Jerry Douglas on life as a traveling troubadour

Jerry Douglas is a multi-tasker. When he performed at Jam in the Trees festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina recently, he played solo, and then later that night, he made one of his frequent guest appearances with the Shooter Jennings Band. Of course Douglas is typically found in the company of others, both while jamming, at the helm of his own band, and in tandem with that other outfit that’s become essential to his day job, The Earls of Leicester, a Grammy award-winning sextet that also features fellow travelers Barry Bales, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Johnny Warren, and Jeff White. 

Formed in 2013, the Earls’ main mission has been to preserve the authenticity of bluegrass as purveyed by two of its prime architects, Flatt and Scruggs. With two studio albums to their credit and a new one, Live at The CMA Theater in The Country Music Hall of Fame, ready for release later this month, they not only succeeded, but raised the bar, winning a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album and earning six awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association in the process.

“Bluegrass has come and gone,” Douglas told Bluegrass Today as he sat in his dressing room prior to his Jam in the Trees appearance. “During the folk scare, Flatt and Scruggs kind of blew that up. You would find them at hootenannies, and folks would ask ‘How can they do that? That was amazing!’ At the time, they didn’t know anything like that existed, but they had been doing it all their lives. They didn’t have that wider audience, but suddenly they attracted the folk crowd, and then everything blew up so fast. They had a bus and they had sponsors, and suddenly they were doing these TV scores like The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde. Suddenly they were a pop act. They weren’t just a bluegrass thing. They never went by bluegrass alone at all. They didn’t compete with Bill Monroe. I think they ran past Bill Monroe so fast he didn’t even see them go. They didn’t call themselves a bluegrass band because it would have cornered them in so many ways. They wanted to be a folk act because there was a huge audience for that. I think that was really smart.” 

Douglas says he’s watched as bluegrass became cool, transitioning from back porches to the realms where populist precepts abound. He credits Earl Scruggs with helping to bridge the divide between bluegrass, traditional country, and rock, instigating the origins of today’s grassicana. 

“Earl Scruggs embraced Dylan and a lot of the contemporary artists of his time,” Douglas explains. “He made the decision to do that, but it was his sons who led him down that path. For Dylan to hang out with Earl Scruggs was just as big a deal as for Scruggs to hang out with Dylan. I don’t think Earl ever thought that hanging out with this guy Dylan would l improve his stature. I don’t think that ever went through his mind. It was more like, ‘My sons are into this, so I’m going to see what it’s all about. For Dylan, it was like ‘Oh shit — Earl Scruggs!’ Same with the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt. They loved hanging out with Earl. He was the king. A lot of people think of it in a reverse way.”

Douglas should know. Aside from the 14 albums recorded under his own aegis, he can claim more than 1,600 albums that boast his credits contributing dobro and resonator guitar. Among those who have called on his services are Garth Brooks, Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, Phish, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons, and Tommy Emanuel. In addition, he’s produced recordings by the Steep Canyon Rangers, Jesse Winchester, and the Del McCoury Band, and also boasts a 20 year tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station. He’s capped his accomplishments with no less than 14 Grammy nods and 31 nominations, not to mention 10 time honors as IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year and his three Country Music Association Musician of the Year awards, the National Heritage Fellowship bestowed by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Lifetime Achievement Award accorded by the Americana Music Association, and being named Artist in Residence for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. 

Douglas considers himself a journeyman musician, not to mention a festival favorite. He’s performed at both MerleFest and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival well over 30 times apiece. Needless to say, he considers them prime playing opportunities.

“I grew up going to festivals when they started actually,” he reflects. “Back in the ‘70s, every festival had to be like Woodstock. And motorcycle gangs were the security and that was well and fine, but then you’d get 50,000 people attending, and it would be a happening, and eventually it got out of hand. A few bad things happened, and so then they got smaller, but there would be more of them. And those got popular — in California there are three or four of them, High Sierra, Strawberry… and those are some of my favorite places. I’m a scenic festival guy. That counts for me. It beats the Atlanta Speedway or some baseball stadium.

These days, Douglas spends most of his time on the road. “My year is divided up like in a pie. The Earls, solo, and my band. I can hit Sam Bush’s house from my house with a baseball, but we never see each other unless we’re on the road. We’re busy all year long. But we’re best friends. It’s kind of a sad fact of being traveling musicians. But we’re still intwined. When we play together music it’s our special language.”

It’s little wonder then that Douglas has earned a steadfast reputation as a traveling troubadour. 

“Traveling is what we get paid for. Music is free. When you get up on stage to play, you go to another world. Another place. You may have an argument with the promoter, but when you get on stage, all of that’s gone. Nothing exists other than you, your instrument and whoever’s onstage with you.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.