Jerry Douglas was a teenager playing in a band in Lexington, Kentucky, the first time he heard Weather Report and Chick Corea — on the same day. More than 40 years later, he remembers the moment vividly.
“It blew my head off,” he says. “I loved it. And I thought, ‘Well, there’s where I could go with all this stuff runnin’ around in my head.’”
“All this stuff” is the remarkable music Douglas has made on Dobro and lap steel in a career that’s earned him world renown as the top purveyor of his craft. On his latest musical foray, What If, Douglas decisively merges those jazz inclinations with the bluegrass, country, blues, swing, rock, and soul he’s spent his life absorbing and performing, forging a sound that flies beyond the boundaries of anything he — or anyone else — has done before.
Though Douglas has recorded several of these songs previously, he turns them inside out here in bold new arrangements filled with unexpected elements. For example, in 1992 he covered “Hey Joe,” the Billy Roberts folk tune that became one of Jimi Hendrix’s most beloved blues-rockers, as an uptempo bluegrass song. Here, it’s recontextualized again with drums and fiddle — and horns instead of mandolin. And “Freemantle,” which Douglas and banjoist Béla Fleck had co-written and recorded decades ago as a duet, is now so deeply layered, it almost begs to be heard through headphones.
Like fellow bluegrass-rooted peers Fleck and David Grisman, Douglas has always balanced respect for tradition with a desire to escape constricting expectations. But there were places even he was afraid to go — until now.
“I’ve always heard horn lines in my songs, and I usually put something else there instead,” he explains. But after bassist Daniel Kimbro joined the Jerry Douglas Band in 2013, he introduced Douglas to guitarist Mike Seal, trumpet player Vance Thompson, and saxophonist Jamel Mitchell — a nephew of famed Al Green producer Willie Mitchell and son of James, one of the original Memphis Horns players.
Douglas started performing in his early teens. Born in Warren, Ohio, Douglas was 8 when his bluegrass-loving dad took him to hear Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Douglas fell in love with the sound he heard coming from Josh Graves’ Dobro. Five years later, he was playing Ohio’s finest dives in his dad’s band, entertaining southern-born steel workers (and sipping vodka drinks the little-old-lady bartenders made him). He spent much of his time listening to bluegrass, though proximity to the rock bastion of Cleveland helped foster his awareness of the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, and other top acts of the day.