Although his new album is titled The Best Kept Secret, multi-talented musician/composer/ producer Jerry Douglas' talents are widely known, both to his musical peers and to an enthusiastic audience that spans the musical spectrum. In addition to being widely acknowledged as America's foremost master of the dobro, the nine-time Grammy winner is a freewheeling, forward-thinking recording artist whose output draws upon a bottomless well of musical inspiration, incorporating elements of bluegrass, country, rock, jazz, blues and Celtic into his distinctive musical vision.
In addition to his solo releases, Douglas' stellar fretwork has graced over 1000 albums encompassing a dizzying range of musical styles. As a sideman, he's recorded with artists as diverse as Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Ricky Skaggs, James Taylor, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood, as well as performing on the landmark O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. As a producer, he's overseen albums by such esteemed acts as the Del McCoury Band, Maura O'Connell, Jesse Winchester and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. He's been part of such notable groups as the Whites, J.D. Crowe and the New South, the Country Gentlemen and Strength in Numbers. Since 1998, he's been a key member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, touring extensively and playing on a series of platinum albums.
The Best Kept Secret-Douglas' eleventh solo album and his first for the KOCH label-features a memorable set of original instrumentals that seamlessly merge Douglas' far-flung influences into cohesive, consistently adventurous whole. The material ranges from the jazzy bluegrass workout "Who's Your Uncle?" to the funky country-rocker "She Makes Me Want To Sing" to the epic, jazz-inflected title song to the haunting, reflective "Sir Aly B." The latter track references legendary Celtic fiddler Aly Bain, with whom Douglas recently collaborated on the all-star roots-music summit Transatlantic Sessions series for British TV. In addition to Douglas' own compositions, the album features a haunting reading of the vintage Weather Report number "A Remark You Made," underlining Douglas' instinctive affinity for jazz.
"This record ended up being a surprise to me," states Douglas, "and it wasn't until I was halfway through it that I realized it was gonna be different. For a minute, I worried about what the bluegrass people would think and what the country people would think, but I know better than to think too much about that stuff."
Along with the current lineup of Douglas' band the Brickbats-guitarist Keith Sewell, bassist Derek Jones, drummer Shannon Forrest and violinist Gabe Witcher, better known to rock fans as bassist for Eve 6-The Best Kept Secret features a typically varied array of guest musicians. The cast includes young axe hero Derek Trucks, who plays bracing slide guitar on "She Makes Me Want to Sing"; revered jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who lends his trademark touch to the languid, bluesy "Lil' Ro Ro"; noted bassist Viktor Krauss, who also plays on the latter song; and longtime Douglas pals Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, whose world-class mandolin and banjo, respectively, are featured on "Who's Your Uncle?"
The Best Kept Secret also includes a pair of memorable vocal numbers featuring two notable guest singers. Alison Krauss delivers a heartfelt performance on the TK "Back in Love Again," while roots-rock legend John Fogerty is in fine form on the rollicking "Swing Blues #1." Those tunes follow in the tradition of Douglas' prior albums, which have featured such singers as Steve Earle and James Taylor.
"Backing good singers is what I've made a lot of my living at, and I think that it's something that I do well, so I like to represent that on my records," says Douglas. "There's a real art to backing singers, to staying out of their way and complementing what they're saying."
Douglas originally met Fogerty through their mutual love of dobro. "He came through the South on a dobro-buying trip, and he asked to see my collection," he says. "That completely freaked me out because I was such a huge Creedence fan. I found out that we had the same birthday and had all these things in common, and we became good friends. Then I played on one of his records not long ago, and I sheepishly asked him if he'd be interested in someday doing something on one of mine. He said 'When do you want to do it?,' and I said 'There's one happening now...' We went through the song five or six times, and basically got it in one take."
In addition to showcasing his expressive dobro work, The Best Kept Secret also features Douglas' equally stellar abilities on lap steel guitar, on such tracks as "Ya Ya" and "You Are My Flower." "It's the most lap steel I've played on any record I've ever done," he says, adding, "Going from acoustic dobro to lap steel is kind of like going from using a handsaw to using a chainsaw. The two instruments are related, but they call for two completely different sets of techniques and two different ways of thinking."