Jerry Douglas—They Call Him Flux
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
November 1981, Volume 16, Number 5
According to Webster’s: FLUX —to become fluid; a substance used to promote fusion.
Put Jerry Douglas and his Dobro into a band—and you know how he got his nickname. Constantly complementing vocals and other soloists, or ripping off one of the dazzling breaks he is known for, Jerry is fast bringing the Dobro into the spotlight of the world—where it has seldom been seen before.
Jerry was born 24 years ago in Warren, Ohio, to bluegrass music loving John and Autha Douglas. As his dad played guitar in The West Virginia Travelers (and still does today), Jerry heard bluegrass music from his earliest recollections. “I would sit in with dad during The West Virginia Travelers’ practice and play a little blonde mandolin. That never did work too good, so I tried a ‘Mr. Banjo’ mom had bought me and a Sears guitar. I could always play a little, but it just seemed all the same to me.”
This went on for a couple of years until Jerry was 8. It was at this time, 1963, that the Flatt and Scruggs show was in a neighboring city, Youngstown, and John and Autha took young Jerry to see the show. “It was the first time I saw a Dobro played. Josh Graves and Bashful Brother Oswald on the same show—it just knocked me out! I told dad then and there I wanted to learn to play a Dobro!”
Needless to say, Jerry’s guitar was quickly given a conversion job to set it up like a Dobro. Jerry says he still laughs about it to this day. “Dad had had a lap steel when he was in the Navy, so he set my guitar up and taught me to tune in G. I had a heck of a time at first, so now if someone comes up to me and wants advice on playing the Dobro the first thing I tell them is learn to tune the darned thing! After that, I just sat down with my Josh Graves records and tried to figure out how he was playing what he did.”
After a couple of years learning and practicing (1965), John felt Jerry was serious enough about the instrument, so he ordered him a genuine Dobro. Two years later, Jerry was playing regularly with The West Virginia Travelers around the Warren area. All the practice Jerry had done now began to pay off. He developed his fluid style and solved volume problems during this time, and really began to feel that playing the Dobro was becoming ‘second instinct’ to him. Jerry also enjoyed jamming at festivals his dad took him to, with everyone he could. He even got to play with Josh Graves himself at one festival. “We were sitting around one evening at a festival in Ottawa, Ohio, and who should come in but Josh Graves.
“Needless to say I was in awe—but somehow managed to keep on playing—and then Josh joined in. We played for quite a while and the dew was starting to get pretty heavy and I didn’t want to get my new Dobro wet, so, I put it away and just started to watch. Next thing you know, someone put another Dobro in my hands, and we jammed ‘till the wee hours. I learned quite a bit that night!”
Then came 1970. Jerry was 15 and playing with The West Virginia Travelers at a bluegrass festival at Willow Lake Park in Champion, Ohio. The Country Gentlemen were also appearing there and immediately noticed Jerry’s playing and invited him to play with them during their sets. The Country Gentlemen were so impressed that they asked Jerry to join the group on the spot. But, because of his age and schooling to finish, Jerry had to decline. However, Jerry did play with the Country Gentlemen during the summer of 1973 and met Ricky Skaggs, who was playing fiddle with the band at the time, and the two became fast friends. Then, with the summer over, Jerry went back to school to complete his senior year.
In 1974, with his schooling over, Jerry accepted the Country Gentlemen’s persistent requests and joined the band. It was during this tour that Jerry met his wife-to-be, Vickie, at a festival the Country Gentlemen were playing in Oklahoma. After a few months touring with the Country Gentlemen, Jerry accepted an offer with J.D. Crowe and The New South, so he and Vickie packed up and moved to Kentucky.
Also with Crowe at this time was Jerry’s friend Ricky Skaggs and guitar wizard Tony Rice. After a few months playing with Crowe’s band, Tony left for San Francisco, and Jerry and Ricky left to form their own group—Boone Creek. The group was highly successful and toured extensively but for various reasons disbanded in 1978.
Jerry then thought: “Studio work would be nice—no touring and regular hours —home every night.” Well, it didn’t take long for that to become old hat. “I missed the touring and the audiences, so, after about four months I called up the Country Gentlemen and they said come on back —so, there I was again.”
Jerry’s studio time was not wasted though, as he put together his first solo album “Fluxology” for Rounder Records. “I gathered quite a few of my friends together for that album. Ricky (Skaggs), Tony (Rice), Buck White, Jack Hicks, Todd Phillips, and J.D. Crowe. Then on January 1st, 1979, I joined Buck White and the Down Home Folks, and I’ve continued with them to this day touring all over the world. I’m not ‘hard bound’ by the band and can record solo or play with anyone I like. I guess you could say that I’m content.”
When I asked Jerry what he wanted to do in the future he replied: “What I’m doing now. I love bluegrass, but there are so many other things to explore. I recently jammed with Stephane Grappelli—a jazz legend on the violin. Me and my Dobro! I also like the stuff David Grisman is doing. See what I mean? There is so much around—willing to accept new ideas into what’s already been done. Don’t be afraid to mix. There will always be bluegrass—and I’ll always love it—but I don’t want to be ‘labeled’ strictly for one type of music. I have a couple of albums in the works now—another for Rounder, then ‘Tennessee Fluxedo’ for Sugar Hill. Each one will be different and show what can be done with new and old material.”
Jerry plans no instruction books or teaching in the future, but would like to see more Dobro players. “It’s a whole new field that has opened up. I can play with Emmylou Harris one day, Grappelli the next, Grisman the next, and back to Buck White, and love every minute of it! There is no limit for new Dobro players and new ideas. My only regret is that I can’t read music—but it has never hampered me so far—I would just like to be able to read music and apply it to the Dobro.”
Jerry now uses a Dobro built by Rudy Jones on the road, and a 1930 — ? “It has no serial number”—Dobro that he uses for work in the studio. GHS String Company now has a ‘Jerry Douglas’ set of strings for the Dobro and he uses them exclusively. For picking, Jerry uses National plastic thumbpicks, heavy gauge Dunlop metal fingerpicks, and a Stevens bar for the slide. All this can help anyone play Dobro—but Jerry’s intensity is what makes it work. He has even developed a new type capo for use with the Dobro that he may seek a patent on in the very near future, but for now all he wants to do is play.
As Jerry said at least 5 times during the interview “You can’t say enough about practicing.” I can’t but you did!
Partial Jerry Douglas Discography:
Solo: Fluxology Rounder Records
With The Country Gentlemen: Remembrances and Forecasts
With J.D. Crowe: The New South, Holiday in Japan (live) (Rounder) With Boone Creek: Boone Creek (Rounder)
One Way Track (Sugar Hill)
With Tony Rice: California Autumn (Rebel)
With Ricky Skaggs: That’s It (Rebel)
Sweet Temptation (Sugar Hill)
With David Grisman: The David Grisman Rounder Album (Rounder)
With P.T. Gazell: Pace Yourself (Sugar Hill)
With Jimmy Murphy. Electricity (Sugar Hill)
With Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver: Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
With Buck White: That Down Home Feeling (Ridge Runner)
Live In Japan
More Pretty Girls Than One (Sugar Hill)
With Emmylou Harris: Roses In The Snow (Warner Brothers) With Alan Munde: The Banjo Kid Rides Again (Ridge Runner) With Carl Jackson: Banjo Man, Tribute to Earl Scruggs (Sugar Hill) With Doyle Lawson: Tennessee Dream (County)