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'A harmony partner'
World-class Dobro player Jerry Douglas on gigging with Alison Krauss & Union Station
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Union Station: Douglas, left, Bales, Krauss, Block and Tyminski

Jerry Douglas, who's in town for a concert this week, has performed as part of the Savannah Music Festival five or six times. It's one of the Grammy-winning Dobro player's favorite recurring gigs.

This time around, however, Douglas is visiting as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, one of the best-loved, and top-selling, acoustic bands in the world. Their April 4 show in the Civic Center is not affiliated with the music festival in any way, shape or form.

It just kind of worked out that way.

If you know Nashville, you know Jerry Douglas' name. As a session player, he's been on more than 1,600 albums. It would be a pointless exercise to try and list the people he's played with. It's virtually every big name in popular music, and country, and bluegrass. From Ray Charles to Mumford and Sons. How's that?

Union Station, which also includes Dan Tyminski (guitar), Barry Bales (bass), Ron Block (banjo and guitar) and Krauss (vocals, fiddle) evolved from a strictly bluegrass outfit into a showcase for some of the most sublime acoustic music on the planet.

Look closely at the name of the band: Officially, it's Alison Krauss & Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas.

You didn't have to join this band. So why did you?

Jerry Douglas: I worked on Alison's first couple of records. Produced the second one. I love her voice, and it works with my guitar so well. I mean, I just feel like a harmony singer all the time. And I do aim at that a lot, to try to enhance her voice and be a harmony partner to her voice at times when there are no harmonies being sung. Just to enhance things a little bit. As if she needed any help!

When it came down to actually joining the band, I was burnt on doing sessions. I was so tired of "10, 2 and 6." And by then, I'd quit 6! I was doing 10 and 2, double scale, and where else do you go? There was plenty more music to play, but actually the stuff that was coming my way to play wasn't interesting to me. Country music had changed. It was a different genre than when I first started doing it. I was doing lots of sessions, but it didn't feel as good. I wasn't feeling like I left the studio really making things better than I'd found ‘em. Which was the aim in the first place.

Alison called up and said "There's been a change in the band, and Adam Steffey's no longer with us." I was shocked, because I loved the band, and Adam was a good friend. I just couldn't imagine them without him. I could imagine a change - the way she was going, the way their music was headed was sort of away from a rhythmic, driving bluegrass perspective. It was headed more into the ballad world with her. She had really discovered her voice, and what she could do with a certain kind of material. And actually, the Dobro would work better, is what went through my mind.

Did she ask you right then and there?

Jerry Douglas: She asked me to go out with them for a couple of months, until they got things sorted out. I said yeah, and I cleared my schedule. And about a week into it, they all cornered me and asked if I would join the band.

I had to go home and talk to my wife about it, because we had small kids and we were used to this lifestyle of my being home every night. I thought the road was gone. I thought that was history. But it was just so wonderful to play that music. It felt like home. It felt like someplace I could put roots down and really grow something.

And I'm a band guy. I've always been a band guy, and when I left playing the Whites back in the ‘80s I really missed that.

And 15 years later, here we are.

She recently went through his whole Robert Plant duo experience, which raised her up to an entirely new level in the public eye. Coming back to Union Station, did she change? How democratic is it?

Jerry Douglas: It's very democratic. She loves getting ideas from other people. She doesn't like completely running the show. She's not that kind of person. And I think she feeds off of other people's energy.

She's a band person too. This didn't start out as her band, you know, it just became her band as it evolved and changed. She came into the band as the fiddle player; she didn't even really know she was a singer at that point. She discovered that. So it's all a growing process for her as well.

When we were all going to take a little time off, and the Robert Plant thing came up, I was all behind that. I was all behind her not being pigeonholed as a "female bluegrass singer," you know? I told her "You've got to go out and really try this out. See how far you can take this."

But there was never a question that the band would come back together?

Jerry Douglas: No, never. I said to Robert one day, "You know, this is like you're taking my girlfriend on a date. I'm gonna get her back."

What makes someone choose a Dobro? I play a little bit of acoustic guitar, Jerry, but if I put my hands on a Dobro it sounds like I just threw a cat down a well.

Jerry Douglas: (laughing) It starts that way for everybody, my friend!

I love the sound of it because I heard a guy play it well, first. And I thought if I can't make this sound, fuck it, I'll give up. I heard this guy Josh Graves play with Flatt & Scruggs, and I wanted to make that sound. And to this day, he scares the hell out of me. He's dead, but he scares me. There's this progression of players, and it goes on and on, past me.
I'm still out there trying to re-invent the damn thing, and put it in as many different situations as possible. And try to come out of it on top.

Did you start out as a guitarist?

Jerry Douglas: I was a singing mandolin player and singing guitar player. And as soon as I started playing Dobro I quit singing. That was it, man. It was like having a voice. I didn't need to sing any more.

Is there anybody left that you haven't played with, that you'd like to?

Jerry Douglas: Sure! I'm hearing stuff all the time. I've got Esperanza Spaulding's record in my bag right here, and that's blowing me away. When I was out with Elvis Costello, I played with Diana Krall, and this guy named Anthony Wilson that plays guitar with her. Just amazing.

You've got a new solo record coming in June, and tours with your own band, and probably a million more sessions to do. Why is Union Station special?

Jerry Douglas: Musically, it’s like vacation. It’s the only time that any of us sound like this. It’s alchemy. Everybody listens to everyone else — which is the way music is supposed to be played. But it doesn’t always happen that way. I don’t play the same solos every night in this band. I improvise every night, but it’s within the parameters of what works, and what I’m hearing coming from other people.

I do less walking around! I stay in one place more. I say less. I’m a different person than when I’m doing my shows. But I’m comfortable there

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Featuring Jerry Douglas

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

When: At 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 4

Tickets: $47-$62

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