You know, it’s the coolest-looking instrument that ever was made!” It should come as no surprise that Jerry Douglas is speaking about the Dobro and the various other resonator-equipped guitars in orbit around the Dopyera brothers’ creation. As probably the world’s most famous dobroist – and certainly the most recorded – he knows a thing or two about the guitar with the hubcap in the middle.
And it should be no surprise that he’s truly in love with Dobros. But to hear him actually gush about the guitars is truly refreshing. Many musicians lose that special something in their relationship with the guitar, but after a career spanning some 40 years playing the Dobro and sundry other lap steel devices, Douglas still sounds like a 16-year-old boy who’s just been kissed for the first time.
Douglas spoke to VG about his recent solo album, Traveler, discussing his inspirations, recording, tour plans, etc. But when the talk turned to Dobros, his love became glaringly apparent.
“The [Dopyera brothers] hit the Art Deco period just right, and that helped,” he said, relegating the “beauty” of D’Angelicos, Les Paul Standards, Gretsches, and everything else to a distant second place – at best. “But I love the sound of Dobros and would love to have a whole lot more because every one of them sounds different. Oh man, [I] could completely geek out over these things!”
Of course, Douglas does geek out over these things. And that – along with his sheer musicality when playing them – has made him one of the finest Dobro players. Ever.
In fact, none other than James Taylor christened Douglas “the Muhammad Ali of the Dobro.” For those keeping score comparing pugilists to dobroists, Douglas may indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee while sliding his Stevens bar over the strings. But while Ali only released one record – 1963’s trash-talking, pre-rap classic I Am the Greatest! – Douglas has cut 14 solo albums and appeared on an estimated 2,000 other records as a sideman. Along the way, he has won 13 Grammys, thrice been named Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year, and awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ali never won a single Grammy… though he probably should have.
And yet Douglas is more than just the world’s heavyweight champion of the Dobro. He has led a renaissance of interest in the instrument, and is a key part of its lineage beginning with pioneering players like Cliff Carlisle and Bashful Brother Oswald, through Josh Graves, the “inventor” of bluegrass Dobro as part of Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and continuing from Tut Taylor and Mike Auldridge through today. Still, Douglas has arguably done more to make “Dobro” a household term than anyone else. Thanks in large part to his stylish slidework, it’s difficult to imagine Americana music without the Dobro.
Douglas first picked up a Dobro at age eight. At 17 (in 1973), he joined the pioneering progressive bluegrass band Country Gentlemen, then became part of J.D. Crowe and the New South, which included Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice. In ’79, Douglas issued his first solo album, Fluxology, and was backing the Whites. In the ’80s, he became Nashville’s – and soon, the world’s – most in-demand dobroist, and has since played on recordings by Garth Brooks, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris, and Phish, as well as the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Since 1999, he has played with Alison Krauss and Union Station.
On Traveler, Douglas plays more than just Dobro; he slides on electric lap steel, a square-neck Custom Shop Fender Telecaster built for lap slide played through a Marshall stack, a Larry Pogreba slide guitar, and yes, his Paul Beard signature Dobro. He is joined by guests Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons, Keb’ Mo’, Marc Cohn, Dr. John, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jon Cleary, Viktor Krauss, Omar Hakim, as well as Alison Krauss and the Union Station gang. Duet albums are rarely so star-studded.
Fortunately for everyone, Douglas’ wife is also a Dobro fan.
“I just got a Model 27 that had never been played! It’s a 1936. I saw it online one night and I was going to buy it. My wife went, ‘No wait. Let me do it.’ I was going off to Europe. I came home and there it was!”
This ’36 told a classic tale of guitarchaeology. Bought new, it had been stowed under a bed and seemingly forgotten. When Douglas took delivery, it was in its original case and looked untouched. Something had been stored on top of the case, and the weight on the strings after all that time had broken the tailpiece and left the shadow of the strap imprinted across the resonator cover.
“When I got the guitar, the original strings were on it and that [tailpiece] was just floating in the case. So I put another tailpiece on it and new strings and as far as I know I was the first to ever play it! The sound is great.”
The brand-new 76-year-old guitar is now the centerpiece of Douglas’ collection. Douglas also proudly displays a tiger-striped koa Weissenborn from 1919 that he owns courtesy of his in-laws. Douglas noticed the guitar hanging on the wall as a planter in their home, a bouquet of flowers artfully arranged in the sound hole.
Douglas has a particular love for vintage Dobros, their tone and history, and he gets downright poetic talking about them:
“I love the old guitars – that’s what made me first start playing, the sound of it. Once you hear the instrument, if you love its sound, it never goes away. You have to go get one.” Or two. Or more.
Douglas’ jamming room at home is a jumble of cases of all shapes, sizes, conditons, and vintages. Among his collection is an early-’30s “double cyclops” Dobro, which instead of the standard two vent holes on the bouts, has twinned holes at the based of the fretboard. This and the “single cyclops” version were short-lived Dobro models circa 1931-’32, perhaps an experiment at better projecting sound or enhancing tone.
He also has a rare vintage Cathedranola resonator guitar with a wood body, exquisite inlay, and Art Deco-styled bout vents. Eying the success of the Dopyeras’ National and Dobro guitars, other firms rushed to hop on the resonator bandwagon. The Slingerland Drum Company of Chicago was one, offering its Cathedranola in the May Bell line in the early ’30s. Many Cathedranolas were resonator guitars without resonators; to get around any copyright issues, they boasted the metal covers, but no cone underneath. Douglas’ model does feature a resonator, topped by a Dobro-style spider bridge. These guitars may have been built by Chicago stalwart Regal, which also built many guitars for Dobro.
From his other vintage Dobros and a 1934 wood-bodied National Trojan, Douglas’ collection jumps forward to modern-day “hybrid” Dobros. These guitars are built for the wear and tear of touring, but also to have a sweet tone for recording. He speaks with fondness of the guitars made by hybrid pioneer Rudy Q. Jones, Tim Scheerhorn, and Paul Beard.
“You play a new guitar, then you play an old one, and they just have a sound. But [the vintage Dobros] can’t compete with the new instruments that are on stage,” Douglas enthuses.
“It never was a real loud instrument. Josh Graves would throw it right up into the vocal mic, the loudest mic onstage. I always had trouble playing old Dobros on stage with J.D. Crowe and bands like that until I started getting into the hybrids, when guys like R.Q. Jones started making guitars, then Scheerhorn and Paul Beard. Those are just the best out there. They’ll serve you well in any genre of music. But the old Dobros aren’t built for that. They’re plywood guitars – they’re thin, they’re light, they won’t take the beating that you have to give them – it’s a very physical business!”
This article originally appeared in VG October 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.