Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jerry Douglas on "the soul of bluegrass"

Dobro great Jerry Douglas, who has appeared on more than 1500 recordings during a 33-year career, declared in his IBMA keynote address that bluegrass music is "in its best condition ever, with world-class talent showcased on the most prestigious stages."

While paying homage to the genre's historical greats, he said that the music continues to evolve with the current crop of artists. On the commercial side, he noted that recent years have brought great progress in terms of airplay and recognition in the wider world of country and popular music.

"We now have a market share of record sales in this country, not a big share, but we are now recognized," he said, pointing to Billboard's bluegrass charts as one milestone. Another example is that Grammy awards are given for legitimate bluegrass artists instead of country musicians who may have dabbled with traditional styles.

However, he noted that the genre still faces challenges in an economic climate where a few music conglomerates drive the music industry. "Bluegrass does not conform to the cookie cutter. We don't fit the demographic," he said.
Douglas spoke movingly of his own roots and continuing love for the music. He recalled how his father worked 33 years in the mill in southern Ohio but lived to play music at nights and on weekends.

"I woke up every morning listening to Flatt & Scruggs," he recalled.

The elder Douglas took his son to some of the early bluegrass festivals, where he was exposed not only to traditional artists but performers such as The Newgrass Revival who were extending the genre in exciting new directions.
"Dad didn't want me going to [the late-night shows]. He thought something might happen to you amongst all them hippies. But I went anyway," he said.

Douglas went on to perform with bands such as The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, Strength in Numbers, Alison Krause and Union Station, and many others, and today he fronts his own Jerry Douglas Band, which mixes bluegrass traditions with jazzy improvisation.

"The Jerry Douglas Band doesn't always play bluegrass, but it is always with me. It is there on every record I have ever played on," he said.

He considers himself to be an ambassador for the music. "I have a dream of a great syringe inoculating people like [country music power brokers] Tony Brown and Tim McGraw, or of pouring bluegrass tonic in the water," he said.

Later this week, he is embarking on the second half of his tour with Paul Simon, taking an opportunity to expose many people to a music they might not otherwise hear. He said that audiences at rock venues such as the Bonnaroo festival are receptive and often enthusiastic.

Summing up, Douglas tried to define "the soul of bluegrass." Listing some of the music's unique qualities--"the vocal quality, the subject matter, the Scots-Irish ancestry"--he concluded that none of those is the essence of the music. "You don't have to have a drawl in your voice or dirt under you fingernails, but you have to know your bluegrass history.

"Bluegrass is physical and improvisational. It could qualify as a contact sport. You have to be competitive to be heard, but you also have to be compassionate to hear your fellow combatants," he said.

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