this British accent in the hallway, and I went, 'Uh, oh. It really is him.'"
Fortunately, he and his bandmates didn't embarrass themselves, and since that meeting more than a decade ago, Douglas has performed at Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and become friends with the rock-blues icon.
Clapton is just one of several special guests on Douglas' latest album, Traveler. Having recorded and toured for years with Krauss and Union Station, her participation in the project isn't surprising. In light of Douglas' renown as a premier stylist on the Dobro, it's probably not even all that surprising either that some of his other friends on Traveler include Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Keb' Mo', Marc Cohn and Dr. John.
The basic tracks for much of the album were recorded in New Orleans, but Douglas was always present in other cities when his guests recorded their parts. It was one of the objectives when he began discussing the project with Russ Titelman, whose production credits include sessions with Clapton, Simon, George Harrison, Randy Newman, Little Feat and many others.
"I'd never worked with him," Douglas says of Titelman. "I've worked with a bunch of people that he has worked with. We met 20 years ago, and it was one of those 'we ought to do something together some day.' Finally, we figured out a way to do it. And I wanted a producer for this record. I just feel like I play better on other people's records than I do on my own.
"I used to go down to New Orleans a lot. I used to just fly in there and just hang out. I just love the whole feel of the place. I love the music that comes from there. ... I went down there to 'get it.' I could have tried doing it in Nashville, but it wouldn't sound right. It was just a feeling I wanted to capture. I was more after that than anything fancy or any displays of chops or anything. What I wanted was just the way the music moves. You can't get that anywhere else."
Clapton had specific ideas about an arrangement of a New Orleans R&B classic, "Something You Got," and Douglas fulfilled his wishes.
"He was so ready," he said. "He put his part on in New York. He knew what the track was going to be. He wanted to cut it in the same key, but he said, 'It would be great if we could cut it slower than the original one.' He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was ready, and he sang his brains out."
One of the highlights is a remake of Simon's "The Boxer" featuring Mumford & Sons, a British band he first met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado.
"They came to Nashville a couple of times and wrote a big part of their new record [Babel] in Nashville," he notes. "It's great for me to see somebody like them -- so young and with their heads on straight. They're not spending all their money on cars.
"They're really good boys," he laughs. "That's what I'm trying to say."
Douglas and the band recorded the song at a studio near London.
"When we finished it, I brought it back to the States and played it for Paul," he said. "I said, 'You'll get a kick out of this.' He went, 'I love that. Can I put some parts on there?' How do you tell Paul Simon he can't play on 'The Boxer'?
"He put some great stuff on there. I'd have never thought of those things he was doing. He was playing big bells and all kinds of things. He put some guitar parts on and some really high vocals on the chorus -- just things that Paul Simon hears and thinks about."
Their friendship grew after the Jerry Douglas Band opened a series of concerts for Simon.
"We used to do 'The Boxer' every night," Douglas said. "And he and I would end it alone. I had a different ending with the Mumfords. When Paul heard [the Mumford & Sons track], he said, 'Can I play guitar on the end? Can we end it the way we used to on my shows?' Again, I said, 'Yes.' So that's just Paul Simon and me at the end of the song. He's great."
Despite his accomplishments, Douglas remains awestruck by many of the musicians he's had the opportunity to record and perform with. Asked if he still gets nervous around his musical heroes, he says, "I wouldn't call it nervous. I just kind of get quieter, and I go by what's going on.
"James Taylor's one of them. I respect the guy so much. But people like that, I just have such respect for. Elvis Costello, Clapton, Paul Simon. Some of them are really good friends of mine, but, still, it's incredible to me that I even know those people."
He says it was a "freaky moment" the first time he suggested that Taylor do another take of a song in the studio.
"To say, 'Can we try that again and think about it this way?' Or to talk to them on their level, as an equal, it just didn't ever occur to me that I would do that. But when you're in the thick of it and you're both being musicians, that goes out the window. We're all after the same good effect."
Douglas acknowledges that he and longtime friends such as mandolinist Sam Bush and banjo innovator Bela Fleck approach music from a jazz standpoint.
"We come from bluegrass music, which is an improvisational music, just as jazz," he says. "Once you state the melody, you can leave that for a while, but I like restating it at some point -- reconnecting it. ... The music that we're playing, we're able to roam around between genres. We've got a little special secret world we're traveling in."
Douglas and Fleck, who also appears on Traveler, have helped redefine the public's perception of the Dobro and banjo, two instruments whose brash tonal qualities had seemed to be musically restrictive in the past.
"A lot of that was in how those instruments were recorded and how they were played and the different influences people had when they played them before," Douglas says. "I've had a lot more to listen to and another way to approach it by giving it a different tone. Instead of a real nasally, whiny, metallic sound all the time, I've always worked on getting a great big round sound out of my instrument." He laughs, adding, "As opposed to something that's going to drive people away."
Working extensively with vocalists has also impacted Douglas' approach to the Dobro.
"I've worked with a lot of singers, people like Alison," he says. "I guess we're categorized as a bluegrass band, but I don't really think we are. If we want to play hardcore bluegrass, we can. But working with a singer, to me, has been what's shaped my ideas of how to play the instrument.
"Just framing in the singer and sort of painting around what's going on -- accenting different words. It depends on the song, lots of things. But in just changing the tone, Bela's done the same thing. He's not a direct copy of Earl Scruggs, but he can quote him verbatim."