He’s played on more than 1600 albums and won a baker’s dozen worth of Grammy Awards, but master Dobro player Jerry Douglas is still capable of moving outside his comfort zone — and that’s exactly what he did during the sessions for his latest album, Traveler, which finds him playing alongside an eyebrow-raising array of guest stars, including Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, Marc Cohn, and Mumford & Sons and Paul Simon, who appear together on a new version of Simon’s classic track “The Boxer.”
The ever-peripatetic Douglas has a ton of tour dates lined up in support of Traveler, but he took a few moments to talk with us about the making of the album, his approach to the songwriting craft, and why it pays to have a legendary producer on your side.
You’ve got a busy time ahead of you.
Yeah, I think I’m going from Telluride to Brussels. Don’t think about it. [Laughs]
I recently spoke with Sonny Landreth, whose last couple of albums have also featured performances from guest artists — and he talked about how digital recording has made it a lot easier to put recordings like that together, by making it possible to trade files over long distances. Did that help you with Traveler?
I only had to do that twice. I got Clapton that way — I cut the track in New Orleans, and then he and I played together in New York. I did it that way to get Marc Cohn, and then Paul Simon overdubbed his parts at his own place. But, for instance, the thing I did with the Mumfords was recorded live.
So how did you make this work? Did you fit the sessions around a touring schedule that you already had in place, or did you just hop on a bunch of planes in your spare time?
I fit it in. In the case of the Mumfords, I finished a UK tour with Alison Krauss, and I stayed over for a few days — that worked out great. But yeah, this was all between or at the end of touring. So I was ready! I was red hot. I had been playing a lot when we cut this stuff.
What’s your approach to practicing?
[Scoffs] Practicing. Who practices? I play for people. [Laughter] Yeah, sometimes I sit at home — once in a blue moon — and if I’m writing, that’s the only time I do anything I’d call practice. It’s usually all around writing a tune — that’s where different techniques evolve through trying to get from Point A to Point B.
I’m always interested in the answer to that question, because I know some artists who are really proficient — like, say, Bruce Hornsby — will make a point of developing specific areas of their technique, and other guys, like Bela Fleck, are just always playing all the time anyway.
I’m sort of in between those two things. I don’t sit around and play every day by myself — usually I’m doing a show, you know? But I do a lot of warming up before a show. I’m 56 years old now, so things don’t automatically move right out of the chute. You could call that practicing, but I’m actually going through the scales, just getting my hands to talk to each other. Just making sure all the bridges are working. No bridges are out, no tunnels clogged. [Laughs]
At this point, what’s your relationship with your musical craft? How far do you still need to go before you’re in command of what you want to do?
Well, I have nights where I feel like I’m watching someone else do it. But that’s on a show with Alison where I’ve played the song 100 times, and everything’s going right — so right that I’m going to go ahead and improvise. On Tuesday nights, as a rule, I’ll try to play a solo completely different from the way I played it any other night. I’ve done that for a long time — it’s just an unwritten law for me.
But there’s so much stuff — like right now, with the record company, dealing with the new record coming out…any time you’re dealing with a record company, you are not in control. [Chuckles] Then suddenly you have to put on this other hat. But if I’m talking about music, I feel a little more comfortable. Music is a whole lot more fun than the music business.
But for a guy like you, who is a recording artist and a session player, you kind of have to be a businessman all the time, don’t you?
Well, I have other people that handle getting me from one place to another, that line me up and tell me how to get there. I have a calendar — that’s how I know where I am. I’ve tried to make that as easy as possible, to where I can still think like a musician.
I don’t like doing business, and usually, I’m disappointed when I do — it doesn’t roll the same way music does. If you improvise in music, you could come out the other side okay even if people try and say you can’t. In the business world, if they say you can’t do that, it’s a hard and fast rule — so I’d rather not go there. I like improvising too much.
Your career is instructive for musicians, because even session guys with name value, like Steve Conn or Bill Champlin — they’re still hustling for gigs. Even being the world’s foremost B3 player doesn’t necessarily mean financial stability.
Right. Well, it’s all about forming a brand, almost. Where you play three notes and somebody knows who you are. I’ve been lucky enough in that situation, and I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s nothing I’d ever tell anyone to do — it has its rewards, but they’re few and far between. It’s a lot of hard work and staying visible, you know? Being in the right place at the right time — or the wrong time, even.