Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Douglas works his dobro mojo with bluegrass supergroup

He joins Béla Fleck & Co. at The Clyde on Nov. 28


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published November 17, 2021

Renowned dobro player and lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas has appeared on more than 2,000 albums.

That’s Douglas’ guess. There has been no official tally, at least not recently.

A list of the people with whom he has not performed would be a lot shorter than a list of the people with whom he has performed.

For example, he has not performed with Julio Iglesias, Weird Al Yankovic, or Pat Boone.

Despite decades’ worth of consummate musicianship, Douglas admits that he still gets scared in advance of entering a new musical situation.

“I have been doing this for 50 years, but every time I am on my way to the studio, I am a nervous wreck,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “When I walk in the room, it all goes away, and I go to work.

Douglas will perform with a supergroup of bluegrass superstars including Béla Fleck on Nov. 28 at the Clyde Theatre.

Douglas got his love of bluegrass from his dad, who was in a band. He got his love of the dobro from a musician named Josh Graves.

“Josh Graves was playing with Flatt and Scruggs, and he was a guy who really inspired me,” he said. “Josh Graves… his instrument has so many capabilities. He’s a chameleon. That’s been my life: To find a way to play every kind of music.”

‘Dawg Music’ Emerges

In the mid-1970s, Douglas was performing with banjoist J.D. Crowe when a new music began to emerge.

Mandolinist David Grisman started performing a fusion of bluegrass, folk, and jazz that he called “Dawg Music” and bluegrass would never be the same.

“It was a musical renaissance going on right about that time,” Douglas said. “And I was lucky to be there. Hanging with Grisman and listening to those guys rehearse that music before anyone in the world had heard it. I knew it was different. I knew it was going to be an explosion.”

Fleck’s innovations grew out of Grisman’s, Douglas said.

Douglas first performed with Fleck on the latter’s 1979 cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” Years before, Douglas had fallen in love with Corea’s music and with that of jazz fusion group Weather Report — but falling in love is a long way from mastering.

“I had no idea how to play ‘Spain,’” he said. “I feel like I am still learning it. Still learning how to find my way in and out of it. Still learning the techniques and the little factors and clues that you put on top of it to make it shine a little more.”

A Remarkable Nashville Neighborhood

For a time, Douglas and Fleck lived on the same street in Nashville.

“It was a musical neighborhood,” he said. “Mark O’Connor lived on the same street. Edgar (Meyer) lived just down the street. We could have a party and play and drink too much and walk home.”

Meyer left his bass at Douglas’ house once.

“I woke up the next morning and my son Patrick, who was two or three at the time, was sitting on it,” he said. “I had given him a little plastic, tubing slide because he’d been wanting to play his little ukulele like a dobro. And my wife and I awoke to this sound of something going, ‘Oop. Oop.’”

Patrick was, of course, playing Meyer’s bass with his plastic slide.

“I said, ‘Patrick, get off the bass really slow,’” Douglas said. “That thing was a 1769. It was worth more than our house.”

So many musicians lived in this neighborhood that a resident had to work to avoid being pulled into a jam session.

“There were days when I thought, ‘Ahh, I don’t want to jam today. I’m not going to look this person in the eye,’” Douglas said.

Musicians would wander over to Douglas’ yard and talk music the way other neighbors talk about noise ordinances.

The tour that Douglas is now on with Fleck, Meyer, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz is called My Bluegrass Heart, after the album of the same name. My Bluegrass Heart is meant to evoke Corea’s 1976 release “My Spanish Heart.”

Fleck’s album is the third in a series featuring this same group of musicians that began in 1988 with Drive and continued in 1999 with Tales from the Acoustic Planet Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions.

Douglas was at the Clyde Theatre less than a week ago backing up John Hiatt.

In an interview with Whatzup, Hiatt shared this Douglas anecdote: “He’s been bemoaning the fact that Bela’s songs are a lot more complicated than mine. We were doing a soundcheck and he said, ‘How the hell am I going to remember all these Bela tunes when we go out?’”

Douglas laughed when he heard this quote.

Asked if he had finally managed to master Fleck’s tunes, Douglas said, “I guess we’re going to find that out.”

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