The year was 1986. The time was a Friday afternoon in June. It was a fitting backdrop as Jerry Douglas took to the stage at the Festival of the Bluegrass.
The champion dobro stylist was already a bit of a local hero, having lived in Lexington a decade earlier while playing with the inaugural lineup of JD Crowe and the New South and, later with fellow Crowe alum Ricky Skaggs, in Boone Creek. But this day, it was just Douglas and the dobro onstage. There was no fanfare, no band and, thanks to a brownout that robbed the entire Kentucky Horse Park campground of power, no electricity.
So in taking full advantage of a brilliantly sunny summer day, Douglas walked out into the crowd toward a nearby tree and continued to play as if he was sitting in his backyard.
“I remember that well,” Douglas said. “I went to the only shade tree I could see. It was certainly better than whatever I would have been to do up there onstage. Besides, it was fun. It was nice to be out there with the people.”
On Sunday, Douglas returns to Lexington in a performance that very much reflects that ‘80s appearance. It won’t be summer and he won’t be in the great outdoors, but Douglas will perform with nothing onstage at the Lyric Theatre but the slide-driven resonator guitar known as the dobro. There will no band behind him, unlike most of his previous concerts in the region as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station. There will be no new recording to promote (his most recent solo album, Traveler, is nearly two years old). The Sunday agenda will simply entail dobro music as played by the artist that has essentially revolutionized the instrument.
“A show like this gives me a lot of freedom,” Douglas said. “And the setlist – well, there really isn’t one. I kind of go at the music chronologically for awhile and then just throw the setlist away and play whatever I want or whatever anybody else wants to hear. It turns into a free-for-all. And since I’m not doing this in great big giant places, the show is a little bit more intimate.”
Bluegrass was the starting point for Douglas and remains a key reference for all of his music. He will proudly tell you today of what a towering inspiration Josh Graves, the landmark dobro player for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, was on his playing. But the ‘70s and ‘80s brought Douglas in line with a stable of like-minded thrillseekers like Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and another Crowe alum, Tony Rice. While Douglas’ devotion to bluegrass never wavered, he began absorbing outside influences – in particular, a style of improvising that owed as much to jazz as bluegrass tradition.
One particular turning point for Douglas was hearing the 1977 fusion album Heavy Weather by the progressive jazz ensemble Weather Report. That came near the end of his stay in Lexington.
“The first time I heard that record was in Lexington,” Douglas recalled. “Steve Bryant, the bass player who was in Boone Creek toward the end of the band, is the guy who turned me on to Weather Report, Chick Corea and all that. He had a house right on the edge of the UK campus. We would sit out there in the summertime on the front porch with the speakers just blasting Chick Corea. My mind was just completely blown.
“When I lived in Lexington… that was the first time I really tried to play any other kind of music other than just straight bluegrass. I was there with Crowe and Tony Rice, and I spent a lot of time with Tony listening to Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy and all these deep, dark heroin addict jazz musicians. And it really did make an impression on me. It was definitely the start of a long improvisational career of stretching the boundaries of what I initially thought my instrument would be doing. By the time I left Lexington, I had a completely different mindset than what I arrived there with.”
Douglas next recording project, which will surface next spring, is a dobro summit with Rob Ickes, the outstanding instrumentalist with Blue Highway whose solo projects have revealed a similar love of jazz, and the late Mike Auldridge, who was changing the playing style and repertoire for the dobro with the Seldom Scene as Douglas’ career began. Auldridge succumbed to cancer late last year, just as recording sessions for the projects were finishing.
“I don’t know why we didn’t do this record a long time ago. But when Mike got sick, it got to the point of ‘Now we have to do it.’ I remember Mike was saying, ‘Well, who will we use for a band?’ I said, ‘We don’t need a band. It will just be us – just the three of us.’
“We would record until Mike got tired and then Rob and I would get on a plane and come home (Auldridge lived in Maryland, Douglas and Ickes reside in the Nashville area). The last session we did for the record was Mike’s last session. But he played so well. I’ve never heard him play better.
“There is sort of an order, a process to this music, really. For the dobro, it was Josh Graves, then Mike Auldridge and me and then Rob Ickes. That was the natural progression of who has come along to change things for the instrument.”
Jerry Douglas performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $34.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.lexingtonlyric.com.