Jerry Douglas doesn’t have time to wait around for a watch repairman who’s running late. So the world’s most celebrated Dobro player climbs back in the car and heads to his next appointment, multitasking with a phone interview on the way.
That’s how it works when an in-demand musician doubles up on passion projects.
“Promoting two records at the same time, that’s a new one on me,” Douglas notes.
The two albums in question are a self-titled set by the Earls of Leicester and the Dobro-only collection The Three Bells, both on Rounder. Unlike plenty of other recordings he’s made outside of his marquee gig with Alison Krauss & Union Station, neither of these releases are meant as outlets for Douglas’ fiery yet lyrical, thoroughly modern virtuosity.
The Three Bells is his elegant, affecting collaboration with Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes, honoring the late Auldridge’s influence on every Dobro player who came along after. On it, Douglas frequently takes a back seat.
It’s a similar deal with the Earls of Leicester, a bluegrass supergroup also featuring singer-guitarist Shawn Camp, mandolinist Tim O’Brien, bassist Barry Bales, banjo player Charlie Cushman and fiddler Johnny Warren. They lifted their material straight out of the Flatt & Scruggs repertoire.
In that tradition-recreating band, Douglas channels the streamlined, foundational Dobro playing of Josh Graves, who got Auldridge and him both interested in their instrument.
CMT Edge: I’d read that The Three Bells was supposed to come out last year. So how is it that you find yourself promoting that and The Earls of Leicester simultaneously?
Douglas: I wanted to wait until I had a good home for Three Bells, and it all happened at once. I really needed to record the Earls in order to get it out in time for us to do a lot of things. … I really wanted to get the Dobro record out because I’d been promising that it was coming.
Yeah, a lot of people that aren’t here anymore. That was one of the reasons that I did that record then, because Bashful Brother Oswald was, like, 90. Josh Graves wasn’t in great health. … And Mike, not too long after that is when he was diagnosed with cancer. …
But this Three Bells record started as really not a record — just something for us to have. We didn’t know how long we’d have Mike around. He kept hanging on. Every time we’d do a session, he’d feel good. His wife Elise told me, “Every time you guys come around, he perks up and he feels better for a while. So as long as you can keep doing that, please do.”
So we finally got enough together to think about a record. And Mike really wanted it to be a record. He wanted to leave something like that behind.
I figured there must be logistical complexities to recording those tracks — aligning your schedules and traveling to Maryland where Auldridge was. What I’m really curious about is how it worked once you got together in the same room — three of the world’s premiere Dobro players — without any other accompaniment.
The two of them thought I was crazy when I said we don’t need a band. … I said, “Let’s see if we can do it ourselves and see if it hangs together with just the three of us.” And it does. … It all started out as, “It’s all about Mike. We’re gonna play songs Mike wants to play.” I made a few suggestions, and he said, “Yeah, that’s good.”
The first song on the record is a song that was on his first record, a huge groundbreaking record for all Dobro players. “Silver Threads Among the Gold” is what it’s called. And he cut that with Josh Graves on his original record.
The approach really differs from track to track. There are solo performances, unison licks, passages where either you or Rob Ickes are chopping the backbeat or alternating between higher and lower registers.
We didn’t even talk about that kind of thing. We just naturally went to it. When I would hear Rob start to chop, I would play comp chords behind whatever Mike was doing. And Mike wasn’t really into playing a lot of chopping rhythm. He never was that kind of a player.
We were all playing the same instrument, so we could very easily get in the same register and just hover in there, and it would sound very one-dimensional. But to keep Mike in the middle and to kind of spread ourselves out in the whole sonic spectrum, that’s what we were trying to keep in mind. So we’d sound like a huge Dobro. … It all sounds like Mike because Rob and I both come from that school.
Even if the simultaneous release of these albums wasn’t planned, something about it seems like a complete circle. In the Earls of Leicester, you’re playing the part of Josh Graves.
Yeah, there’s definitely a thread that runs through both records, and it would be him. In the Earls of Leicester, it’s so nice to shed my own persona and morph into him. Every time I hear myself starting to return to my own way of doing things, I revert [back to his way]. And I just try to remember what he would’ve done in the situation.
I’ve studied that from 10 years old. He was the first guy I ever heard that interested me in playing that guitar. I learned that stuff inside out before I ever saw him. And then when I saw him, that just set the hook for me.
Since you’re known for being a virtuoso who’s expanded the Dobro lexicon in so many ways, I wondered if it could be limiting for you to simplify your playing for this project. But it sounds like, paradoxically, you actually find it freeing.
It’s freeing and it’s challenging. It was hard! He played some really mechanically hard things to do. He was like a Paganini of sorts with some of these stretches [across the strings]. And to be [playing] straight on, you’re going across strings at an angle, connecting two dots. And they have to be exactly in tune. … They played so much that it was just second nature to him. He didn’t even look at the fingerboard.
You’ve said that you want the Earls of Leicester to expose generations of listeners who weren’t around to see Flatt & Scruggs in their heyday. But at your Ryman show this summer, I was sitting directly behind Ricky Skaggs and the Whites, and they were clearly getting a lot out of your revival of that music, too.
Yeah, I think it will [do that for] a lot of people who were really digging their music at the time that they were actually playing it. … [Flatt & Scruggs] had a TV show, they had national sponsorship, they had their own routing of radio shows. They were like a brand. They were more of a brand than practically any other country music act of the time. And they had a woman for a manager. How far out is that? …
My whole thing about revisiting this stuff and replanting it in the minds of young bluegrass players coming up is that Alison Krauss and Chris Thile did not invent bluegrass. They weren’t the first high-level bluegrass artists who had their team together or anything like that.
Flatt & Scruggs had it all. They had great musicianship. They had a show that entertained, which is something that bluegrass music has kind of lost. I would like to inject a little bit of what they did back into the mainstream just to juice it up again.
You have a rare level of renown for a contemporary instrumentalist in country and acoustic music. Is there something about being where you are in your career that makes you feel a responsibility to celebrate your influences?
A few years back, I may have thought, “No, I can’t do that right now. … I won’t do it until I can do it right.” And I don’t really feel like I have anything to prove to anybody at this point. So I’m able to relax a little bit maybe and do some things that I always wanted to do, but was kind of afraid to do, because I could see the goal line and I didn’t want to veer from the track. Not that I’ve crossed the goal line, but I’m doing it a centimeter a day.