Session Superstar

Dobro legend Jerry Douglas is one of the busiest, most honored musicians you've never heard of

The hardest-working man in showbiz? Forget the late James Brown.

With nearly 2,000 appearances on vinyl, CDs and soundtracks, more than 100 different producer credits, a touring band of his own, a side project with Sam Bush and Béla Fleck, and, oh yeah, 10 years so far as the featured soloist with Alison Krauss and Union Station (AKUS), Dobro player extraordinaire Jerry Douglas must have some kind of calendar/day planner.

"Actually, when I joined AKUS, I had to put a lot of the session work on the backburner. Still, there are some things I can't pass up," he said during a recent phone interview, "like working with (jazz and fusion greats) Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny," as he did recently. "That seemed like a special occasion, and I'd kick myself if I didn't say yes."

Indeed, his discography reads like a who's-who of what is sometimes referred to as newgrass, jazz-grass or progressive country music. "They used to call it 'new acoustic,' but that was kind of stupid," he said commenting on the age-old conundrum of marketing. "Sometimes, they like to classify it as 'bluegrass/splinter.' We really don't know what to call it, except it's just 'good music.'"

Throughout his career, Douglas has played the role of an ultimate Nashville session player. But unless you're really tuned in to his corner of the music world, it's a good bet you've never heard of this guy, who has quietly gone about his business while racking up a full dozen Grammy awards. (That's 12 awards, not nominations.)

"Of course, you're in shock about (getting) any of them," he said. "For O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it was a bit of a surprise how they really embraced that record." Douglas was featured throughout that soundtrack. But it was the award for one of his own compositions--the instrumental "Unionhouse Branch," with AKUS, which won Best Country Instrumental Performance--of which he's most proud. "Any time you're recognized for something you've actually created, it's a great honor."

Douglas admitted it's not every kid's dream to grow up and be a great Dobro player. (The Dobro is similar to a National steel guitar. Like the National, it's played with a slide.) "But my father was a guitar player and always had a bluegrass band. I grew up listening to Flatt and Scruggs on the radio with live broadcasts from Nashville. And when we couldn't get the radio in, we'd put a record on." Living in Ohio, however, Douglas could also listen to the rock 'n' roll stations from Cleveland at night, and he credited this influence for helping to shape his out-of-the-box approach to bluegrass.

Aside from his regular gig with AKUS and the session work, Douglas expressed the greatest reverence for his connection with Strength in Numbers, the aforementioned side project with Bush, Fleck, Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer. "Béla and Sam are my favorite musicians. I can listen to them at any time and marvel at what they do. They are masters ... everyone else is a version of them." This year in June, as in years past, they will meet up at the holy grail of acoustic festivals, Telluride. "When we're on stage, it's hardly fair to the audience. ... We're amusing ourselves so much, we're just hoping they will stay with us."

Another side project Douglas has taken the lead in is something called the Transatlantic Sessions. This is an ambitious collaboration that brings American musicians together with British counterparts. "The idea is to bring musicians, singers and songwriters from the U.S.A. and U.K. to one place. We film for two weeks in a castle or a manor, and it's great, because everyone checks their egos at the door." Initially filmed as a BBC series, Transatlantic has produced two DVDs, with another one in the works. A handful of CDs from the project has been released as well.

Currently on break from AKUS, Douglas is fronting his own band. Featuring all original material, "These are tunes I've recorded, and this is the only chance I get to play them." In the band's early stages, three years ago, they played only a handful of shows. Now they are up to 60 dates a year, with last year's tour opening for Paul Simon. Douglas promised a big, full sound, including drums, something he acknowledged is not always welcomed in traditional bluegrass circles.

But then anything traditional is not really in the Jerry Douglas vocabulary, musical or otherwise.

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