Skip to main content

Jerry Douglas' Tribute To Bluegrass Legends Lester Flatt And Earl Scruggs

Jerry Douglas, considered by many to be the best dobro player in the world, brings his instrument to the studio and talks about his new album, The Earls of Leceister, a tribute to Flatt and Scruggs.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on June 30, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross: June 30, 2015: Interview with Vendela Vida; Interview with Jerry Douglas;


June 30, 2015

Guests: Vendela Vida - Jerry Douglas

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, writer Vendela Vida, is the co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer. Her husband, Dave Eggers, founded the literary journal McSweeney's. Vida's new novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," was one of the four books our critic, Maureen Corrigan, recommended for early summer reading. Maureen described it as both a travel cautionary tale and a fantasy about the infinite possibility that travel offers. The main character is a woman who has left her husband and wants to get far away. When the novel opens, she's on a plane to Morocco. As soon as she checks into her hotel in Casablanca, her backpack is stolen and she's left without credit cards, passport or any form of ID. The police investigating the theft give her a backpack, but it's not hers. She keeps it anyways, uses the passport inside and assumes the identity of the person it belongs to, which leads to deeper shifts in her sense of self.

Vendela Vida, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think, for so many of us, you know, when we travel to another place - particularly if it's a foreign country - there's this feeling of dislocation when you get off, in the plane, in a place you've never been to and you're so tired and disoriented from the long plane ride and the time zone change and the cultural differences, and you sometimes just ask yourself, what am I doing here?

So, I want to start with a reading that I think kind of captures that sensation (laughter).


GROSS: So would you start with the reading that we've talked about, from the first chapter of your book?

VIDA: Sounds good. (Reading) You can't wait to check into your hotel room. You pass by an upscale Regency Hotel, an expensive-looking Sofitel, and when the driver says your hotel is close, you're happy because you think your hotel might be on par with these other tall, glassy buildings. You've been told your hotel, the Golden Tulip, is comfortable, and you've been looking forward to this comfort on the plane and in the van. But as you approach, you're disappointed. The Golden Tulip has a glossy, black entrance with two long banners - one advertising its restaurant and another advertising its pool. It looks like a typical tourist hotel, the kind that large groups might stay at for two nights before going to the next city on their itinerary. As a driver pulls up, you see and hear American and British tourists emerging from the front door. You're deflated, but what did you expect, that it would be full of locals? It's a hotel.

The driver opens the side door of the van and retrieves your suitcase from the rear. You tip him in U.S. dollars because it's all you have. You took out $300 at Miami International because you've learned from your travels to countries like Cuba and Argentina how valuable it can be to have U.S. cash. You tip the driver with a $20 bill. Later, you will wonder if this was your initial mistake. You pass through a security portal as you enter the hotel, the kind you go through at an airport, but you keep your backpack on and hold the handle of your suitcase. Bellboys offer to take your bags and you tell them you can manage. Or rather, you smile and say, no, it's OK. I'm OK.

GROSS: Of course, as we'll hear in a second, it's really not OK (laughter).

VIDA: (Laughter) It's not OK.

GROSS: Things are not good. But let's talk about that feeling - because so many people are traveling now, it's summer - that feeling when you get off the plane and you're going to a hotel and you don't know what to expect and you're tired and exhausted and disoriented. Do you get that when you travel, this kind of feeling?

VIDA: Definitely. I feel like, you know, you get off the plane and the physical you has arrived, but it takes a while for the emotional and mental you to catch up. And you literally, sometimes, don't even have the currency of the country at hand. You know, you might have a credit card, but you don't actually have the actual cash currency that will help you navigate this new terrain.

GROSS: And, like, your character has asked for early check-in, and of course a room isn't ready and...

VIDA: Right.

GROSS: ...The guy at the registry desk says it will take five minutes. And she says, five actual minutes? (Laughter).

VIDA: Right.

GROSS: And he says...

VIDA: There is this sense of time when you're traveling, that the time is not how you know it, but how a country knows it.

GROSS: Yes, and he says, five American minutes (laughter).

VIDA: Right. He's confirming her hypothesis, yeah.

GROSS: So after your character puts down her bags and doesn't let, you know, the bellboy or anybody else, like, carry them for her and she says, it's OK, I'm OK - things aren't OK 'cause when she puts it down, her backpack is stolen, and that gets the whole plot in motion. And I know you had an experience of having something stolen when you were in Casablanca, but I don't know what that thing was.

VIDA: A couple years ago, my husband and I were traveling to Morocco, and we had a similar experience in that we were checking in to a hotel called the Golden Tulip - which I, you know, I definitely put that in the book because I felt that they should take some responsibility. But anyway (laughter), we were checking into the Golden Tulip, which is just an average tourist hotel, and while we were checking-in and filling out the passport forms, my backpack was stolen. And it had everything in it. It had a laptop computer with my book I was currently working on, which I hadn't been very good about backing-up. It had, you know, my wallet. It had everything I wanted for the trip. I had my passport in my hand, so fortunately - unlike the protagonist in my book - I did have my passport still.

GROSS: In the book, the police chief tells your character not to worry, he's a hundred percent confident that the police will catch the thief. And she thinks, not 95 percent, even? Like, a hundred percent - like, how can you be a hundred percent confident? And he ends up giving her...

VIDA: Well, it's...

GROSS: Yeah?

VIDA: It was funny, 'cause when we checked in - when we did talk to the police chief, you know, my husband and I found ourselves watching the surveillance camera of the - in the hotel, seeing what had happened. It was actually really interesting. I really recommend the experience - not of having your stuff stolen in a foreign country - that experience, I do not recommend. But if you do have that experience, I highly recommend watching the surveillance video because it's really interesting to see how - it was really interesting for me to see how the backpack was stolen and how it was actually a ring of three people who were working together. They were all wearing suits and badges so they would look official and like they were part of a conference at the hotel. And seeing myself on the surveillance camera, being completely unaware of everything going on around me was really intriguing. I also had a similar experience...

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you there 'cause this happens your character, except the people at the hotel don't even know how to work the security camera playback system so she has to (laughter) figure it out for them.

VIDA: She has to help them, that is true. I will say the book is entirely fictional, but I did use the opening - the opening of the book is very much based on what happened to me, and the rest of the book just takes off into a fictional world.

GROSS: So, did you have to play back your own surveillance footage?

VIDA: I did have to play back my own surveillance.

GROSS: (Laughter) Great.

VIDA: There were seven security people in the room and I had to play it back, and at first I didn't even recognize myself on the surveillance camera. You know, I even saw the moment where I looked down and my backpack wasn't there and I looked at my husband, and he said, where's your backpack? Did you forget it in the van? And so, we ended up going to the Casablanca police station and while I was there I was interviewed by three detectives who all sat like detectives. You know how detectives in, like, 1970s movies don't really sit in chairs or desks, they actually kind of lean against tables and desks?

GROSS: (Laughter).

VIDA: That's what these detectives were doing, and they all had the requisite little spiral notebooks that detectives have in movies. And they were asking me all sorts of really irrelevant questions, like, what was the profession of your great-great-grandfather? So questions that would really help, you know, secure the location of my backpack as soon as possible.

And while I was sitting there, Terry, I had the funniest experience. And at first, I was just - I was so upset. We'd just arrived, everything was gone, this book I'd been working on was gone. And - but while I was sitting there, answering all these very irrelevant questions, I started thinking about this novel idea I'd had - this idea for this novel I'd about the malleability of identity. And it's this novel that's been circling in my head for a few years and I'd written passages, but I'd never known exactly how the book would start. I hadn't found my way into the book, you know, the entree into it. And so while I was sitting there with these detectives, I suddenly realized that this was my opening - a woman arriving in Casablanca and having her stuff stolen and, you know, in this case, the protagonist having her passport stolen. And so suddenly I became the happiest person, I think, the police station had ever seen. And my mood - I just became elated. I answered every one of the detectives' questions - you know, it was just elation and pure joy, and I think my attitude really confused the detectives and the chief of police.

GROSS: Well, the way this sets off - this shift in identity for your main character is, the chief of police - who's assured her that there's a hundred percent chance that they're going to, you know, return her backpack - the chief of police eventually turns over a backpack. And he doesn't use words like, your backpack - it's like, here's the backpack, or, here's a backpack. And he doesn't really claim that it's hers, but he expects her to accept that, and she does. She accepts it and she takes this, like, stranger's passport and IDs and credit card, and tries to work with that. And it just opens up all these possibilities for her to take on different identities and, you know, play with who she is. I doubt your story had that kind of outcome.

VIDA: My story did not have that kind of outcome, despite the police chief's assurances that it was a hundred percent likely I would get my backpack back, I did not.

GROSS: He really said that?

VIDA: He really said it. Someone else told me recently that if he had really been serious, he would've said 150 percent, but he was giving himself some leeway (laughter) by saying a hundred percent. But that's - you know, I'm really influenced by films when I'm writing, and I - you know, I really love the film, "The Passenger" by Antonioni, and I was thinking that this would be a pivotal moment in the novel where she would take someone else's identity, much like Jack Nicholson's character in "The Passenger" takes on someone else's identity. And that's how the fictional adventure in "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" begins.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Vendela Vida. Her new novel is called, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty." She's also the co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Vendela Vida. She has a new novel called "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty." She's also the co-founder of the literary magazine, The Believer.

I know your father had an antique store, so did you grow up with a lot of old books?

VIDA: My father grew up really poor in the Mission district and he had many jobs that, you know, he worked to get himself out of poverty, and he did reinvent himself a number of times while always staying true to who we was. His main job when I was growing up was working at an antique store that he owned, and he - one day he brought home this really beautiful Italian bookcase to our house, and it kind of stood right in the entryway. But there was a problem - that was that we that didn't have books to put in the bookshelf. Both my parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college, and they didn't have the opportunity to really collect a lot of books in their lives. So my father and I - actually I think I was with him at this time - I remember being with him at an estate sale and just buying all these beautiful old books. I mean, he didn't even really necessarily care what the titles were, he just wanted to fill this beautiful bookcase with beautiful-looking books, and these were old hardcovers. And so it's kind of amazing, the impact that that these books had on my life and on my sister's life. I have a younger sister, she's five years younger, and we would turn to these books all the time when we were bored, and, you know, we were bored a lot as children because our parents I think were really good at not over-parenting and they let us - they allowed us to be bored a lot, and we would pull down these books from the bookshelf and read them. And I remember being obsessed with W. Somerset Maugham's books from a very young age. I would, you know, I think from, like, age of 9, I just - I think I really just love the name Somerset - but I would read all his books and every book report I did in school from the age of 9 on was about W. Somerset Maugham. And I highly doubt I understood that much of what was going on, but I read those books, you know, at a young age.

GROSS: So as somebody who loves books as much as you do - reading them and writing them - you have this, like, odd almost - I don't know how to describe - you have an odd moment in one of your books that I don't think I have this much belief in (laughter) literature. You have a novel called, "And Now You Can Go," and at the beginning of the book, a young woman is walking through Riverside Park in Manhattan and someone behind her calls out to her using the word ma'am, and she turns around. It turns out he has a gun, and he tells her he doesn't want to die alone, and he seems to want to take her life along with his so he can die in company. Of course, she is in a panic to try to find a reason to give him to keep living, and she does it because she loves books. She does it by trying to convince him that there's, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I'm thinking, like, are you kidding?


GROSS: Do you really think that somebody - a stranger in a park on the verge of suicide might be stirred by the idea of a poem that is - that they haven't read yet? And I'm wondering what you thought about when you thought that she could really disarm him - which she does, which she does.

VIDA: Which she does. The opening scene to "And Now You Can Go," I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and I was approached - like the protagonist in the book - by a man who didn't want to die alone, and he had a gun. And he led me over to a bench and there were - I should say there were people around, but they were mostly nannies with small kids, and so I knew I couldn't appeal to them for help - you know, mothers or nannies, I don't know. I just remember there were a lot of babies around. So there was no one there who I could really, you know, yell to for help. Also, you know, this man had a gun. And so he sat me down on a bench and told me that he didn't want to die alone, and I remember looking at him and looking at his gun, and looking - you know, he was wearing a leather jacket. And I could smell the leather of his jacket, and I noticed the side of his glasses said, Giorgio Armani, and I thought, I'm going to be killed by a man wearing Giorgio Armani glasses - what am I going to do? And I think there's a strange adrenaline that kicks-in when you're in a situation like that. I remember being in science class in eighth grade and learning about adrenaline, and seeing a picture of a mother lifting a, you know, car that's about to run over her baby. And, you know, just, the book was saying that - explaining how adrenaline could make it possible that this mother, who only weighed, you know, whatever she weighed - in the sketch, she looked like she weighed 130 pounds - how this woman could lift a car. But it wasn't until I was in that situation in Riverside Park that I really understood what adrenaline was. And so my brain started working in a way that, you know, brains do under pressure, and I started thinking that my main objective is to get this man out of this park and up to Broadway Street, where there are people and maybe policemen, and I can appeal to somebody for help. And so I thought about this bookstore that I went to a lot on Broadway Street called - I can't remember the name of the bookstore now, and I don't think it exists any longer - but I thought, I just want to get him there because I've seen the pay phone. I've seen the phone they have behind the counter and I want to - they can call. And so I started saying to him, you know, there's so much great stuff out there. There's poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man. I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another - anything. I said, let's go to the bookstore and let's go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn't know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man's eyes, and he said, OK, let's go to the bookstore. And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I've made a terrible mistake. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.

And so as fictitious as the beginning of that novel can seem, it actually is based on something that happened to me, and the rest of the book is fictional, but this first - I think it's nine or 10 pages are based almost exactly on my experience.

GROSS: Well, I want to apologize for making it seem like believing that you could disarm him by talking about poetry was preposterous. It saved your life.

VIDA: Oh, there's no need to apologize, Terry. No, it seems - it is - it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone's life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.

GROSS: Did you report him to the police afterwards?

VIDA: I did, yes. I reported him to the police, and I don't know if he was - he was never caught, no.

GROSS: How did that change your life and your sense of security?

VIDA: You know, I think for a few months after that, I was definitely shaken up. I still have a reaction to this day, you know, I don't think about it very often at all. But to this day, I still have a reaction that when someone reaches inside of their jacket to pull out a pack of cigarettes, I still - there's a little part of me that jumps because that's exactly what the man in the park did that day. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out the gun from inside of his jacket pocket. But other than that, I don't think of it very often. I did write a letter to Mark Strand several years ago - he passed away last year - but I wrote a letter to him several years ago telling him what had happened because I thought, you know, I really want a chance to - it's something that had been on my to-do list for a long time. I really wanted to tell Mark Strand what had happened. So we shared an editor and a publisher, Dan Halpern at Ecco, and so I obtained his mailing address and I wrote him a letter about what had happened and how his poetry had helped me and what it had done for me, and it was definitely an odd letter to write. You know, I wanted to really take my time writing it. And I sent it to him, and I'm sure it was a very odd letter to receive. But he wrote me back within, you know, I think a day or two - you know, it was a mailed letter - and we had a really interesting correspondence and, you know, his letter meant the world to me.

GROSS: I bet what you told him meant the world to him. Not every poet gets to feel like they've saved somebody's life like that. Your character thinks, well, maybe she'll make a run for it, but then she thinks, and then maybe he'll shoot her in the back and she'll be either dead or paralyzed. How much kind of mental calculation did you do? You know, you often hear that - from people who've been in situations like that, that reflex just takes over. It's not that you think your way through it that, you know, reflex just - you just act. But it sounds like you didn't just act - you thought.

VIDA: I think time really slows down when you're in a situation like that, and you do have time to think. Every second is an eternity. And so I wrote the book many years later, and it was interesting, Terry, because I still remembered every single detail. I remembered the length of his eyelashes. I remembered the Giorgio Armani on his glasses. I remembered exactly what he said. I, you know, I remember how right before I heard him say, ma'am, I, you know, saw a penny on the ground. I was thinking about whether I was going to pick it up. You know, there are all these details that come back to you, and I think the same thing happens when you're in that situation where just, like, time just slows down and you do have time to think and your adrenaline is rushing, and you make these choices and these decisions that later can really surprise you.

GROSS: Well, Vendela Vida, thank you very much for talking with us.

VIDA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Vendela Vida is the author of the new novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," and she's the co-founder of the literary magazine, The Believer. After we take a short break, Jerry Douglas brings his dobro to the studio. He's performed on more than 1,600 albums. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Jerry Douglas is one of the greatest instrumentalists to come out of bluegrass music. If you don't recognize his name, you might not know much about the instrument he plays, either - the dobro. But that's not for any lack of work on Douglas' part. He's appeared on over 1,600 albums. He's won 14 Grammys, been the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year three times and received a National Heritage Fellowship for the NEA. He's also a featured musician in Allison Krauss' band.

Jerry Douglas' new album, which he also produced, is a tribute to the influential bluegrass band the Foggy Mountain Boys, led by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That's the band that got Douglas into playing bluegrass. His new album is called "The Earls Of Leicester." Get it? Earls as in Earl Scruggs, Leicester as in Lester Flatt? So let's start with a track. This is "Some Old Day," with Tim O'Brien and Shawn Camp on vocals. Jerry Douglas' dobro was the first instrument you'll hear.


THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) I've been working all in the rain, tied to a dirty old ball and chain. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some sweet day, they'll turn me loose from this dirty old calaboose. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some old day - you wait for me and pray. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day. Some sweet day, they'll turn me loose from this dirty old calaboose. Oh, dear Mother, I'll come home some old day.

GROSS: That's "Some Old Day" from Jerry Douglas's new album, "The Earls Of Leicester." Douglas brought his dobro to the studio and is going to demonstrate some the unique qualities of the instrument. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Sam, when you were preparing to interview Jerry Douglas, I know you were listening both to his new album and to the versions of the same songs as done by Flatt and Scruggs. And you found something surprising.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Yeah, well, the interesting thing about Jerry Douglas is that he grew up in this generation - the '70s and '80s - that played bluegrass, but took it in a new direction. So they added a lot of jazz elements. There was more improvisation, different kinds of rhythm. So what I was really surprised by in this new album was how closely the recordings stuck to the original ones - the original ones by Flatt and Scruggs.

I was listening to this one song, "I'll Go Stepping, Too," and the arrangement was exactly the same. The - some of the souls (ph) were exactly the same. The tempo was the same. So just for fun, what I tried to do was I played a little bit of the Flatt and Scruggs version of "I'll Go Stepping, Too." And on top of that, I brought in the banjo part from Jerry Douglas', faded out Flatt and Scruggs and then stayed with Jerry Douglas' version. And it's pretty amazing because you can hear that they match up almost seamlessly.

GROSS: So is it going to sound weird when the Jerry Douglas version is mixed right on top of the Flatt and Scruggs version?

BRIGER: It's a little weird because Jerry Douglas told me that the Foggy Mountain Boys, Flatt and Scruggs' band - they'd tune their instruments, like, a half-step above normal tuning - standard tuning. And so we're going to get a few seconds of two banjos playing the exact same part, out of tune, and I've spared you that.

GROSS: Out of tune with each other.

BRIGER: Out of tune with each other. So there's just a little bit of that 'cause it could drive you crazy.

GROSS: Well, thanks for sparing us.

BRIGER: You're welcome.

GROSS: This is going to be fun.



GROSS: So here's Sam's mix, and then we'll hear his interview with Jerry Douglas.


FOGGY MOUNTAIN BOYS: (Singing) Yes, I'll go stepping, too, my honey. I'll go stepping, too. I'll locked the door, put out the cat, and I'll go stepping, too.

THE EARLS OF LEICESTER: (Singing) Yes, I'll go stepping, too, my honey. I'll go stepping, too. I'll lock the door, put out the cat, and I'll go stepping, too.


BRIGER: Jerry Douglas, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JERRY DOUGLAS: Thank you very much, Sam. I've been looking forward to this for a long time.

BRIGER: Did you have to go back and listen again to all those songs? Or did you guys - did the band just really know these recordings inside out and - just able to go with it in the studio?

DOUGLAS: We went back and listened to them. We went back and listened to them. We had the whole collection of all those songs with us in the studio so we could refer to them. But I was looking at my calendar today, and the first time - the first time that we rehearsed this band was, like, May the 21st in 2013. And I remember everybody coming into my studio that night and sitting down.

And the first time we played through a song probably was - might've been "I'll Go Stepping, Too" - something like that. The hair went up on my arms. I mean, it was so close to the original thing, and I just knew this is it. This is it. The time's right. These are the people. And, you know, it just - finding Lester Flatt was the hardest thing for me. That voice, you know - that voice - and because Lester Flatt was a crooner of his time. You know, he was like the Bing Crosby of mountain music.

BRIGER: I'd like you to tell us a little bit about your instrument, the dobro. Can you describe it for listeners who may not be familiar with it?

DOUGLAS: Sure. A dobro guitar is actually a copyrighted name. The name is shortened from Dopyera brothers - dobro. And that they were Czechoslovakian immigrants around the 19 - in the early 1920s. And they came over, and they were cabinetmakers and fiddle makers. And they saw the war coming, and they were going - metal was going to be in short supply, so they decided to create a wooden version of that guitar, but still maintaining the steels cover plate on the top that looks sort of like a hubcap of a guitar. So they created this thing, and at that time, there was - when they started in about 1926, 1927 when there was a Hawaiian music craze going on here in the United States. I don't know why.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: But people were playing, and guys were going door to door, selling these little, cheap, wooden guitars, you know, with the strings raised up. And you play this guitar with a metal slide, and you hold the guitar on your lap.

BRIGER: With the face facing upward.

DOUGLAS: Well, it's facing up, and you're playing, so you're looking down on the - on the guitar itself - you know, the face of the guitar. And you're playing - in your left hand, you have a metal slide. And on your right hand, you have a couple of picks - a thumb pick and one finger pick, you know, or no picks at all - just your fingers. But I'll give you a little idea of what the Hawaiian guys were...

BRIGER: Oh, that'd be great.

DOUGLAS: ...Were doing right about that time. And it was a - it was a - more of an island feel. It was the...


DOUGLAS: That kind of thing.

BRIGER: Right. Well, I think we should explain that there's this - inside the guitar, there's an aluminum cone...

DOUGLAS: That's right.

BRIGER: ...That works like a speaker that projects the sound of the strings outward, so it's...

DOUGLAS: It looks just like a speaker in an amp or in your things you listen to at home - any speakers that you listen to. It looks like that, only it's made of spun aluminum. And there's a diaphragm the goes across, and the strings vibrate, and that sends the sound right back out pretty fast. So it's a different kind of animal. It's not - it's a guitar-shaped - it's a guitar. It's basically a guitar, but it has these - this other contraption in it that makes it sound different. It has a little more of a metallic sound, but there are a lot of voices that you can bring out of one of these guitars.


BRIGER: There. That sounds great.

DOUGLAS: There are a lot of things you can do with this kind of guitar.

BRIGER: Right. Now, Josh Graves was - really introduced dobro to bluegrass music. And can you tell us just a little bit about who Josh Graves was?

DOUGLAS: Josh Graves was a dobro player with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. And he was really the first person to use a three-fingered roll - use all three figures to play the dobro guitar and to be able to play fast, to be able to keep up with Earl Scruggs, who was, you know, the preeminent banjo player of his time. And Josh Graves was also - came from a blues background in - from east Tennessee. He learned to play from some old gentleman back there that left an impression on him. And he was the first guy to really catch my ear. You know, there were other dobro players here in Nashville who played on the radio and the Grand Ole Opry, but they didn't get my - they didn't get my attention like Josh Graves did.

BRIGER: Although you really were first influenced by Josh Graves, you definitely have your own style, which is a more modern style. But can you give us an example of, like, a classic Josh Graves break on a song, and then how you might approach the same break in your own style?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, Josh Graves - well, I'll play a song. There's a song here called "Randy Lynn Rag" that Earl Strom Scruggs cut and wrote and recorded. And Josh played, you know, this wonderful solo on it that when we play it now in "The Earls Of Leicester," I'll play it exactly like he did. I don't play it like I would, but he played it. Here we go.


DOUGLAS: (Laughter) There's more of a - I probably added more notes to it and a little more drive, just because I've had more things to listen to.

BRIGER: Right.

DOUGLAS: You know, I've had other fiddle players and banjo players and electric guitar players, you know, and, you know, a lot of things that I've had to listen to that Josh didn't have.

BRIGER: Right, right.

DOUGLAS: That's how we form our - that's how we form our encyclopedia of dobro licks.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album is called "The Earls of Leicester," which is also the name of his band. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Brigger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album, with his band The Earls of Leicester, pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

BRIGER: So, Jerry Douglas, you grew up in Warren, Ohio, a steel town in the northeast of the state. Was there much bluegrass music up there?

DOUGLAS: There was some bluegrass music there because, you know, a lot of the workers that came up to northeastern Ohio where I grew up came from the South and they brought their music with them. My father had a band that was made up of all people from West Virginia and the guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass, and they were great. You know, they were good enough, I think, they could've, you know, gone on the road and, you know, starved to death like any other bluegrass band would've in the '60s. But they had families and they had jobs, you know, they had good jobs you and retirements and things like that, so they stayed close to home. And there were several other bands like that around that part of northeastern Ohio, you know, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.

BRIGER: And your dad worked in the steel mill.

DOUGLAS: He did. He worked 36 years in a steel mill before he retired, yeah.

BRIGER: Did your dad want you to play dobro 'cause he didn't have a dobro player in his band?

DOUGLAS: (Laughter) No, he didn't have anything to do with me choosing the dobro guitar. I just - I really loved the sound of it the first time I ever heard it. And then when I saw it on an album cover, I really, really wanted to play it. It was very cool looking, you know, because it comes from the '20s. It has a real Art Deco kind of look to it and the cover plate, especially, that part of the guitar. But he didn't - you know, he didn't really have anything to do with it. He was really happy when I did because he didn't have one, but the guy that played the banjo in his bluegrass band was very helpful to me. They didn't go, you know, go away kid, you know?

BRIGER: Right.

DOUGLAS: You know, come back when you know how to play that thing or anything like that. They were really helpful to me and that's another thing that I had going for me. You know, I had some guys who were - saw that I did have some - you know, I could - maybe I could make something out of myself with this guitar. And so they helped me.

BRIGER: Well, it must've been hard. I mean, there's not a lot of dobro players now. There must have been even less than.

DOUGLAS: Oh, no, I would go to a music store and ask them if they had any dobros, and they had no idea what I was talking about.


DOUGLAS: No idea at all. And so finally I found a brochure in the '60s - in the mid-'60s - and took one - took it to the - to a music store and they ordered one for me. And that was the first real dobro that I had. Before then it was all guitars with raised strings, you know, with the strings raised up at the nut up here at the top of the guitar neck and back here at the bridge. But my first guitar was Sears and Roebuck guitar that wasn't a very good guitar in the first place, and the hot sun got to it one day and it folded up (laughter).

BRIGER: Yeah, I heard it exploded.

DOUGLAS: It really did. I opened - it was in the case and it was on top of all of our other guitars. And I opened one of the latch on the case and it just slammed together. Yeah, it really did explode. It was a bad sound.

BRIGER: I think you hid the fact that you played bluegrass from people at your school because you thought classmates wouldn't think it was very cool.

DOUGLAS: (Laughter) Yeah, I didn't tell anybody that I was a musician until I was a senior in high school. Some of the guys found out that - what I was doing on Saturday nights. And they found out that I was playing in a bar called the Grizzly Bear Saloon that was right across the street from Alcan where all these guys would come out, you know, at 9 o'clock or whenever they got off their shifts and would pour into this beer joint. And I was up there playing with my dad's band.

I was about 13-14 when I started, but, you know, when I was 17 or 18, everybody in my class kind of found out, and a few of them tried to get in and a few of them did get in. It was kind of a mess, but word got out that I was a musician and I remember the band director coming to me like, why didn't you tell me you were a musician, you know? Why couldn't you play? And I said, well, I don't play the same thing that you guys are playing. It's a different kind of music. I don't know if I could perform as well there.

But, yeah, it wasn't - it just wasn't cool, you know? Or I thought it wasn't and they all thought it was. They all really - when they found out, they thought it was the greatest and made my easing out of town a lot easier (laughter) 'cause I graduated from high school, turned 18 and left home all in the same weekend and moved to Washington, D.C., and never really went back there to live again.

BRIGER: Right, you started playing with the Country Gentlemen.

DOUGLAS: That's right. The Country Gentlemen were my father's favorite band. And it just happened that we were playing a festival up there in Ohio and the Country Gentlemen were the big act on that festival. And I remember looking out while I was playing with my dad's band and I could see one of the guys - Bill Emerson, the banjo player for the Country Gentlemen - in one place and I looked over here to my left and I see Doyle Lawson, another guy in the band. And I look to my right and I see Charlie Waller. It's like they were watching me, scouting me, like a baseball player or something. And right after that - right after the show they came up and asked me if I would go out on the road with them that summer. I mean, leave from there and I said no, you know, I really - I really don't want to go right now. Maybe I'll go next year. And that was when I was 15, I suppose. And so between my junior and senior years of high school I did go out on the road with them and I thought this is it. I've died and gone to heaven. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen to me. I don't need another job forever. This is it. You know, I'm riding on a bus with a band. But it was primitive, man. It was so primitive.

I remember our TV on the bus was a little black and white, you know, like, nine-inch screen held by a strapping - strapping wire up in the corner of the bus and you couldn't hear it. You could barely see it and - but that was the big time, you know? That's how it was back then, and then I joined the band permanently after I graduated from high school.

BRIGER: Was there a member of the band that was, like, in charge of supervising you, like, making sure you didn't wander off?

DOUGLAS: Yeah, sort of. They didn't really - you know, there was no iron fist, but I learned a lot on the road that first summer. I really learned a lot by just being on my own. But, yeah, there was the bass player in the band - Bill Yates. I stayed at his house and he was great to me. He would go out and, you know, he'd buy, you know, all the food. He never asked me to pay for anything and I stayed at his house. It was pretty exciting for me. I loved it. And he took care of me. And I remember one time that we were at a festival in Pennsylvania somewhere down in coal country and everybody had gotten paid that day and we - our bus was down by the stage and some fellow pulled out a great big gun and fired it in the air. And Bill said get in the bus. I got in the bus, and we just left.


BRIGER: That was a wise move.

DOUGLAS: He got us out - all out of there right then. He didn't wait. We didn't play. Nothing happened. We didn't get paid. We just left.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DOUGLAS: Something - there was going to be trouble.

BRIGER: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album is called "The Earls Of Leicester," which also the name of his band. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with dobro player Jerry Douglas. His new album with his band the Earls of Leicester pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

BRIGER: You play, usually, standing up and you have this strap across your shoulders. It's a pretty heavy instrument. There's a lot of hardware in there. Do you ever have to worry about back problems, or do you ever worry about, like, repetitive motion problems?

DOUGLAS: I did go through a period where I did have some pretty serious bouts with tendinitis, but they moved around, you know? It seems like you change your form and you change your - just all of the things - the repetition, and you change - you rely on different parts of your arms and hands to take up - to keep it from being repetitious. I had problems in my right shoulder. Then suddenly that went away and I had - the problem cropped-up in my left elbow of all places. But I haven't had anything like that - knock on wood - in a long, long time. I did tear my rotator cuff, but it was - the only time that that didn't bother me was when I was playing. I think that was just from years of throwing cases and suitcases under buses and airplanes, you know, and traveling on air - you know, just the traveling part, wear and tear. But, you know, really, playing the instrument is the only time when I don't have any pain anywhere (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, Jerry Douglas, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much for being on the show.

DOUGLAS: It's my pleasure. It was great talking to you, and I hope we can do this again sometime.

BRIGER: I would love that. Do you mind playing something on the way out?

DOUGLAS: Sure. I'm going to play a little song for you. This is a song that's (playing dobro) - this is a song - this is a Josh Graves number, and he played it in the late '50s. He wrote this in the late '50s, and Flatt and Scruggs did it on the Opry and it was right during the rockabilly - when rockabilly was starting to come up, so everybody was trying to jump on the train. And Josh wrote this little number, and they played it on the Opry and it caused quite a stir. (Playing dobro). It's called "Foggy Mountain Rock."

DOUGLAS: (Playing "Foggy Mountain Rock" on dobro).

GROSS: Jerry Douglas spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Douglas's new album is called, "The Earls Of Leicester," which is also the name of his band. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Malcolm) I could write about the typical I'm from a poor, crime-filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don't know my dad, blah, blah. It's cliche.

GROSS: That's a clip from the new film comedy, "Dope," about an African-American high school senior who's deep into '90s hip-hop, plays in a punk band, skateboards and is very smart which makes him and his two best friends geeks and outcasts in their predominantly-black high school. Pharrell Williams wrote new songs for the movie. I'll talk with the film's writer and director, Rick Famuyiwa.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue