Jerry Douglas' Tribute To Bluegrass Legends Lester Flatt And Earl Scruggs

Jun 30, 2015
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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Jerry Douglas is one of the greatest instrumentalists to come out of bluegrass music. If you don't recognize his name, you might not know much about the instrument he plays, either - the dobro. But that's not for any lack of work on Douglas' part. He's appeared on over 1,600 albums. He's won 14 Grammys, been the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year three times and received a National Heritage Fellowship for the NEA. He's also a featured musician in Allison Krauss' band.

Jerry Douglas' new album, which he also produced, is a tribute to the influential bluegrass band the Foggy Mountain Boys, led by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That's the band that got Douglas into playing bluegrass. His new album is called "The Earls Of Leicester." Get it? Earls as in Earl Scruggs, Leicester as in Lester Flatt? So let's start with a track. This is "Some Old Day," with Tim O'Brien and Shawn Camp on vocals. Jerry Douglas' dobro was the first instrument you'll hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OLD DAY")

THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) I've been working all in the rain, tied to a dirty old ball and chain. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some sweet day, they'll turn me loose from this dirty old calaboose. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some old day - you wait for me and pray. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some sweet day, they'll turn me loose from this dirty old calaboose. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day.

GROSS: That's "Some Old Day" from Jerry Douglas's new album, "The Earls Of Leicester." Douglas brought his dobro to the studio and is going to demonstrate some the unique qualities of the instrument. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Sam, when you were preparing to interview Jerry Douglas, I know you were listening both to his new album and to the versions of the same songs as done by Flatt and Scruggs. And you found something surprising.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Yeah, well, the interesting thing about Jerry Douglas is that he grew up in this generation - the '70s and '80s - that played bluegrass, but took it in a new direction. So they added a lot of jazz elements. There was more improvisation, different kinds of rhythm. So what I was really surprised by in this new album was how closely the recordings stuck to the original ones - the original ones by Flatt and Scruggs.

I was listening to this one song, "I'll Go Stepping, Too," and the arrangement was exactly the same. The - some of the souls (ph) were exactly the same. The tempo was the same. So just for fun, what I tried to do was I played a little bit of the Flatt and Scruggs version of "I'll Go Stepping, Too." And on top of that, I brought in the banjo part from Jerry Douglas', faded out Flatt and Scruggs and then stayed with Jerry Douglas' version. And it's pretty amazing because you can hear that they match up almost seamlessly.

GROSS: So is it going to sound weird when the Jerry Douglas version is mixed right on top of the Flatt and Scruggs version?

BRIGER: It's a little weird because Jerry Douglas told me that the Foggy Mountain Boys, Flatt and Scruggs' band - they'd tune their instruments, like, a half-step above normal tuning - standard tuning. And so we're going to get a few seconds of two banjos playing the exact same part, out of tune, and I've spared you that.

GROSS: Out of tune with each other.

BRIGER: Out of tune with each other. So there's just a little bit of that 'cause it could drive you crazy.

GROSS: Well, thanks for sparing us.

BRIGER: You're welcome.

GROSS: This is going to be fun.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Yeah.

GROSS: So here's Sam's mix, and then we'll hear his interview with Jerry Douglas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL GO STEPPING, TOO")

FOGGY MOUNTAIN BOYS: (Singing) Yes, I'll go stepping, too, my honey. I'll go stepping, too. I'll locked the door, put out the cat, and I'll go stepping, too.

THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) Yes, I'll go stepping, too, my honey. I'll go stepping, too. I'll lock the door, put out the cat, and I'll go stepping, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BRIGER: Jerry Douglas, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JERRY DOUGLAS: Thank you very much, Sam. I've been looking forward to this for a long time.

BRIGER: Did you have to go back and listen again to all those songs? Or did you guys - did the band just really know these recordings inside out and - just able to go with it in the studio?

DOUGLAS: We went back and listened to them. We went back and listened to them. We had the whole collection of all those songs with us in the studio so we could refer to them. But I was looking at my calendar today, and the first time - the first time that we rehearsed this band was, like, May the 21st in 2013. And I remember everybody coming into my studio that night and sitting down.

And the first time we played through a song probably was - might've been "I'll Go Stepping, Too" - something like that. The hair went up on my arms. I mean, it was so close to the original thing, and I just knew this is it. This is it. The time's right. These are the people. And, you know, it just - finding Lester Flatt was the hardest thing for me. That voice, you know - that voice - and because Lester Flatt was a crooner of his time. You know, he was like the Bing Crosby of mountain music.

BRIGER: I'd like you to tell us a little bit about your instrument, the dobro. Can you describe it for listeners who may not be familiar with it?

DOUGLAS: Sure. A dobro guitar is actually a copyrighted name. The name is shortened from Dopyera brothers - dobro. And that they were Czechoslovakian immigrants around the 19 - in the early 1920s. And they came over, and they were cabinetmakers and fiddle makers. And they saw the war coming, and they were going - metal was going to be in short supply, so they decided to create a wooden version of that guitar, but still maintaining the steels cover plate on the top that looks sort of like a hubcap of a guitar. So they created this thing, and at that time, there was - when they started in about 1926, 1927 when there was a Hawaiian music craze going on here in the United States. I don't know why.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: But people were playing, and guys were going door to door, selling these little, cheap, wooden guitars, you know, with the strings raised up. And you play this guitar with a metal slide, and you hold the guitar on your lap.

BRIGER: With the face facing upward.

DOUGLAS: Well, it's facing up, and you're playing, so you're looking down on the - on the guitar itself - you know, the face of the guitar. And you're playing - in your left hand, you have a metal slide. And on your right hand, you have a couple of picks - a thumb pick and one finger pick, you know, or no picks at all - just your fingers. But I'll give you a little idea of what the Hawaiian guys were...

BRIGER: Oh, that'd be great.

DOUGLAS: ...Were doing right about that time. And it was a - it was a - more of an island feel. It was the...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOBRO GUITAR MUSIC)

DOUGLAS: That kind of thing.

BRIGER: Right. Well, I think we should explain that there's this - inside the guitar, there's an aluminum cone...

DOUGLAS: That's right.

BRIGER: ...That works like a speaker that projects the sound of the strings outward, so it's...

DOUGLAS: It looks just like a speaker in an amp or in your things you listen to at home - any speakers that you listen to. It looks like that, only it's made of spun aluminum. And there's a diaphragm the goes across, and the strings vibrate, and that sends the sound right back out pretty fast. So it's a different kind of animal. It's not - it's a guitar-shaped - it's a guitar. It's basically a guitar, but it has these - this other contraption in it that makes it sound different. It has a little more of a metallic sound, but there are a lot of voices that you can bring out of one of these guitars.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOBRO GUITAR MUSIC)

BRIGER: There. That sounds great.

DOUGLAS: There are a lot of things you can do with this kind of guitar.

BRIGER: Right. Now, Josh Graves was - really introduced dobro to bluegrass music. And can you tell us just a little bit about who Josh Graves was?

DOUGLAS: Josh Graves was a dobro player with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. And he was really the first person to use a three-fingered roll - use all three figures to play the dobro guitar and to be able to play fast, to be able to keep up with Earl Scruggs, who was, you know, the preeminent banjo player of his time. And Josh Graves was also - came from a blues background in - from east Tennessee. He learned to play from some old gentleman back there that left an impression on him. And he was the first guy to really catch my ear. You know, there were other dobro players here in Nashville who played on the radio and the Grand Ole Opry, but they didn't get my - they didn't get my attention like Josh Graves did.

BRIGER: Although you really were first influenced by Josh Graves, you definitely have your own style, which is a more modern style. But can you give us an example of, like, a classic Josh Graves break on a song, and then how you might approach the same break in your own style?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, Josh Graves - well, I'll play a song. There's a song here called "Randy Lynn Rag" that Earl Strom Scruggs cut and wrote and recorded. And Josh played, you know, this wonderful solo on it that when we play it now in "The Earls Of Leicester," I'll play it exactly like he did. I don't play it like I would, but he played it. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANDY LYNN RAG")

DOUGLAS: (Laughter) There's more of a - I probably added more notes to it and a little more drive, just because I've had more things to listen to.

BRIGER: Right.

DOUGLAS: You know, I've had other fiddle players and banjo players and electric guitar players, you know, and, you know, a lot of things that I've had to listen to that Josh didn't have.

BRIGER: Right, right.

DOUGLAS: That's how we form our - that's how we form our encyclopedia of dobro licks.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album is called "The Earls of Leicester," which is also the name of his band. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Brigger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album, with his band The Earls of Leicester, pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

BRIGER: So, Jerry Douglas, you grew up in Warren, Ohio, a steel town in the northeast of the state. Was there much bluegrass music up there?

DOUGLAS: There was some bluegrass music there because, you know, a lot of the workers that came up to northeastern Ohio where I grew up came from the South and they brought their music with them. My father had a band that was made up of all people from West Virginia and the guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass, and they were great. You know, they were good enough, I think, they could've, you know, gone on the road and, you know, starved to death like any other bluegrass band would've in the '60s. But they had families and they had jobs, you know, they had good jobs you and retirements and things like that, so they stayed close to home. And there were several other bands like that around that part of northeastern Ohio, you know, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.

BRIGER: And your dad worked in the steel mill.

DOUGLAS: He did. He worked 36 years in a steel mill before he retired, yeah.

BRIGER: Did your dad want you to play dobro 'cause he didn't have a dobro player in his band?

DOUGLAS: (Laughter) No, he didn't have anything to do with me choosing the dobro guitar. I just - I really loved the sound of it the first time I ever heard it. And then when I saw it on an album cover, I really, really wanted to play it. It was very cool looking, you know, because it comes from the '20s. It has a real Art Deco kind of look to it and the cover plate, especially, that part of the guitar. But he didn't - you know, he didn't really have anything to do with it. He was really happy when I did because he didn't have one, but the guy that played the banjo in his bluegrass band was very helpful to me. They didn't go, you know, go away kid, you know?

BRIGER: Right.

DOUGLAS: You know, come back when you know how to play that thing or anything like that. They were really helpful to me and that's another thing that I had going for me. You know, I had some guys who were - saw that I did have some - you know, I could - maybe I could make something out of myself with this guitar. And so they helped me.

BRIGER: Well, it must've been hard. I mean, there's not a lot of dobro players now. There must have been even less than.

DOUGLAS: Oh, no, I would go to a music store and ask them if they had any dobros, and they had no idea what I was talking about.

BRIGER: Yeah.

DOUGLAS: No idea at all. And so finally I found a brochure in the '60s - in the mid-'60s - and took one - took it to the - to a music store and they ordered one for me. And that was the first real dobro that I had. Before then it was all guitars with raised strings, you know, with the strings raised up at the nut up here at the top of the guitar neck and back here at the bridge. But my first guitar was Sears and Roebuck guitar that wasn't a very good guitar in the first place, and the hot sun got to it one day and it folded up (laughter).

BRIGER: Yeah, I heard it exploded.

DOUGLAS: It really did. I opened - it was in the case and it was on top of all of our other guitars. And I opened one of the latch on the case and it just slammed together. Yeah, it really did explode. It was a bad sound.

BRIGER: I think you hid the fact that you played bluegrass from people at your school because you thought classmates wouldn't think it was very cool.

DOUGLAS: (Laughter) Yeah, I didn't tell anybody that I was a musician until I was a senior in high school. Some of the guys found out that - what I was doing on Saturday nights. And they found out that I was playing in a bar called the Grizzly Bear Saloon that was right across the street from Alcan where all these guys would come out, you know, at 9 o'clock or whenever they got off their shifts and would pour into this beer joint. And I was up there playing with my dad's band.

I was about 13-14 when I started, but, you know, when I was 17 or 18, everybody in my class kind of found out, and a few of them tried to get in and a few of them did get in. It was kind of a mess, but word got out that I was a musician and I remember the band director coming to me like, why didn't you tell me you were a musician, you know? Why couldn't you play? And I said, well, I don't play the same thing that you guys are playing. It's a different kind of music. I don't know if I could perform as well there.

But, yeah, it wasn't - it just wasn't cool, you know? Or I thought it wasn't and they all thought it was. They all really - when they found out, they thought it was the greatest and made my easing out of town a lot easier (laughter) 'cause I graduated from high school, turned 18 and left home all in the same weekend and moved to Washington, D.C., and never really went back there to live again.

BRIGER: Right, you started playing with the Country Gentlemen.

DOUGLAS: That's right. The Country Gentlemen were my father's favorite band. And it just happened that we were playing a festival up there in Ohio and the Country Gentlemen were the big act on that festival. And I remember looking out while I was playing with my dad's band and I could see one of the guys - Bill Emerson, the banjo player for the Country Gentlemen - in one place and I looked over here to my left and I see Doyle Lawson, another guy in the band. And I look to my right and I see Charlie Waller. It's like they were watching me, scouting me, like a baseball player or something. And right after that - right after the show they came up and asked me if I would go out on the road with them that summer. I mean, leave from there and I said no, you know, I really - I really don't want to go right now. Maybe I'll go next year. And that was when I was 15, I suppose. And so between my junior and senior years of high school I did go out on the road with them and I thought this is it. I've died and gone to heaven. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen to me. I don't need another job forever. This is it. You know, I'm riding on a bus with a band. But it was primitive, man. It was so primitive.

I remember our TV on the bus was a little black and white, you know, like, nine-inch screen held by a strapping - strapping wire up in the corner of the bus and you couldn't hear it. You could barely see it and - but that was the big time, you know? That's how it was back then, and then I joined the band permanently after I graduated from high school.

BRIGER: Was there a member of the band that was, like, in charge of supervising you, like, making sure you didn't wander off?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, sort of. They didn't really - you know, there was no iron fist, but I learned a lot on the road that first summer. I really learned a lot by just being on my own. But, yeah, there was the bass player in the band - Bill Yates. I stayed at his house and he was great to me. He would go out and, you know, he'd buy, you know, all the food. He never asked me to pay for anything and I stayed at his house. It was pretty exciting for me. I loved it. And he took care of me. And I remember one time that we were at a festival in Pennsylvania somewhere down in coal country and everybody had gotten paid that day and we - our bus was down by the stage and some fellow pulled out a great big gun and fired it in the air. And Bill said get in the bus. I got in the bus, and we just left.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: That was a wise move.

DOUGLAS: He got us out - all out of there right then. He didn't wait. We didn't play. Nothing happened. We didn't get paid. We just left.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: Something - there was going to be trouble.

BRIGER: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album is called "The Earls Of Leicester," which also the name of his band. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album with his band the Earls of Leicester pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

BRIGER: You play, usually, standing up and you have this strap across your shoulders. It's a pretty heavy instrument. There's a lot of hardware in there. Do you ever have to worry about back problems, or do you ever worry about, like, repetitive motion problems?

DOUGLAS: I did go through a period where I did have some pretty serious bouts with tendinitis, but they moved around, you know? It seems like you change your form and you change your - just all of the things - the repetition, and you change - you rely on different parts of your arms and hands to take up - to keep it from being repetitious. I had problems in my right shoulder. Then suddenly that went away and I had - the problem cropped-up in my left elbow of all places. But I haven't had anything like that - knock on wood - in a long, long time. I did tear my rotator cuff, but it was - the only time that that didn't bother me was when I was playing. I think that was just from years of throwing cases and suitcases under buses and airplanes, you know, and traveling on air - you know, just the traveling part, wear and tear. But, you know, really, playing the instrument is the only time when I don't have any pain anywhere (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, Jerry Douglas, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much for being on the show.

DOUGLAS: It's my pleasure. It was great talking to you, and I hope we can do this again sometime.

BRIGER: I would love that. Do you mind playing something on the way out?

DOUGLAS: Sure. I'm going to play a little song for you. This is a song that's (playing dobro) - this is a song - this is a Josh Graves number, and he played it in the late '50s. He wrote this in the late '50s, and Flatt and Scruggs did it on the Opry and it was right during the rockabilly - when rockabilly was starting to come up, so everybody was trying to jump on the train. And Josh wrote this little number, and they played it on the Opry and it caused quite a stir. (Playing dobro). It's called "Foggy Mountain Rock."

DOUGLAS: (Playing "Foggy Mountain Rock" on dobro).

GROSS: Jerry Douglas spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Douglas's new album is called, "The Earls Of Leicester," which is also the name of his band. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOPE")

SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Malcolm) I could write about the typical I'm from a poor, crime-filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don't know my dad, blah, blah. It's cliche.

GROSS: That's a clip from the new film comedy, "Dope," about an African-American high school senior who's deep into '90s hip-hop, plays in a punk band, skateboards and is very smart which makes him and his two best friends geeks and outcasts in their predominantly-black high school. Pharrell Williams wrote new songs for the movie. I'll talk with the film's writer and director, Rick Famuyiwa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.