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'Best Kept Secret:' Jerry Douglas' Dobro Wizardry
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'Best Kept Secret:' Jerry Douglas' Dobro Wizardry

Studio Sessions

(Soundbite of dobro)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Nashville late last month, at a ceremony sponsored by the International Bluegrass Music Association, musician Jerry Douglas presented a posthumous award to five brothers from the former Czechoslovakia who, in the 1920s, invented an instrument that's very close to Douglas' heart, the dobro.

(Soundbite from ceremony)

Mr. JERRY DOUGLAS (Musician): Every bluegrass resophonic guitarist and all the luthiers that make anything that look like a dobro today owe their careers to this radical innovation and labor of love. I'm privileged today to pay tribute to their vision and craftsmanship by recognizing the great Dopyera brothers with IBMA's Distinguished Achievement Award. Sadly, the brothers are all gone now, but two of their children, John and Anne, are here with us today to accept on their behalf. Come on up.

(Soundbite of applause; dobro)

HANSEN: When a musical group needs a dobro player, Jerry Douglas is the go-to guy. Artists from Garth Brooks to Paul Simon to Ray Charles have sought him out to play just the right touch of classic Americana. He can be heard on some 1,500 recordings, and since 1998 he's been touring extensively with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Occasionally Jerry Douglas breaks out to make his own records. He's just released a new one on Koch Records called "The Best Kept Secret."

(Soundbite of unidentified tune)

HANSEN: Jerry Douglas joins us here in NPR Studio 4A. He has his dobro with him.

Welcome to the program. How nice to meet you, Jerry.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you. It's nice to meet you, too.

HANSEN: Before we hear you play a little bit, give us just a little bit of an elementary lesson. Describe the instrument, the dobro, and tell us a little bit about its history.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, in its appearance, it is shaped like a regular guitar, Spanish guitar, but this instrument differs from the regular guitar in that it has a metal plate on the top with holes punched in it, and underneath that is a diaphragm made of spun aluminum with a bridge that the strings run across, and the sound goes down into the guitar and is then projected right back out of the guitar, and it was meant to make a louder guitar. But this version has the strings raised up so you can play it with a slide, so you...

(Soundbite of dobro)

Mr. DOUGLAS: That's a little bit of what they sound like and, you know, they're played in different ways.

(Soundbite of dobro)

Mr. DOUGLAS: So there's a little bit more.

HANSEN: You also play lap steel guitar, right?

Mr. DOUGLAS: I do, but I hadn't really played it that much on records until this one that I'm just releasing now.

HANSEN: Now explain, on your recording, "The Best Kept Secret," there's the first cut, you're playing this duet with guitar player Derek Trucks, and what are you playing?

Mr. DOUGLAS: I'm playing lap steel on that one and Derek is playing slide, bottleneck slide.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You've assembled a pretty amazing collection of players on this CD. I mean--What?--guitarist Bill Frisell, John Fogarty, mandolin player Sam Bush, banjo star Bela Fleck, and it's mostly instrumental, but we do get to hear from Alison Krauss, and she's singing the tune "Back In Love Again." This is actually a cover tune by a funk group, LTD.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah.

HANSEN: This is a little bit different from what we usually hear from Alison and Union Station. What were your thoughts behind that? You wanted to push her out just a little bit?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, yeah, I did, actually. I wanted to push her into a place that she wasn't quite comfortable in. You know, frankly, I wasn't quite comfortable there, either, but it gave us both a chance to, you know, try something new, which is--I think is what makes music evolve. So I talked her into that and, you know, there were certain times during the whole singing of the song and making the track and everything where she was going, `Oh, I don't know if I want to do this.' I'd push her on a little farther and by the time we got it all finished she says, `I like this.'

(Soundbite of "Back In Love Again")

Ms. ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) Every time I move I lose, when I look I'm in. Every time I turn around I'm back in love. I get mixed emotions...

HANSEN: You hooked up with another vocalist whose voice is familiar to anyone who listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogarty. You share the same birthday with him.

Mr. DOUGLAS: We have the same birthday, that's right, and the same love of resophonic guitars. That's how I met him. He was out, you know, just looking around for old dobros to buy and wanted to see my collection, and I called home to tell my wife that, you know--I said, `Oh, what are we having for dinner tonight? Is it OK if I bring somebody home?' And she's always--I'm always bringing somebody home, and she's going, `Oh, OK. Well, who is it?' And I says, `John Fogarty,' and she's a bigger--she was a bigger fan than me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN FOGARTY: (Singing) I gotta walk on down there, get me to Wichita Falls. If I don't find my baby, there won't be no walk at all. Hey now.

Mr. DOUGLAS: I had just played on his last record, and I said, you know, `I'm almost embarrassed to ask you, you know, but would you play on something of mine someday?' and he said, `Well, yeah! Yeah, I would do it.' And I said, `Well, I'm sort of in the middle of one right now.' So we decided that in the end that he would do it for a dobro lesson, which is pretty good for me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FOGARTY: (Singing) Now my baby got something, she caught a stingaree. And it really drove me crazy when she turned it loose on me. Man, it nearly drove me crazy when she turned it loose on me.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You really are pushing the envelope of your instrument here--I mean, you know, the funky stuff that you're doing--but you're also doing this lovely ballad, "A Remark You Made" by Joe Zawinul. Are you a fan of "Weather Report"?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Definitely. Somebody gave me that record in the late '70s or early '80s, whenever it was it came out, and I just fell in love with the whole thing, and I always loved this ballad Joe Zawinul wrote, this song, but Wayne Shorter, the saxophone player, he just poured his heart out, you know, into this song, and I thought, you know, one of these days I'll take a shot at that, and I got brave and this was what we came up with.

(Soundbite of "A Remark You Made")

HANSEN: You know, if you gave people a quiz and said, `OK, we're gonna talk about some jazz instruments here,' I don't think dobro would be on the top 10, but you seem to think that this--there's a way that the jazz style and the bluegrass style and everything that you're able to play on your instrument, they blend, they work together.

Mr. DOUGLAS: They do. I mean, it's basically how do you build a solo, how do you write a song, how do you put that song together, and I think they both work together, and I--especially dobro, I feel, is unlimited, you know, and it's a really new instrument, so it's never really been challenged in these ways. I'm not the only one that's doing this but, you know, I'm sort of out there trying to blaze a trail, I guess, you know, and show people other ways, other things the instrument can do.

(Soundbite of tune)

HANSEN: Your dad was a bluegrass player. He basically got you interested in the music, right, when you were about eight years old?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah. He had a band. I grew up listening to live music, you know, watching it played, which was really different than what most kids have. You know, they listen to the radio or listen to CDs that are--you know, back in those days it was just records. But I heard as much live music in our house as I did records, and to see it played and to watch these guys go through all the--make faces and, you know, go through all the things they had to go through to learn how to play the solos or learn a new song, you know, or just the mechanics, you know, the fundamentals of learning how a song goes, how you learn a song, how do you play an instrument, you know. And these guys were nice. They let me play with them as I was learning how to play, you know, and they fin--one day they went, `Hey, you know, he's not too bad.'

HANSEN: Is it true you're really just learning how to read and write music?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah. Yeah. Really have gotten to the point where I want to be able to show somebody what I'm doing and not just try to explain it, not have to play it for them and slow it down, because it's another language for most people.

HANSEN: How is it going for you? I mean, you're starting this as an adult. Most kids learn it as kids.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, my kids can actually do it and I can't. It's slow because as soon as I started--the lady that lives across the street from me is a music teacher, elementary music teacher, so I thought, well, I'm going to her first because she's not gonna go above my head right away. So she was giving me piano lessons and I was learning how to write, and then I got so busy and I started writing this record and I went on the road, and so I've got some work to do.

HANSEN: You haven't done your homework? (Gasps)

Mr. DOUGLAS: No, not in a while. But I'll get back to it. I will.

HANSEN: You're going to play for us. There's a tune, "Lil' RoRo," will be kind of the centerpiece of what you're gonna play, but you're also gonna put some other elements in there so...

Mr. DOUGLAS: That's right.

HANSEN: ...we'll let people listen. This is Jerry Douglas on the dobro in Studio 4A.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Our feature on Jerry Douglas was produced by Ned Wharton. This Studio 4A performance was recorded by Chris Nelson and Burke Hunn. You can see a picture of Jerry Douglas and his dobro and listen to more music on our Web site, npr.org.

(Credits)

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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