Jerry Douglas is the frontman of the Jerry Douglas Band and Earls of Leicester, winner of 14 Grammy Awards, three time winner of Country Music Association Musician of the Year and a father of a Belmont alum.
Vision Arts and Entertainment Editor Sara Scannell sat down with Douglas leading up to his Saturday performance closing the Southern Comfort Harpeth River stage at Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival.
So one of the most unique things about your music is the great instrumentation. You play a variety of instruments, including the dobro. How does one get started playing the dobro?
“I started dobro when I was a little kid, around 11 or 12. But I’ve had an instrument in my hand since I was five. I woke up every morning hearing Flatt and Scruggs. They had a dobro player in their band named Josh Graves, and I just loved the way it sounded, it was so like a human voice. Then I went and saw Flatt and Scruggs play and that was it for me, it was the coolest looking instrument.”
You’ve worked with a lot of other amazing artists — from Alison Krauss to Paul Simon — and done a lot of really cool projects, including the music for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” What’s been your favorite project?
“‘O Brother’ was a lot of fun because there were so many of my friends there and we were all recording in this really old kind of way. We could just walk around the recording area because the microphones were these old ribbon microphones — they weren’t these newfangled microphones where you have to stay at the exact same proximity the whole time. We were playing music we were told would never make us any money, and we proved them wrong. It’s always great working with T-Bone Burnett — and who doesn’t want to be in a Coen brothers movie?”
You’ve had a lot of different iterations of bands and just played the Ryman with Earls of Leicester. What is different about Jerry Douglas?
“It’s all music that I write myself, and we sort of get the band’s opinions about everything — it’s really a band experience. If I’m stuck writing a song, I’ll grab one of them and say ‘help me write this, help me get out of this hole’ — or ‘this song isn’t weird enough, help me make it weirder.’ The music is bordering more on jazz than it is on bluegrass or country. So it was great, but kind of weird at the same time for me when it debuted at No. 1 on the bluegrass chart. We actually knocked Alison Krauss off the bluegrass chart for a day. The next day, they told me it had been reviewed in Downbeat Magazine, and then I thought ‘OK, now we’re going in the right direction.’ We play rock ‘n roll, we play jazz, we play everything. To me, there’s good music and there’s bad music — hopefully we’re playing good music. That’s what counts.”
Tell me about the inspiration behind your newest record, “What If?”
“The inspiration behind the new record was the band itself and what it’s become. It’s grown into something that I never thought was possible. With the addition of Jamel Mitchell and Vance Thompson on horns — it’s been wonderful. I’ve been writing music for years and I’ve always been hearing horns, but I was in a different genre, so I couldn’t bring them in. But I just thought, ‘the hell with this, let’s see what this sounds like.’ Adding a bunch new members inspired me — I just had this huge writing spurt and I wrote all these new songs and took them to the band they turned them into completely different creatures. I’m out of my comfort zone and they’re out of their comfort zone, so we’re all just learning together. I’m really inspired about music again. There was a period where I was playing the same set list forever and ever and it wasn’t what I’d signed onto this lifestyle for. After starting this band, I called home one night and told my wife ‘I really feel good about this, I really feel like something is happening.’ And I haven’t felt this way in a really long time.”
What’s next for you and the band?
“Next week is the Bluegrass Music Awards, and Earls of Leicester are up for a bunch of those things. But I would like to see more of these younger acts recognized, because they’re great, and it’s growing as a genre. I have enough awards, and that’s not what I do this for. It’s nice — I’m not going to say it’s not great to be handed this glass obelisk — but I want them to acknowledge the younger and newer folks. After that, the CMAs happen, and I’m up for Musician of the Year for that. I’m not even going to be there, so maybe I’ll win.”
What advice do you have for this younger generation of musicians out there?
“I’m a bad role model for doing this the standard way. I went against the grain the whole time and it paid off. There’s no right way to do this, everybody’s just got to do it the way that’s right for them.”
Photos from Zach Gilchriest.