Read our interview with dobro maestro and producer Jerry Douglas
Interview with Jerry Douglas
By Rob Dickens
RD: Jerry, congratulations on the new album What If
Firstly, the Jerry Douglas Band has been around for two of three years – how did you go about assembling this virtuoso ensemble and did you always consider going into the studio together at some point?
JD: Beginning in the Spring of 2016, I planned on building on top of my existing band in a particular order at special shows. Originally we were bass, drums, violin and Dobro. First I wanted to add two horn players, which I did at Merlefest. Then at Telluride Bluegrass we added electric guitar. Finally at Hardly Strictly Festival in San Francisco I asked my friend singer Maura O’Connell to guest with us. With the exception of having a guest vocalist, I had always planned on going into the studio to record if this idea strengthened and jelled into what I thought it could be.
Tell me a little about the players in the band
Drummer Doug Belote, who lives in New Orleans, comes from Lafayette, La. He’s been with me for 12 years now through all incarnations of my trials to find the perfect players for this endeavour. He comes from a Cajun music background, but early in his career went to NYC to study at the Drum Collective to immerse himself into his interests in other forms of music than were available in his hometown. Jazz was naturally the next step for him after hearing all the tangents and fusion musics coming out of New Orleans. He has taught me so much about the beat, and where it can fall directing the attitude of what you want to play.
Bassist Daniel Kimbro has been my window into realising what I hear in my imagination come to fruition. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee School of Music and has done more with that education than anyone I have ever met. He applies it every day to his playing. Recording and mixing a show called the Blue Plate Special in Knoxville, his many jobs as the bass player on call for the city of Knoxville and being the backbone of this band are totally within his wheelhouse. Along with his knowledge of good music from bad, he has introduced me to so many amazing musicians in the East Tennessee area and helped me build this band in many ways. When I said to him, “I have always heard horns in this music I write”, he said I know some great players who can help you figure out if you really want to use them. That’s where Jamel, Vance, and Mike Seal came from.
Violinist Christian Sedelmyer came to me in entirely different way. I was involved in a jam to honor Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festval founder Warren Hellman in 2014. This festival that started as a birthday present to his wife by the wonderful philanthropist Mr. Hellman has turned into one of the most attended and enjoyable places on the planet. And it’s free every year on the first weekend of October.
Well I was onstage and this young guy was just ripping the fiddle solos, and I was going, who in the hell is that? I had never seen or heard him before so I made it a point to go straight to him after that set and tell him how great I thought he was. As it turns out, he was there to perform in his duet “10 String Symphony” with partner Rachel Baiman. A Wake Forest accounting graduate, it didn’t take him long to figure out he would rather play the fiddle than add numbers at a Washington DC firm, and he flew.
He has the musical depth of a classical violinist and the old soul of a back porch fiddler from the reaches of a North Carolina holler. He hears the right thing to play in whatever situation he’s painted himself into to escape while making it all sound easy.
Vance Thompson plays the trumpet, and holds down a professorship at the University of Tennessee School of Jazz. Vance can be just one of the guys on the bus or he can, as he did recently for me, take you through the history of music, especially Jazz from the early days of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, through John Coltrane and Miles Davis, finally the miles-thick horn arrangements of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.
It seems amazing to me, but Vance says it is exciting and refreshing to be out of his element and working in this band. I think it may be more exciting for me to have these sounds running through the phrases that come from my thoughts.
Saxophone player Jamel Mitchell was also someone Daniel brought to my attention. Jamel comes from a very musical family. His father James Mitchell was one of the original Memphis Horns. He wrote all the famous lines for the horns on records by Al Green, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, all the Stax artists, They have been called “arguably the greatest soul horn section ever.” During this time his uncle Willie was producing these records. Jamel did his homework and many times slept on the sofa in the musicians lounge while history was being made in the next room.
Our friendship and musical bond came from one phone call I made to him about my wondering if he would be willing to write some horn charts to a few of my songs. After he got a little ways into it he said he really enjoyed it the same as Vance has said in that it was so different than what he usually playing and he would like to be in the band and keep helping it grow. He brings all that to our band now and I never take that for granted.
Mike Seal is an amazing electric guitarist. One of the most intuitive musicians I have ever met. All his life playing the guitar has been effortless and to watch him perform his magic is a wonderful thing to see. He is the ultimate improviser, but has so much soul and taste that even though he may be an encyclopedia, he has it all firmly in his grasp and has a surgeon’s touch. Don’t play him in chess, or challenge him on information on any airstrip within the civilized world. Seriously, Mike is a great arranger who helped me in my writing and came up with some of the most mood altering moves of this album.
I read somewhere that you were heavily influenced by Chick Corea and Weather Report decades ago. It’s a long way from Flatt and Scruggs! Was this a major inspiration for you for the record?
Yes of course, but there’s no way I’m going to make a record that isn’t influenced by my early Flatt and Scruggs days. Late in the 70’s though, I was subjected to Chick and Weather Report all in the same day. Of course that was a game changer for me musically. For a while I had been frustrated by my having some of the same phrasing ideas I was hearing now on this new music. Not really knowing where they were coming from. Now I realise the times I would go out to California and hang out into the wee hours with Tony Rice listening to his huge jazz collection had crept into my thoughts the same as they had educated these new guys Chick Corea and Jaco, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Zawinul. Naturally they had listened to Coltrane, Miles, and Mingus. They were teachers the same as Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, and the Country Gentlemen had been for me, along with a healthy dose of Clapton, Beatles and Stones.
With the instrumentation on this particular record, it’s only natural that all those people would jump out of my writing and playing on this record.
The dobro can have its own challenges when it comes to the sound mix. The arrangements are pretty special on the album. How did you go about achieving that balance with all those instruments competing for air-time?
I think the secret in balancing an arrangement and finding “air-time” for everybody comes from the musicians really listening to each other. We had plans for some counter balance through the use of string beds and some lush string sections made up of violin, arco bass, and lapsteel that lurk under the rhythm track. Solos should never fight so they divide up the sonic spectrum. Staying away from lo mids is useful and since we only have one instruments that lives in that range, me, we could use the violin, horns, and electric guitar in the higher registers. Leaving plenty of room on the the bottom for Daniel and the kick drum to be heard.
Layering is key to the success of keeping a full picture. You can think of it as a painting where light meets dark.
There are some fascinating covers on the album – ‘Hey Joe’ and Tom Wait’s ‘2:19’ but the rest are originals. How did you choose the tracks that finally made the cut?
The original plan was to record the live show we were performing at the time, just using the horns in addition to it. Then because of my excitement from just how good I thought this band sounded, I had a writing explosion. A lot of new phrases were trying to get out and I sat down and just started recording everything that came to me. Pretty soon I formulated some finished songs from mixed phrases and jammed out a lot of my ideas in sound checks. Suddenly I had all these tunes. It wasn’t until we got in the studio that they really came to life though. The framework was there, but when the band started finding their way through them things really started to shape up. Mike and I wrote on “Battle Stick” until that was weird enough and Jamel came up with a beautiful line that solidified the song “What If”. We had a piece to build the record around. I like vocal interruptions in my records so I pulled out a couple songs that I really liked and the band answered. 60 years old isn’t too late to become a lead singer is it?
What If is a substantial, bold statement and another step for you in a career that seems to be increasing in its diversity. Since Union Station with Alison Krauss, there have been solo projects, the Three Bells dobro-maestro-get-together, the award-winning Earls of Leicester and now this incredible jazz-infused album. Is this something that drives you personally, to continually seek out new musical adventures?
It’s occurring more and more to me that the musical path I’m on is like a ride across country. Same language, different dialects. The terrain changes and you adapt to living in it. I have played with my heroes and I have played with beginners and there is something you can learn from all of them. It’s exciting to hear how different genres have merged one another. Maybe like a Chinese-Cuban restaurant or something. The rules are there in all musics so they will stay pure, but it is fun to experiment with them. Maybe because I play a dobro guitar, a relatively new instrument in the whole scheme, I can mix and mingle a little more and cross the genre lines more easily.
You are touring extensively with the JDB to support What If, but also convening with The Earls for shows and other individual appearances as well. Is it hard to keep track, on a given night, of your various musical personas!!?
With the help of management, they don’t overlap so much now. We’re managing to give them equal time, because there are many more people involved than just myself. Finally I can give each one my individual attention and keep the bar as high as possible for both.
You are a producer of some note having worked with Alison, the Del McCoury Band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, to name but a few. Do you have any production duties at the moment that you can share with us?
I always keep my eyes open for something I like and think I could help make a difference in for the better. Right now though, I am so deep into making this band successful in any way I can, and keeping the Earls of Leicester hot on the trail, I really don’t have the time. And if I can’t give something my complete attention it doesn’t seem to me that I would really be doing my job.
One of my favourite projects of yours is the BBC TV series Transatlantic Sessions for which you are Co-Music Director. There have been six glorious seasons combining the best collaborations from artists across “The Pond”, melding and sharing music heritage beautifully. Is there going to a season 7 and can you tell us anything about it?
I truly love the Transatlantic Sessions. It is in many ways, a large part of my musical legacy and I am very proud of it. Like any other TV show, our series depends on how healthy it’s source of money is. Right now, times are just as uncertain in the UK and BBC (our source) as anywhere else, and is unable to predict their health from one moment to the next. My hope is that we can have a seventh series. So many people want to be a part of it now that they have seen how special our program is. So let’s just keep our fingers crossed and see how this turns out. I feel good about it.
The Jerry Douglas Band is performing at The Festy Experience 2017.
Read more about What If HERE.
Read our interview with dobro maestro and producer Jerry Douglas