In Nashville, Jerry Douglas is the guy, the go-to player for stylized dobro licks and magic. By now, he’s a nine-time Grammy award winner and a staple in the popular Alison Krauss & Union Station. But, even though Douglas is as established as any Music City musician his age, he’s still learning. In fact, last year he finally decided it was time to take up music theory.
“I decided that I was going to learn how to read music, be able to write music and write things down,” says Douglas, 51, speaking from a truck stop in Idaho, taking a bus break on his summer tour route. “I’ve got a lady who lives across the street from me who’s a music teacher at an elementary school. I figured she was just perfect to teach me.”
Such a humble confession isn’t as surprising as it seems. Essentially, Douglas pulled himself up by the bootstraps, mastering the dobro–an acoustic resonator guitar with raised strings–with no formal training as a child. Instead, he grew up in a “bluegrass household,” absorbing the musical knowledge of his father’s musician friends when they came over for jam sessions at his childhood home in Columbus, Ohio.
“I had the good fortune to be around live music all the time, so I could actually stop ’em and ask ’em what they were doing,” he says. “They didn’t explain it to me in any kind of formal terms, but that was better than nothing.”
Douglas still employs that hands-on learning he experienced as a small child, constructing his own dobro wizardry in new contexts with collaborators like Bela Fleck, Paul Simon, Ray Charles and Emmylou Harris. “You’re naturally influenced by musicians that you play with, you sort of take them in and add that to your musical bank account,” he says.
Those lessons are front and center on Douglas’ new solo album, The Best Kept Secret, where he explores a saucy funk jam with Krauss, dirty rock riffs with Derek Trucks and swampy blues with John Fogerty, constantly pushing his instrument into new frontiers. “If you don’t stretch, if you don’t try to evolve, you’ll stay in your own hometown,” he says. “You’ll never ever learn anything.”
Clearly, Douglas isn’t leaving the classroom anytime soon, and he’s just fine with that.
Jerry Douglas plays the Cat’s Cradle with Donna Hughes on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $25 on the day of the show.