Jerry Douglas talks 50 years in music

Jerry Douglas – photo by Rob Laughter

Jerry Douglas has been called the “Dobro’s matchless contemporary master” by The New York Times. He is a fifteen-time Grammy winner and a three-time recipient of the CMA Musician of the Year award. In addition to the dobro, he is a lap-steel guitar player and a producer. Douglas is a band leader for The Jerry Douglas Band, The Earls of Leicester, and has been a member of groundbreaking ensembles including Alison Krauss & Union Station, J.D. Crowe & the New South, The Country Gentlemen, Boone Creek, and Strength In Numbers. 

A musician’s musician, Douglas has co-produced and performed on a series of platinum albums. He has produced albums for Alison Krauss, Del McCoury Band, Molly Tuttle, Chris Jacobs, Maura O’Connell, The Whites, Lonesome River Band, Jesse Winchester, The Gibson Brothers, and Steep Canyon Rangers. 

He is co-music director of the acclaimed BBC Scotland TV series, Transatlantic Sessions. There also six Transatlantic Sessions albums which showcase the brilliance of Douglas’s vision. On one of the session albums, for example, Scottish fiddler Aly Bain, an Irish singer-songwriter, recorded with American bluegrass musician Russ Barenberg. The result is a breathtaking interpretation of the mutual influence of British Isles and bluegrass music. Douglas has helped to create something altogether new and exciting. Douglas’s influence extends beyond bluegrass into international and pop music. His link to American roots music has in no way limited the scope of his collaborations with artists from other genres.

As Darol Anger wrote in an email to me, “Well, you know, Jerry, always a pretty tall fellow, has steadily increased in stature among his peers for the last 50 years, and shows no sign of stopping. He pretty much stands to the dobro where Charlie Parker stands to the alto sax… bringing all the strands together and raising the ante by a factor of 420. But more than that, he’s a Presidential figure within his music community, which extends through bluegrass and country to blues, pop, and rock, and beyond category. He’s a true generous giant of music, and he’s a beloved person…he still listens to everyone and will laugh at your jokes.”

I saw Douglas play with the Earls of Leicester at the 2023 Suwannee Spring Reunion in late March. Performing with the Earls showcases Douglas’s commitment to music history, and to the legacy of those that came before him. Donning old-fashioned hats and suits in the style of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys, the all-star outfit includes Shawn Camp, Johnny Warren (son of Foggy Mountain Boys’ Paul Warren), Charlie Cushman, and Jeff White. Todd Phillips stood in for Barry Bales on bass at the 2023 Suwannee Spring Reunion. 

In addition to capturing the lightning-in-a-bottle virtuosity of Flatt & Scruggs, the band’s stage banter is hilarious and impossible not to enjoy. Shawn Camp pulled out a fly swatter on Douglas, threatening to swat his dobro, suggesting that it sounds like a buzzy insect. At one point, Douglas played out of tune intentionally as a plume of pot smoke smothered the stage. In between songs, the band imitated the Martha White Flour and other commercials that Flatt and Scruggs delivered during their performances. 

But more than having a good time, this spectacular configuration of best-in-class musicians play bluegrass with the speed and precision that Monroe envisioned. As Douglas has said, reflecting on the band’s first meeting, “I had to stop the band in the middle of the first song, because I was scared to keep going—it felt like Flatt & Scruggs were going to jump right out of the wall.” He added, “I’d hoped it was going to be even half that good, and it ended up just taking my breath away.”

I had the pleasure of speaking to Jerry in early March 2023. This conversation was a treasure for me, as Jerry is so iconic, and his knowledge of various kinds of music, music history and other musicians, is astonishing. We had a lot of laughs, too. 

Below is a transcription of the conversation I had with him.

MF: I’ve been a fan of yours for a very long time. You have a tremendous body of music. So even for someone like me who is familiar with your work, it’s a big catalog of music to listen to.

JD: I wouldn’t want to have to listen through it right now. [laughing] 

MF: Where did the nickname Flux come from? In an article I wrote for Bluegrass Today, I said that “Douglas’s dobro playing is fierce, like lightning released from containment in a giant tight drum, rippling over the crowd.” I went on to say, “There is so much joy and mystery wrapped up in his phrasing and pitch, his dobro sound is like the soundtrack to one human soul. I hear violins and cellos, rivers and oceans, and the flapping of butterfly wings. And while Douglas’s playing can thunder like Zeus’s voice, it is also sweet and low, like the whisper of a fairy in your ear, lulling you to dream.” I thought Flux was related to something like that.  

JD: Well, I got tagged with that by Ricky Skaggs in The Country Gentleman when I was 16, when I came in the band for the first summer. It was kind of an inside joke. 

MF: I’ve always been drawn to the dobro and resophonic [resonator] instruments in general. There’s that combination of emotional cry and explosiveness. It’s a powerful instrument. What drew you to the dobro?

JD: It was definitely hearing Buck [Josh] Graves play it with Flatt & Scruggs on the records. It was powerful and it was bluesy, and he could play fast like Earl. But he also played more soulfully than anybody else in the band. Buck had a slide instrument so he could emote things they couldn’t. A fiddle player can fade in, violin can fade in, but those guys weren’t really thinking about that kind of thing. They were about attacking the note.

But that was it. Just hearing the way the slide guitar sounded was really cool to me. It didn’t sound like a guitar. It didn’t sound like anything else. And dobros these days sound more like our hybrids. They are more fluid, and they have more voices, but they don’t have the brashness. And they don’t get in your face the way Graves did with his old guitars. When I play with the Earls of Leicester, I play an old guitar because it’s got that sound. It doesn’t sound right to me unless I use an old guitar.

MF: I see, because you guys are going for that older, Flatt & Scruggs kind of sound with that group. 

JD: I tried to get the instruments when we played the Hall of Fame. We did a couple nights of filming it, did a DVD recording thing of the show. I tried to get them to let us use Earl’s banjo and Lester’s guitar because we had the fiddle. The bass was long gone, burnt up somewhere or something happened to it anyway. I could get Curly’s [Seckler] mandolin too from Grisman. I just wanted all the instruments to play together.

That would be nuts because I could get Josh’s dobro easily. And I think I did on a couple of shows that we’ve done. But to get all the instruments would be otherworldly to me to have that happen. Museums can’t do things like that, however. 

MF: It’s an artifact now in a sense, right? And you know, they probably worry about preservation.

JD: Yeah, it’s just a shame that it’s not played because it sounds so good. It was the whole reason that everybody wanted to play. That banjo. That was the thing that made everybody want to play the banjo. And now it’s silent. 

MF: That is so true.

JD: But, I can’t help it.

MF: I looked up the history of the dobro. In Slavic languages, you say “Dobry den,” which means “good morning.” I read that when the dobro was introduced, the selling motto was, “Dobro means good in any language.”

JD: Yeah, that was what they said. I’ve gone over to the Slovakian Republic. They’ve had a couple of dobro festivals in Trnava, Slovakia where the Dopyeras were born.  

One time I started a bike race there with a dobro, a 10K bike race. They counted down 5432 and, on 1, I played the dobro, yaaaaang. There I am in the mayor’s office, in the morning, these guys are all toasting with Borovička (Slovak pronunciation: [ˈbɔrɔʋitʂka]). It’s like gin before it’s gin. Like moonshine. And there in the office of the mayor at 8 o’clock in the morning and they’re toasting with that stuff, like three or four times.

Then in the last thing they’re going through, dobro, dobro, dobro and then everybody shouts it. You know, it’s like 20 guys. It was crazy. But yeah, the word means good. You enter the airport and then you see it everywhere. It’s just like, wow, this is such a cool place. Like they said, dobro means “good” in any language, yeah.

MF: One thing when I watch you play, it must break your back to hold a dobro. How do you manage to hold the thing? It’s heavy. There’s a lot of steel in a dobro. Also, you hold it perpendicular to your body. It’s a little bit flatter the way you’re holding it. It’s not like you hold the back of it to your body. Am I correct?

JD: Right. If I just held it straight up, I could do that and could play it straight out from me. But I tend to slant it in and try to get as much of my body against the backside of it as I can. I use the method that Buck Graves started, this locking technique with your arm. You roll it around the strap so you can stabilize the guitar with your right arm. And so, the left side is floating. I always keep some contact with my left hand on the guitar, so it doesn’t bounce, or so the peg head doesn’t get too high. It’s about tone and the control of the instrument and where you place it. I want to play it like a guitar. I want it to present as a guitar. Not just flat, perpendicular. I want people to see what it looks like. I think it’s one of the coolest looking instruments ever made.

MF: Yeah, it is. So, no issues with your back then? 

JD: I have some right shoulder stuff because that’s where all the tension in your whole body goes when you’re playing. And in life too. It’s harder on your hands than the rest of your body. It’s a really physical instrument, like any acoustic instrument you’re playing. The left-hand position is easier, but you’re holding a bar, a slide. It’s not an ergonomic position.

MF: Do dobro players often sit? You’ll see people sitting to play lap steel or other resophonic instruments.

JD: I’ve found a way to stand with my lap steels too. My setup guy built this side belly pad that goes against you. You can support it the same way, even easier. But having all that power behind you, it’s another world. There are a lot of steel players that got nailed by their amps because they couldn’t move away from them. I like sitting to record,  because you don’t want to move around. If you want to do any other takes, or any edits, you want to be in the same place when doing the edit. And a lot of guitar players stand and sing when laying tracks. That’s hard. I love to stand and play, and I love to move, too. 

When we got the dobro Aura [imagining pedal] thing going, I was freed from just standing in front of a microphone, nailed to the floor. It was very liberating for me. But my stance is like a lot of dobro players; it’s pretty right heavy. You know, all my weight is on my right leg and everything. I notice these things too. I think about them. I’ve had plenty of time to kind of analyze how I stand and what my posture is like. And how hard it’s going to be on my back. I’ve been told that my posture is good, and my back is just fine. I think if I’ve ever injured my back, it was from driving and throwing suitcases and heavy guitar cases. That’s where the damage comes in. It’s not while you’re playing, not while you’re doing your job. It’s when you’re not.  

I’ve developed arthritis and it hurts when I’m not playing. Only when I’m playing my hands don’t hurt. I’m always trying to get people to rehearse now. I used to hate it before, but now I’m into it. It helps me warm up. Nowadays, we all get around and talk about our ailments [laughing]. We didn’t do that when we were 35.

MF: Right. It’s the predicament of our age. 

JD: How old are you? 

MF: I’m going to be 57 this year.  

JD: I’m 66.

MF: Well, you do look like you take care of yourself, which is key. At this point we have to. We have to be very mindful and watch our diets and all that kind of stuff. So good for you. And I’m sure your wife appreciates it too.

JD: Yeah, well, she’s such a good cook, though, man. It’s really been hard.

MF: My wife’s a good cook, but she cooks a lot of healthy stuff. Does your wife cook heavy food?

JD: She’s a southern cook. She’s not a heavy cook, I would say.

MF: Speaking of southern cooking, I looked at where Warren, Ohio is on the map. Ohio is near the middle of the country, but some of it is very southern and some of it is not. Do you consider yourself a Southerner?

JD: I do. I feel like I was dug up and put in Ohio, even though I was born there. Both my parents were from a particular place in West Virginia, which is just beautiful. It’s pristine. I’m not going to tell anybody where it is, so it’ll stay that way. 

Now when I got into the South, I found out that I’m not really southern. I don’t come from Mississippi or Alabama or Tennessee, and Kentucky. I come from above the sweet tea line.

MF: But I was just curious as I’ve often met musicians from Ohio, and they struck me as southern. Maybe they even sound like they have a bit of a southern accent. But I think, that’s not the South. 

JD: People from the South went up to places like Ohio and found work. That’s what happened. And so there was a whole network of people from East Kentucky who flooded Ohio. They came from way down in the Breaks where there were coal mines. You either worked for the mines, or you got out. Or if you were a farmer and you could subsist. If you could live that way, which my grandparents did; they were the last generation to do that. And to just survive off of a family farm like that, not having thousands of acres, but just enough to make ends meet. 

And my grandfather did all the work on the farm with horses and that was gone right away, along with the outdoor toilets and all that stuff. All those people took their mannerisms with them to Ohio. 

MF: And Indiana and places like that. And brought their music. 

JD: My father had a whole band of guys from West Virginia. And they all played great. They could have been a professional band, but they had families and they worked in steel mills, you know. Their fate was sealed.

MF: Like the players from the Seldom Scene, Mike Auldridge and John Duffy, they were from the DC area, and they had other jobs too. John Starling was a doctor. 

JD: White collar bluegrass.

MF: Speaking of Mike Auldridge, I love the Three Bells album you did with him and Rob Ickes. It’s all instrumental, all resophonic instruments. 

JD: Yeah, Three Bells was all dobros.  Even on the song, Three Bells, we used a dobro that was tuned way down. It was this crazy experiment. We just did it. On one of the Tone Poems albums I was on, they had a bunch of people play the same instrument. It was a triple 45, a little parlor guitar. I said to David Grisman, “Dave, we can’t jack the strings up on this thing. We’ll pull the bridge off of it or something. I’m going to feel terrible.” This is not made for that, but we did it. It’s on one of the Tone Poems records.

MF: On Three Bells, you got a chance to play with Mike Auldridge before he passed. Did the album come out before he passed? 

JD: No, but he heard the mixes. But he was gone when the record came out. It was his last. Yeah, we would choose days that he felt good and, you know, and just get plane tickets quickly and go up and just do a day, maybe two. But usually just one day.

MF: That’s a great album. Just the three of you playing. It’s more charged than the Tone Poems albums. Maybe because it’s all dobros. 

JD: When I was mixing it and heard Mike Auldridge soloing, it was amazing how good he was playing. He played as well as he ever played on Three Bells. Just perfect, beautiful.

MF: On the Transatlantic Sessions albums you played with British legends like Danny Thompson and Aly Bain. Are you into British players like Bert Jansch, John Renborn? 

JD: Oh god, yeah. We did a couple of things with John Martyn, and they were just completely cosmic. One time we got him and Guy Clark both in the same room at the same time. What a scene that was! And they could drink. I would have a pint under my chair at 5 o’clock. And that’s how we’d go. I haven’t had a drink in 13 years, but back when we were shooting those things, it was so much fun. And with John Martyn and Danny playing Solid Air. And Paul Brady doing Arthur McBride, and things like that. I’ve seen some of the craziest, best music happening on those things with James Taylor and Alison and everybody.

There was a woman who was playing fiddle on the show and Alison told me, she said, “I can’t look at her cause I start to cry.” And I asked why. And she said, “It’s just, I don’t know, it’s just so beautiful. I am having such a good time. It’s so beautiful. I can’t look at her.” So, I said, laughing, “Don’t look at her. We’ve got to do this. Don’t look at her.” You know, it’s a crazy show and we do them now and take it live.

We record the first two nights, and by the third night we have a CD that you can buy. The first two nights are the scariest ones because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing yet, but by the end of it, after we’ve done these 10 gigs, it ends, and it never happens again. So, they’re just little vignettes in your life. I love doing that. I really do. I went from playing with my band the very first of this year, then straight into the Molly Tuttle record, and was still approving mixes while I was in the Transatlantic Sessions and firing stuff back by the time it ended. It’s been a crazy year; it’s been very busy.

MF: There’s that connection between Appalachian music, our American Music, and British Isles music. But you’re drawn to it, you’re drawn to those styles, would you say?

JD: Yeah, I think because I had such a strong fiddle influence early in my life that I understand mechanically how it works, what you have to do to make those sounds, and then to meet someone like Aly Bain. He’s the Celtic fiddler. He’s the icon and I’ve just been so lucky. I love the fiddle music, and the pipes just send you to another land. It’s so ancient. 

MF: I agree. Like the ancient tones. You have such a broad palette in your catalog. I love the Bourbon and Rosewater album. It’s very different. 

JD: I loved doing it. I met [Vishwa Mohan] Bhatt in India before we recorded that, and he said, “Oh, we must record. We must record.” We recorded the album on two one-inch vacuum tube microphones out in the middle of the Santa Barbara Mission, in the room where the monks do their chants and stuff. It’s just a long cement room. Not cement, but more like a rock room and it has a 2.6 dispersion, the most beautiful reverb, and that was part of the recording, too. 

Edgar [Meyer] and I were writing songs for the record. Every night we came in with three things to cut and Bhatt just wanted to improvise over whatever we had. Edgar and I knew that the guy who owned the record company was having a phone affair with an operator who worked at L.L. Bean. She was flying in for the sessions; they had never met. He was from Sri Lanka, and she was from Maine. As a joke, Edgar and I were writing all these songs, titling them with different sexual positions. But when we got to the record, he used song titles like Mississippi Mud. He retitled everything. I would love to see the track sheets from that session to see what they actually say on the track sheets.

MF: The Mohan veena that Bhatt plays, is that a sitar?

JD: No. It’s a slide guitar that has sympathetic strings [sympathetic strings or resonance strings are auxiliary strings found on many Indian musical instruments, as well as some Western Baroque instruments, and a variety of folk instruments]. It has like four strings and he uses a kind of D modal tuning.

But he has sympathetic strings that he can also strike. And so, he is playing the role of a sitar, yeah.

MF: It has that drone, right?  

JD: Yeah, the strings are constantly going, and he can strike them to accent something. There are also different rules about the scales and which direction you go. You can’t go back in the same direction. You have to take a different path.

MF: You play the sitar. I think I saw you have a credit on the song, Gone to Fortingall. Am I right? Or is it the Ragini tanpura, which is maybe a digital instrument.

JD: That is just a digital thing. Yeah, the box. It’s a Ragini box. Bhatt didn’t give me that. Debashish Bhattacharya gave me that. Bhattacharya is a musician, educator, and an entrepreneur.

MF: Did he pass away? 

JD: No, he’s still alive. Ali Akbar Khan, who played the sarod, passed away. Derek Trucks, I think, actually met Khan. Khan has had a strong influence on my playing. I know he’s had an influence on Derek’s. Derek is a sarod player now.

MF: I saw Derek play maybe 15 years ago; I don’t remember exactly. He was trading licks with Warren Haynes in The Allman Brothers. He was playing eastern modal type of stuff. Derek went beyond Duane’s [Allman] thing into something very different.

JD: Oh yeah, he’s got it all. He’s got more control than Duane. I mean there wouldn’t be a Derek if there hadn’t been a Duane, that’s for sure. David Lindley, the same thing. You could say the same thing for David’s influence on all lap steel guitar players. Derek has such command of the whole guitar. He just plays in that tuning. All he’s got is a slide. That’s it, that’s his gear. He’s pretty much playing the same open E tuning all the time. He doesn’t really change that much. I don’t think ever.

MF: You know, they are just notes, right? It’s like when Paul McCartney says, ‘It’s just a bunch of notes. There are only 12 of them, you know.”

JD: But the combinations. The Beatles ate up a lot of the combinations we can’t use now because they already did it.

MF: Damn.

JD: Damn, yeah. I found a chord on the dobro the other day that I’d never heard before. I couldn’t believe it. It was just a 7th chord, but it was a different strain. There are always things that are popping out at me. I learn something new every time I play it.

MF: How did you make the transition to producer? Peter Rowan has said that his best albums were produced by you. How did you make that transition?

JD: One record that I loved that I made with Pete was Dust Bowl Children. When I got involved, Pete had kind of started the record and got a couple of songs down. Then I came into it and listened to the songs, and I said, “Pete, you just have to play; you have to quit waiting for the band to show. You’re the band now. You’re free to play whenever you want, and you can fill in any gaps the way you want to.” I’ve always loved everything that Pete brought to the table. I loved it. Break My Heart Again, all that stuff. He just nails it for me. 

I’ve loved Peter Rowan since the first time I saw him at the first Berkshire Mountains festival in 1976. It was a festival on the Rothvoss Farm in Ancramdale that later became Winter Hawk, and then Grey Fox in a different location. That year it stormed and stormed. Bill Monroe was there. And Pete was there; he was playing in Sea Train at the time. Pete showed up in this pink nudie suit. And all his hair was up under his hat so that Monroe wouldn’t see it. He didn’t want to set Monroe off, so he put all his hair up under his hat. I kind of laughed. I was thinking, Monroe’s hair is almost as long as yours.

MF: Monroe had been hanging out with the hippies [imitating Peter’s impersonation of Bill Monroe].

JD: Pete sang with him that night, too. It was all fireworks. Tex Logan was there, too. There was a huge lightning storm and a guy actually got hit by lightning at the festival. They gave that guy a lifetime pass to the festival or something.

MF: And what do you like about producing? Because that’s a big part of what you do now.

JD: I like seeing the big picture of what a record can be, and you know, often I don’t actually get to that picture, but I always push for it. It’s like a puzzle at that point. It’s more like being a painter than a musician. For Molly’s first record, I made this, what we called a fiddle cloud, that was mistaken for a synthesizer in a review. But it was just three different fiddlers: Darol Anger, Christian Sedelmyer, and Jason Carter, all playing sort of in a modal tuning but not playing the same thing, but just creating this fog that I could use anywhere I wanted to. I’ve done things like that before. Where I just built this huge wall of sound and then had the whole track run into it at some point. I think about things like that. We get to scoping and tuning singers if we have to, but boy I love leaving bark on the tree as much as I can. Sometimes you can’t because it doesn’t work with the rest of the record. But I like looking at the whole piece. 

I was talking to somebody else yesterday about still wanting to make a concept record. I’m still after it. I’ll still put it together that way, whether it’s streamed and played and bought. I don’t have control over that. But I can control the first sequence and the space between the cuts.

Things like that are important to me. And how much you can put on one side of a record and how much you can put on the other side, because I came in when we were making records. And now vinyl is coming back, so popular again that it outsold CDs last year.

MF: I love your singing. Why don’t you sing more often?

JD: Well, I just haven’t had a chance yet. I haven’t opened that box up totally. I started singing and really enjoy it, but I haven’t found the songs that I want to sing. I’ve backed up so many great singers. It’s always been my thing to compliment, or try to compliment, the singer. To figure into their substance and what they’re saying and what they’re trying to emote.

MF: Because you touched on it, I’m going to read a quote that Pete gave to me as I was planning this article. “Jerry Douglas is amazing! For a singer there’s no one better at backing; he’ll lift you up and let you ride the groove with impeccable timing. He’ll kick the music along with grace, nonchalance, and a twinkle in his eye! But his soloing should be banned, call the bluegrass police! He’s breaking all the rules! Especially when he does those double-backflip-full gainers at the end! And he’s a long-time road-winding-drive-all-night, ’til you git there yonder-friend of mine!”

JD: Double backflip gainers at the end. That is so Peter Rowan. 

MF: What kind of music do you listen to?

JD: I listen to everything. Especially since my kids are gone from home now, so I don’t have them bringing me things as much.

I listen to Hiss Golden Messenger. I really like Lord Huron. I live in the emo kind of world now. That’s what I like. But I still listen to a lot of old rock’n’roll. And my wife sucked me into NRBQ a long time ago and I can’t go without that. Not a lot of acoustic music. I love Brad Mehldau. I love all the Miles Davis stuff. I’m doing a gig this weekend with saxophonist Bill Evans. And Keith Carlock and Darrell Johnson. And my guitar player, Mike Seal, and I’m going to play lap steel. Elvis Costello is doing one of his charity events here in Nashville. And Billy Gibbons is going to play. It’s called the Musician Treatment Foundation.

MF: Of all the luminaries you’ve played with, who’s the person you get the most excited when you get the call. (Our mutual friend, Frank Serio, raised that question in a conversation I had with him. I had a similar question, but I liked the way Frank phrased it better.) 

JD: James Taylor. He’s had so much to do with my growing up. And then to know him. It’s actually a tie. It’s James Taylor and Eric Clapton. Those two. It’s really cool to meet these guys now. They’re such beautiful people, and they’re trying to give back so much. I don’t know that many entertainers who are as giving, and have had the longevity that those two fellows have. Oh, Paul Simon is another one. Him too. When he calls, I’m there. Marcus Mumford is another one. He’s so good. That keeps me going. Yeah. I want to get one of those calls. I’m going back over to record with Clapton at the end of this month. We’re going to record at Abbey Road. 

Russ Titelman, the producer on that record, was the guy who hooked me up with Clapton. He wanted me to do the song Something You Got with Clapton [from the Traveler album]. And in that key. We cut it in New Orleans, and I think Doctor John is playing piano on it. What could be better?

MF: What do you see as the future of bluegrass, and is that an important question?

JD: It’s an important question because I see it wandering a little bit right now. It’s kind of in a jam band fog a little. Billy Strings kind of pushed it and blew everybody’s idea of what it means to make it bluegrass music. He’s got all the talent. He deserves every bit of it. He’s working hard. It’s hard to do what they’re doing, and keep that up and stay on the road. He’s doing it right where he’s staying, in the same place a couple of nights when he can, and that helps everybody catch their breath and keep moving. 

The bluegrass bands of yesterday that made it, and were the most popular with the whole bluegrass audience, didn’t make it on this level. And success like that helps bluegrass. O Brother, Where Art Thou? helped it. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record came out that helped it. The film Deliverance helped it. Anything that can put banjos and fiddles in the mainstream.

Bluegrass is that kind of music that just won’t go away. Country music can really go away. But bluegrass is going to creep back in on you somehow. It’s a mystery. Bluegrass is a mystery. How do they make the instruments do that? It’s easier to leave this direction and go toward rock music or pop music than it is to come from that to bluegrass. Bluegrass is blood boiling, playing as fast as you can, and trying to be as clean as you can and make every note count, play up every solo like it’s the last one you’ll ever play. We’re not playing Bach. We can improvise.

MF: I love this stuff that Darol Anger is doing with Mr. Sun, and other music like that. There is so much great bluegrass music happening now. 

Among the many great festivals, I love the Suwannee Reunion. The crowd is kind of hybrid: hippies, farmers, lawyers, musicians, and who knows what. You can’t tell what their politics are, if they wear a red hat or a blue hat. It’s just people who come for the music. And there is something beautiful about that. You guys were, for me, the crowning jewel of the event. You’re playing bluegrass, especially as Flatt and Scruggs conceived it, at the highest level. And while you’re paying homage to them, the band owns the performance. What does The Suwannee Reunion mean to you?  

JD: I’ve played there in different configurations and always walk away from the place like I just had the greatest time. The audience is amazing. I love the purple lights on the ground. It’s a mushroom dream. You know, the whole night. It’s so joyous to play there; it’s like a movie scene. 

I live in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s gray outside and the leaves are starting to pop out. But down there in Suwannee right now the moss is hanging and it’s starting to get dark. And the lights are coming on. You’re running around, meeting everybody, you know everybody backstage and we’re all hanging out and everything. Everybody is having a good time. And the crowd is nuts. I love playing that mainstage there in the trees. Playing into the trees is a blast. 

I’ve known Randy and Beth Judy forever. I love going there and always look forward to getting back.

MF: Thank you for taking the time to chat. I really enjoyed the conversation. 

JD: It’s been really nice talking to you.