Would I lose you this instant if I told you that Jerry Douglas was the best Dobro player on earth? Not buying it? Then think of it this way: If Douglas isn’t the best resophonic guitar player in the world, than he is certainly the most ubiquitous.
Like Jimi without the Strat, Don Ho without the uke, Liberace without the pearly white Grand, it’s hard to imagine Douglas without picturing the instrument that has helped make him famous.
Invented in 1928 by a Slovakian immigrant and woodworker, John Dopyera, the word “Dobro” is a trademarked name, short for “Dopyera Brothers.” Originally built as a mechanically amplified guitar designed to cut through the horns and banjos that were popular in the music of the day, Dopyera’s design resulted in an interestingly echoed and twangy sound.
Almost immediately, it was co-opted by throngs of bluegrass, folk and blues heads. It would be hard to imagine contemporary roots music without the haunting sound of this divine instrument. Gibson Guitars now owns the rights to the name and has issued a series of signature Dobros. One is named after Douglas himself.
So widespread is Douglas’ musical thumbprint that navigating one’s way through his thousands of country, jazz and rock ’n’ roll recordings is next to impossible.
“Ten years ago, I was doing two to three sessions a day,” he explains.
Over the years, his reputation has paid off in spades, manifested in collaborations and shared stage time with Ray Charles, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Richards and other such kingpins.
And it’s not simply because Douglas has mastered his craft that he’s breathing rarefied musical air. Stylistically, he’s his own man.
His is a sound that rises from within, an aural intuitiveness, as much as it involves manual dexterity. And while his contemporaries — players like Rob Ickes and Mike Auldridge — join the ranks of modern-day Dobro aficionados, there has never been (and may never be) anyone whose name is so indelibly linked to the instrument as Douglas’.
“It comes through me,” he explains of his work. “I feel like I am part of the instrument.”
Born in 1956, the son of an Ohio steel mill worker, Douglas was playing music before he could even read. He picked up the mandolin when he was five.
By seven, he was playing the guitar. When asked how he made the switch from guitar to Dobro, Douglas recalls a watershed evening with his father.
“We went to see Flatt & Scruggs … as soon as we got home, I asked my dad to get me [a Dobro],” he says. “What he ended up doing was raising the strings on my cheap Sears and Roebuck guitar.”
Necessity is the mother of makeshift instruments, certainly, and Douglas filled in the rest. At 13, he began playing bar gigs with his dad, and by sweet 16 his chops landed him a touring gig with bluegrass outfit The Country Gentlemen.
“I went on tour for a while, then I moved back home to finish school,” he explains. Three days after his high school graduation, Douglas was back on the road.
“I thought it was going to be glamorous,” he says of his matriculation into the world of professional musicianship. “I realized pretty quickly that the music was free,” and it was travel costs the group was working to cover.
Nowadays, Douglas is well-paid, and venerated.
Since his major-label debut in 1980 (on Emmylou Harris’ Roses in the Snow) the requests to guest on other people’s records “just didn’t end.”
In between the seemingly endless amounts of session work and accompanist duties, Douglas has managed to record a handful of solo albums. 1993’s Skip, Hop and Wobble and 2002’s Lookout for Hope on Sugar Hill are fan faves.
“I don’t have to worry about the charts,” he says of his esoteric instrumental recordings. And well he shouldn’t.
Take his role with white-hot bluegrass band, Alison Krauss and Union Station. Launched into the musical mainstream with a cannonball-like caliber after the popularity of 2000’s Grammy-winning sound track for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Douglas and team are no strangers to widespread acclaim.
“They are all first-class people,” he says of his bandmates, adding, “When I play for Alison, I am 100 percent for Alison.”
Three nights into the Great Mountain High Tour (which he’s playing with Union Station), Douglas is already aglow with excitement for the show. So far, he says, audiences are loving it.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” he says, a smile audible. “In fact, I would do anything to keep on doing it.”
Yeah, I still say he’s the best.
See Jerry Douglas perform with Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Great Mountain High Tour at the Fox Theatre (2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Thursday, May 13, with Ralph Stanley, the Whites, the Cox Family and more. Call 313-471-6611 for ticket information.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]