Alison Krauss comes first. It says so right there on the marquee every night. But outstanding as that bluegrass songbird is, the people who accompany her on stage are not your average bunch of unknown sidemen and road warriors. Krauss' band is special enough to get its own billing as Union Station, and most of the members are known for their solo work as well. Yet there's one member of Krauss' onstage entourage whose star shines brighter than the rest. The "featuring" tag tacked on right before Jerry Douglas' name speaks volumes.
On his own or with Krauss, Jerry Douglas does things on dobro that its inventor never dreamed of. His latest solo record, The Best Kept Secret (Koch), features Krauss and himself going from a disco turn on Greensboro band L.T.D.'s 1977 hit "Back in Love Again" to an insightful interpretation of former Weather Report co-leader/keyboardist Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made."
Douglas' dobro proficiency has elevated the instrument from quirky, folk/blues accompaniment to a conduit for breaking new ground in jazz, classical music, bluegrass and country. "Jazz, so much of it is by ear and so much of it is improvised, and it really relates to bluegrass music, the kind of music I've played all my life," Douglas said by phone recently from a tour stop in Richmond, VA.
Douglas got his start playing in his dad's band at 13 and joined newgrass pioneers the Country Gentlemen at 17. The following year, he joined J.D. Crowe and the New South, playing alongside future neotraditionalists Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice. Douglas left that group in 1976 to form Boone Creek with Skaggs.
In 1979, Douglas released his first solo album, Fluxology, which earned him the nickname Flux. Fluxology demonstrated Douglas' ability to seamlessly apply the dobro to a variety of genres. After a brief reunion with the Country Gentlemen, he played with Buck White and the Down Home Folks until 1985. (White and daughters Sharon and Cheryl became much better known years later when they appeared as The Whites on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.)
Along with his band duties, Douglas had become an in-demand country session man by the 1980s. He's played on more than 1,500 albums with artists as diverse as Ray Charles, James Taylor and Reba McEntire. Douglas has also found work as a producer of artists including Del McCoury, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and the performers on the O Brother soundtrack.
It was 1998 that Douglas joined Krauss and Union Station. He's since maintained his solo career on the side and has cut back on his session work. "I'm not gonna come and play on your 2 o'clock or your 10 o'clock or your 6 o'clock session unless it's something I really want to do," he says. "I just don't think the current state of country music is anything I want to be as involved in as I used to be."
Since sidelining his country career, Douglas' involvement in bluegrass has garnered him plenty of acclaim. Just after joining Union Station, he was approached by O Brother soundtrack producer/guitarist T-Bone Burnett to help find suitable musicians for the project. Douglas ended up performing on three tracks and appearing briefly in the movie. In 2001, he picked up three Grammys, two for his work with Krauss and one for best instrumental performance with Earl Scruggs. Douglas also won the first-ever Americana Music Award for instrumentalist of the year. He got five Grammy acknowledgements for his work on Down from the Mountain: Live Concert Performances by the Artists & Musicians of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Aside from ongoing Grammy nods with Krauss, Douglas was nominated for the song "Who's Your Uncle?" from Secret.
If copious Grammy accolades falling into twang categories don't seem to jibe with Douglas' decision to back away from country, in what genre are we to look for his music these days? "That's the problem with that," he says with a laugh. "There's no real name for it, and that gives the people in the record stores a big headache."
Like such funk- and jazz-loving new grassers as Sam Bush and Victor Wooten, Douglas finds the lines so blurred among music genres that it's uncertain whether he's a bluegrass musician or a jazz musician. "Country is right there in the middle somewhere. I do understand what I am, but it doesn't translate into a specific record bin."
In addition to testing the outside limits of the dobro, Douglas is busy testing its insides as well: "It's such a new instrument ... when you compare it with guitars, violins, any kind of instruments," he says. "It was really just born in 1928, so it's got a long ways to go before anybody figures out how far you can go with it."
The Gibson model that bears Douglas' name was constructed with a good deal of his input. The sound, he says, can be directed, instead of letting it have its way. "You can maneuver it. It's like water -- it reflects, like, light."
All that maneuvering, reflecting and testing is pretty much in the background when Douglas plays with Krauss and Union Station. But that doesn't mean his insatiable yen for sonic adventure doesn't shine through in Krauss' mostly traditional sound. "There are always gonna be traditional forms of a given music, but there [are] always gonna be people out there pushing the envelope, too," Douglas says. "And I just prefer to be one of those."
Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas plays Ovens Auditorium on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 8pm. Tickets are $38.50 to $44.50. See www.ticketmaster.com for more info.