"I've reached a point in my life where I'm not afraid to try anything," states Jerry Douglas. "That's what this record's about."
That fearlessness is manifested in spades on Traveler, the artist's 14th solo release and his first in three years. The 11-song album finds the world-renowned Dobro master—described as "the Muhammad Ali of the Dobro" by James Taylor and "my favorite musician" by John Fogerty—defying expectations and ignoring genre restrictions to deliver his most stylistically expansive, personally-charged effort to date.
Recorded in New Orleans, New York, Montreal and Banbury, England as well as in Douglas' homebase of Nashville, Traveler finds the 13-time Grammy winner and three-time Country Music Association Musician of the Year delivering an audaciously eclectic set that teams him with such world-class talents (and avowed Douglas admirers) as Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Keb' Mo', Marc Cohn, Dr. John, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jon Cleary, David Torkanowsky, Viktor Krauss and Omar Hakim, as well as Alison Krauss and Union Station, of which Douglas has been a member since 1998.
Traveler's title reflects the broad range of musical ground that it traverses, and the many miles that Douglas and producer Russ Titelman covered in order to capture the album's diverse array of performances. Their visit to New Orleans, for instance, yielded four memorable tracks, including horn-laden readings of the R&B standards "Something You Got" (featuring Clapton on vocals and guitar and Dr. John on piano) and "High Blood Pressure" (with vocals by Keb' Mo'). Douglas' acoustic roots are showcased on his Nashville-recorded instrumental originals "Duke and Cookie" and "King Silkie," and on the haunting "Frozen Fields," on which he's accompanied by the vocal and instrumental talents of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Traveler's numerous highlights also include Douglas' heartfelt reworkings of a pair of Paul Simon classics: "American Tune," included here in an affecting solo Dobro medley with Chick Corea's "Spain"; and an epic yet intimate reinterpretation of "The Boxer," recorded in England with U.K. folk-rockers Mumford & Sons providing backup, and in New York with Simon (with whom Douglas has toured extensively as sideman and opening act) adding an exotic assortment of electric and acoustic guitar parts, Tibetan percussion and high harmony vocals.
"Every song on this record was like an adventure," Douglas notes, adding, "The idea was to take myself out of my comfort zone, and to keep putting myself in unfamiliar situations. I wasn't worried about failing, and I wasn't trying to prove anything. It just felt right to just go for it and try everything."
In addition to confidently exploring a broad range of material from across the stylistic spectrum, Traveler marks some notable firsts for Douglas. For instance, it's the first time he's recorded an album with an outside producer.
"It was different letting someone else wear the big hat, but it worked out great," Douglas says of studio vet Titelman, whose resume includes classic releases by the likes of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Rickie Lee Jones and Little Feat, as well as Traveler participants Clapton and Simon. "Russ is wide open to all kinds of things, and because he was there, I didn't have to worry about things like booking the studio or keeping track of the budget. I just had to show up and play my best. That was quite a luxury, and it made this a better record."
Traveler also marks the first Douglas album to showcase his soulful, wailing lap steel guitar work alongside his Dobro skills. His lap steel is featured on seven tracks, including the original instrumentals "So Here We Are" and "Gone to Fortingall," both of which are products of Douglas' budding collaboration with the stellar rhythm section of bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Omar Hakim, who also provide the foundation of his current touring band.
"Playing lap steel is very liberating to me, especially after working in the acoustic world for most of my life," Douglas says. "It's a very different instrument, and it takes me to a different part of my brain. With lap steel, I have access to sustain and distortion, which is something you just don't get with Dobro. Distortion isn't big in bluegrass, but it can be your friend."
Traveler is also notable for featuring Douglas' first recorded lead vocal, i.e. his persuasive take on the Leadbelly number "On A Monday," which opens the album. He actually made his public lead-singing debut in 2011 in no less auspicious a venue than Carnegie Hall, singing "Hey Joe" as part of an all-star James Taylor tribute show that he helped to organize.
"I originally wanted to call this record Firsts, but I didn't because the word's too hard to say," Douglas confides. "I even drew up a cover concept, with this little scrawny kid standing on a high-dive board about to jump into a pool, and there's a shark in the water. That's what this whole record felt like to me. That's kind of what I've been doing for the last couple of years: drawing up the list of things that I'm afraid to do and then doing them."
The fact that Douglas' multiple talents command the respect of the A-list singers and players who populate Traveler won't come as a surprise to anyone who's familiar with his history. As a solo artist, band member, collaborator and session musician, his distinctive playing graces over 2000 albums by artists as varied as Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Phish and the Chieftains, as well as the eight-million-plus selling soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its spinoff live disc Down from the Mountain. As a producer, he's helmed albums by such notable acts as the Del McCoury Band, Maura O'Connell, Jesse Winchester and the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
The Ohio-born Douglas began playing Dobro at the age of eight, after his father—a steelworker who played bluegrass in his spare time—brought him to a Flatt and Scruggs concert, where he was entranced by the sound of Dobro player Josh Graves. After playing with his dad's group the West Virginia Travelers for several years, a 17-year-old Douglas joined the pioneering progressive-bluegrass band the Country Gentlemen in 1973. Two years later, he became a member of the seminal J.D. Crowe and the New South, which also included future solo stars Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice. In 1976, Douglas and Skaggs co-founded the now-legendary bluegrass combo Boone Creek.
In 1979, Douglas launched his solo career with his LP Fluxology, and also became a full-time member of the beloved family country group the Whites. By the time he left the Whites in 1985, Douglas was Nashville's most in-demand session Dobro player, while continuing to develop his blossoming solo career with a series of acclaimed and influential albums. In the late '80s, he formed the acoustic supergroup Strength in Numbers with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor. He also continued to collaborate on such forward-looking recording projects, e.g. 1994's Grammy-winning all-star The Great Dobro Sessions and 1996's genre-bending experiment Bourbon and Rosewater, with bassist Edgar Meyer and Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
In the late 1990s, Douglas chose to abandon his lucrative Nashville session career, in order to concentrate on more creatively satisfying musical pursuits. At around the same time, Alison Krauss asked him to fill in on a Union Station tour. Those shows went so well that the association became a permanent one. Since then, Douglas has balanced his work with Union Station with his ongoing solo career, while continuing to find time for a variety of collaborative projects, including the tribute album Southern Filibuster: The Songs of Tut Taylor and his ongoing work as co-Music Director of the popular BBC TV series Transatlantic Sessions, which teams American roots musicians and singers with their Celtic counterparts.
Now, at a point in his life where most other musicians have settled into a routine or are resting on their laurels, Jerry Douglas remains eager to embrace new creative challenges.
"Making Traveler has really been an eye-opening experience," Douglas asserts. "After doing this, I'm not interested in going back to making records the way I was, going into the studio with 12 songs and recording them with the same group of people. This one taught me about what options are out there, what other ways there are to do things, and what other kinds of music I can play. That's important when you've been doing this as long as I have. Now I've got all kinds of records that I want to make."