Picking through the past: Jerry Douglas and The Earls of Leicester bring history to Copper Country
IF YOU GO
What: The Earls of Leicester
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31
Where: Copper Mountain Resort’s Main Stage in Center Village
Cost: Free or $159 for VIP seating. Visit CopperCountryFest.com to purchase and for the complete schedule.
COPPER MOUNTAIN — Though he’s playing at the Copper Country music festival for the first time this weekend, Dobro player Jerry Douglas is a man of many genres. “I’ve just become a chameleon of sorts,” said 14-time Grammy Award-winning Douglas, who is known for his solo work and as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Like Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters, Douglas sees the Dobro, a resonator slide guitar, as an immensely versatile instrument. “It instantly recognizes the blues, and that’s where everything comes from,” Douglas said. “It’s where all music comes from. That’s probably the first time I ever said that, but I think it’s true. … To me it’s like the juxtaposition of playing all the time using a regular handsaw and then someone hands you a chain saw.”
Douglas said playing the lap-style Dobro has allowed him to channel people like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton — who Douglas will be playing with for the third time at the Crossroads Festival later in September.
Growing up in the steel mill town of Warren, Ohio, Douglas was caught between two worlds. In one, he listened to the Cleveland radio stations to catch the latest singles by Cream, The Beatles and The Who. In the other was his West Virginian steel worker father who played guitar, sang and introduced him to the legendary bluegrass band Foggy Mountain Boys, which was composed of Lester Flatt on guitar, Earls Scruggs on banjo and Josh Graves on Dobro.
“He had his own bluegrass band, and that’s where I learned just about everything I know,” Douglas said. “That led to a lot of places.”
Throughout his life, Douglas has tried to marry rock and bluegrass since the two have their roots in blues. He could have picked up the electric or acoustic guitar, but it was the Dobro that beckoned him.
“I’ve heard and seen all of those instruments up close, but the Dobro was a mystery to me when I first heard it. I could see pictures of it and imagine it, and then I got to see Josh Graves play with Flatt and Scruggs in 1963 when I was about 7 and it all became clear to me.”
And in 1998 one of those places his bluegrass background took him was Union Station, the backing band for multiple Grammy Award-winning Alison Krauss. He met Krauss when she was 14 and produced her work, but it wasn’t until then that she called him to officially join the band.
“That became my main source of inspiration for 20 years,” he said.
Douglas doesn’t keep track, but it’s estimated that he’s played on more than 1,600 records with artists like Ray Charles, Garth Brooks, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris. Most of the time, he is simply an accompanying studio musician, and though he has one more Grammy than Michael Jackson and one less than Alicia Keys and Adele, it doesn’t bother him that he might not be a household name.
“I just love to play,” he said. “It feels good when people recognize you in the street or grocery store, but it doesn’t happen that often. I’ve kind of kept a low profile. It wasn’t my face on those 1,600 records or whatever it was. You can be a session musician and still have a normal life.”
One of those records is the soundtrack to the acclaimed Joel and Ethan Coen movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Recruited by producer T Bone Burnett, he became part of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys where Douglas lent both his sound and appearance to the film. “They gave us really bad haircuts and three-piece wool suits that dead people have worn — realistic costumes. It really was an experience, and it really turned things around for bluegrass music and traditional music.”
Burnett wanted to make the music authentic to the style of the Great Depression by having tracks recorded with old technology. “You weren’t close miking something,” Douglas said. “You didn’t walk up to a microphone, you walked up to an area. It was choreographed that way.”
That same choreography of soloists weaving in and out can be seen in Douglas’ newest project, The Earls of Leicester. Formed in 2013 as a creative outlet and composed of Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Johnny Warren, Daniel Kimbro and Douglas, the group — as the punny name implies — focuses on bringing the music of Flatt and Scruggs to a new audience.
However, they keep it as traditional as possible. Along with the limited number of microphones, the band plays on older instruments from that era.
“The newer instruments didn’t sound right. They sounded too beefy; they were trying too hard. So we all went back to old instruments, and it gelled.” Warren even plays on the same fiddle that his father, Paul, used when he was in the Foggy Mountain Boys.
“It is the holy grail of bluegrass fiddles, and it’s with us,” Douglas said. “It sounds exactly the same, and he only plays like his dad. … No one else does that. He’s our linchpin.”
Douglas had the honor of playing with his heroes Scruggs and Graves, and he frequently surprises himself with the accuracy of the group.
“You’re reliving the history while at the same time make the history. It’s a strange place to be. But when it’s right, we’re all up there beside ourselves with joy. Hearing this stuff again, it’s like it never left. Those guys sounds so authentic sometimes it give me cold chills.”
Though Douglas originally thought the band would perform only on special occasions, their historical experiment struck a chord with audiences young and old, winning a Grammy for their debut album. Now he is excited to bring the group to Copper Mountain, but he isn’t exactly looking forward to experiencing the high elevation he’s familiar with from Copper Guitar Town.
“The strings don’t oscillate, don’t vibrate, like they do at sea level. It’s slower. It’s like hitting a brick wall when you hit the string, and it doesn’t move it like normally would. … Man wasn’t meant to play bluegrass at 9,000 feet,” he said, laughing.
Yet that hasn’t stopped him from playing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for 35 years in a row. “It’s like a family reunion. Sam (Bush) is there. Béla (Fleck) is there. All of my best friends are there.”
Those looking for a similar vibe as The Earls of Leicester play Flatt and Scruggs circa 1954-1965 should mark their calendars for Saturday’s concert.
“If you like that kind of music, you couldn’t be in a better place on the planet,” he said.
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