Even among his own eclectic discography, which covers traditional and not-so-traditional bluegrass, acoustic jazz, and blues, Jerry Douglas' new album is a surprise. The prolific Dobro player/bandleader/session musician, best known for his connections to Alison Krauss and the 1970s hot-stuff Newgrass movement, went to New Orleans and recruited some unlikely celebrity guests for Traveler, released in June by E1 Music.
"I could have done it in Nashville, but it would have just sounded like a bunch of Nashville guys trying to be New Orleans musicians," Douglas says. "So why not go down there where they breathe the air and eat the food? Everything's slower there—especially the snare hits. It's a little farther back than it normally is, just because you're in New Orleans, just because they can."
Throughout his career, Douglas has had a regular roster of colleagues—Krauss, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Tony Rice. They appear on each other's albums (Douglas has been an official member of Krauss' Union Station since 1998) and share an instinct for progressive but tasteful acoustic music. For Traveler, though, Douglas reached outside his usual contact list; the new album features collaborations with Eric Clapton, Mumford and Sons, Keb' Mo', Dr. John, and Paul Simon in addition to Krauss, Bush, Fleck, and Jerry Douglas Band members Luke Bulla (violin), Viktor Krauss (bass), and Josh Hunt (drums).
"They are outside my usual orbit, but they're people I've met through the years and we've struck up friendships," Douglas says. "It's one of those things where you're saying, we ought to do something together someday, and you just never do it. So I thought, I'm going to go ahead and close some of those loopholes."
Traveler is essentially a classic New Orleans-style R&B album. Almost. The disc is stacked with smoldering, bluesy performances, horns, piano, and organ. Clapton and Douglas trade acoustic slide and standard guitar solos on a slowed-down version of Leadbelly's "On a Monday," and Marc Cohn and Dr. John team up on a smoky rendition of ex-NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson's "Right on Time." But the unmistakable voice of Douglas' resonator guitar tops his original compositions "Gone to Fortingall" and "King Silkie," written with Dan Tyminski.
The most surprising appearance on the new album is the British folk-rock band Mumford and Sons, who perform Paul Simon's "The Boxer"; Douglas counts the group as part of a new generation of rootsy artists doing something similar to what he and his Newgrass compatriots did in Nashville 40 years ago. He's not alone in his admiration—the band's appearance on Traveler helped him hook another high-profile guest star.
"While I was in the U.K. at the end of a tour, I took the opportunity to grab them and go out in the country and cut ‘The Boxer,'" he says. "I came home and played it for Paul Simon and he decided to be on it, too."
In addition to his solo career, Douglas is a frequent session player (he performed on Brad Paisley's 2004 hit "Whiskey Lullaby"), producer, and guest artist. Just this year, he's appeared on albums by Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bap Kennedy, and Eric Bibb.
"I love collaboration," he says. "I love the finished product after you've worked as a group on a song and batted things around and tried everything. ... I've surrounded myself with people who know how to fit in and become part of a creature but have their own agenda outside that band. Nobody worries about, oh, I have to put my mark on this. They understand that just by being there and doing what they do they are putting their mark on it."
Sometimes all that work can get in the way, though. Union Station took nearly seven years off between the 2004 album Lonely Runs Both Ways and last year's Paper Airplane while Krauss and the other band members pursued other projects. Douglas says fans won't have to wait as long for the next Union Station album—work on a follow-up to Paper Airplane is scheduled to start by the end of this year.
"We're going to record in December, start a new record in December," he says. "We'll work on that as our schedules allow, and hopefully we'll finish that record before May. This is all hypothetical, of course, because the last one took forever. I think this time, just from gauging how everybody's doing, how we left it—we finished this last tour out in California just a few weeks ago—i think the thermometer was high to keep doing it, to keep going at it."