SJ: It’s really great to hear you going back to your roots with the Earls of Leicester! How did this project come about and what have been some of the highlights of playing vintage dobro’s and channeling your first hero on the instrument – Josh Graves?
JD: Well, The Earls of Leicester is one of the best things to ever happen to me. From the first time I heard Josh Graves, and that was probably when I was around six or seven years old, I have been enamored by the sound of the Dobro guitar, but it was the guitar in his hands, that’s where my love of this sound began. I have played on more than one Johnny Warren record and his approach to his father’s fiddle playing was so spot on that I would instantly revert from my own personality to Josh’ s style of Dobro playing. It just sounded right. Anything else to me was blasphemous and trite. When Johnny was doing his newest recording, banjo player Charlie Cushman was more than laying down the Earl Scruggs lines, he was channeling Earl Scruggs to the point that his and Johnny’s parts were in parallel. When I laid my part in with them, either just chopping rhythm or soloing, I was doing the same, relaying Josh parts in there without thinking about it. We three grew up living and breathing this stuff. We loved it and that sound has never left what we do. At that moment I decided I was at a point in my career where I could use my name to get this band quickly through a few doors, and this sound back into the social consciousness. We didn’t have to call it Flatt and Scruggs tribute material either. It’s just how we played, naturally. By adding Barry Bales strong bass to the mix, we had the core of the sound. All we needed was someone to sing the songs and give us a canvas to paint on. I wracked my brain for the longest time on who could pull off the Lester essence without injecting their own trip into it. My first calls were to Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien. That could have worked, but Del was busy with two bands running the roads while trying to slow his life down at the same time. So it wasn’t fair to ask him to join us and complicate his life any further. Also looking back now, the sound would be seriously changed and leaned toward a trademark Del McCoury sound, which wasn’t the direction for this to go, leaving Tim O’Brien, another strong, well-known singer in his own right. Feeling right back at the drawing board, my wife Jill mentioned Shawn Camp. I had recorded with Shawn and seen him in his country bands and really enjoyed his vocal abilities, but never heard him as a singer in a bluegrass band. With Tim still in the mix as our Curly Seckler, we set a rehearsal at my house. From the first kickoff through the chorus the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I was scared to death. I had found the combination that I had been waiting for for forty years. We needed to record soon. I realized right away that old Dobros were the only thing I could use for this type of music. The newer hybrids are much louder and bassy than the original guitars that were built in the thirties, and I am one of the main culprits in changing that sound, first with Rudy Jones, then Tim Scheerhorn and Paul Beard. Those guitars were so different sounding and overpowering that I went back to my old model 37 from my J.D. Crowe days and also purchased a couple of model 27’s to throw into the mix. The sound is complete. It’s the only way to go and get the growl and snap that Josh played with. I love them. They are the sound that drew me to the Dobro in the first place.
SJ: I’m guessing that you started out to play like Josh Graves but somewhere along the way you developed your own approach, your own technique and your own unique signature style. What were some of the key elements that inspired you to search for your own voice on the instrument and what came first – the sounds you were looking for or the techniques, especially the right hand techniques, to create those sounds?
JD: When I was in the Country Gentlemen during the middle 70’s, I was cloning Mike Auldridge as he was the exciting new guy on the block and taking Dobro to another level. Not with his rolls so much as with his taste in knowing what to play behind the vocal in which the subject matter was much different than anything other bands were attempting at the time. I met him when he was with Emerson and Waldron. He just killed me with his right hand as he moved it to emit different emotions that guided the songs through their changes. From light to dark I would say. He first instilled in me this idea that we are all painting backgrounds for these lyrics to sit on. Otherwise they are just words against a blank canvas. I decided, or knew naturally that to present yourself as an artist, you need your own brushstroke in a sense. I had the fast fiddle tune right hand, and could play all the notes to the melodies of the instrumentals thanks to the Josh training. Next, I needed to learn how to create counter melodies that would enhance the lyrics and complete the thoughts behind the songs. That’s what I worked on with everyone I performed with from then on. I slowly built a mental encyclopedia of ins and outs for intros that were interchangeable on the fly. Not quite that cut and dried, but I think having something at your ready to get you from point A to B is important. I paid attention to the lyrics and tried to stay with the singer, but not be too predictable or cute. Watching my range as to not be too close to the singer’s unless a harmony should be implied. Sometimes playing nothing spoke volumes, where notes would only clutter a thought provoking line. I had the chops to fly along with the thousand notes per second guys, but wanted to be the opposite when I needed to be.
SJ: In the past you’ve mentioned the powerful effect other musicians have had on your own development and playing style. Can you give us an example of how collaborating with some of your favorite musicians influenced your approach to playing the dobro?
JD: Tony Rice is my most obvious choice of someone I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with. Our instruments are not that different really, forcing us to mirror each other at times. Also, we listened to a lot of the same other musicians to get new ideas and inspiration from. I loved playing with him and we have a huge body of work together. The songs he would pick for his own early recordings were very accessible to me and gave me a chance to do what I have previously mentioned about going from the world of speed to vulnerability in song content. His knowledge of chord structure was so important. I would play entire barred chords against his choices to create rich, heavy layers he could then sing over. Giving him note substitutions that could change the direction of the melody. I do the same with Alison many times against what Ron Block or Dan Tyminski might be playing. The result is lush and more pleasing to the ear than if it were just left to the root chord. Sam Bush’s powerful backbeat and Bela Fleck’s adventuresome melodic sense have taken me to places I could never have gone otherwise. These musicians are just from another planet, and I love to travel with them. We all pull things out of each other that we don’t know are there until we lead each other out to the end of the tree branch.
SJ: One of the things that I love about your music is that even your most complex tunes are really playful, and not complex for the sake of complexity. For example, tunes like Pushed Too Far or We Hide and Seek, which have extra beats and phrasing which is (at least for me) difficult to count but it all notes out correctly and is totally musical! Can you give us any insights into your creative songwriting process? Do you intentionally sit down to write a tune or do ideas bubble up out of the blue?
JD: When I write, its always in fits and starts. I may record, “always push record”, bits and pieces from sessions of just playing a stream of consciousness, then return to them later to see what fits together and what needs to go to magnetic heaven. Never to be heard from again. Several of my tunes have come very easily and just fallen out, but if I want to get a little tricky, I still want these songs or parts of songs to sound easy and accessible. I am not into blowing over the listener’s head. I want to keep them involved. The quickest way to lose them is to get cute or suddenly launch out of a straight-ahead tune into 7/4 or something like that with no warning. I try to build future surprises, or hints into the front of a song, so when it does really hit the fan, at least you’ve been warned. “Pushed Too Far” is that way. It starts out with a long phrase that is just that to me. I don’t want to count something I’m listening to, I want to just hear it as a full piece. Folks who can count these harder lines impress me, but they always seem to be counting it to impress each other that they know how. I realize though that sometimes to learn the phrase it is important to take it apart like. Maybe there’s a measure of 6, then 5, then another bar of 6, before it settles into the groove. These should be fun to listen to and not frustrating to listen to. If you’re frustrated, I’m doing something wrong.
SJ: You seem to have a knack for putting yourself into a great frame of mind during live performances. One of my favorite aspects of watching your performances have been watching/ listening to you improvise. As an aspiring dobro player I’m curious to know – how do you manage to ride that improvisational wave without getting overstimulated – thinking too much – and crashing every now and then?
JD: I just love to play. That’s the truth. I’m no stranger to digging a huge hole and not being able to find my way out of it. But that is the challenge. To take a little trip down the rabbit hole and see if I can get back to daylight. I’ve been playing a long time and kind of forget what it’s like to learn some of the fundamentals. I might start off a solo by entering on the anticipation of beat 3 instead of jumping right on the top of the tune, which puts you into a completely different mindset. Also heading down the scale instead of up as we usually do can mix things up a little. Painting yourself into a corner can be fun. Just don’t do it every time.
SJ: I loved your first 2 records but I was completely thunderstruck on several levels when you came out with Under The Wire (1986 MCA Master Series record). In an instant I could see that the dobro was capable of so much more than bluegrass and country music. But in addition, I was awestruck by the sonic landscape of that record. It seemed to me that Bil VornDick’s engineering gave your guitar an “otherworldly” sound that was inspiring to listen to. Did you intend Under the Wire and (the other Master Series records – Changing Channels and Plant Early) as a departure from your bluegrass roots, a conscious efforts to expand the range of the instrument, a combination of both, etc? Also, any comments about the engineering that went into making Under the Wire and the MCA Master Series recordings?
JD: The MCA Master Series recordings were right on the front end of the new all digital age. That probably accounts for a small bit of the tone, but not much. I am still an analog guy and have to hit at least quarter-inch tape (not a plug-in) at least once in the process of making a record (CD). They were the dream of MCA head Tony Brown to compete with the very popular Windham Hill Series. He really stuck his neck out for us. It was the first time any of us had been given budgets of this size and have complete artistic control over what we recorded. I was given the keys to go completely out of my comfort zone and record with drums and keyboards and every other thing that was not viewed as kosher with the listening Bluegrass public. I was essentially a new artist in a foreign land, being introduced to a brand new audience. What turned out happening was all of our regular audiences went with us and seemed to enjoy the fact that we could play our instruments in another genre. I did enjoy the change and found an addition to the audience I already had listening. It was a win/win. Because of the openness of the songs and landscapes, we mic’d the dobro differently than before. A little more distant, more mics, big diaphramed Neumann U-67’s and M-49’s and a lot more effects. Delays, long reverbs, and Eventide chorusing that had unlimited parameters. These effects gave us a completely different playing field. We weren’t so affected by bleedover from banjos and fiddles that were so prevalent on the more Bluegrass recordings. Those were replaced by a lot of electric keyboards, and the fact that we used more booths for separation. I wrote these tunes as vehicles for the dobro as the lead vocalist. So there was a real effort to depart the Bluegrass world with those. With all that done though, I don’t believe I ever went that far from where my roots really were. Whenever I hear something from that era, I still hear Josh and Mike once in a while. It’s a dobro after all.
SJ: One of the highlights of your work with Alison Krauss is the way you manage to frame the vocals and heighten the emotional drama of the song. It seems pretty clear that you approach backing up vocals as a composer; that your lines are composed, not improvised, correct? Is there a certain approach to creating your parts for backing up vocals? Can you give us an example of the process that you went through to create your parts for a specific song?
JD: If we use a song like “New Favorite” for an example, I didn’t really head out in a direction to compose the lines behind Alison. When we rehearsed the song the first time, I got ideas or hooks, if you will, that could reoccur in sections throughout the song. Sometimes those can be as powerful and recognizable as the lyrics. Then I set about supporting the vocal and lyrics. I try to develop a sound for the track and stick with it. I can add other dobros later, or a lap steel often to give the dobro support down low where I run out of range and sustain. The more tools I have at my disposal, the bigger the picture I can create. In this case, Alison overdubbed a chorus of fiddle and viola over my lap steel lines and created a huge backdrop for some of the more meaningful lines to emphasize the lyric and took the song to another level. There is a lot of thought that goes into these recordings. We have a really high bar we are striving to top every time we go in. It’s fun to go under that microscope.
SJ: There are very few musicians who have influenced their instrument the way you have influenced the dobro. Where are you in this stage of your career? Are you still actively searching for new ideas & new sounds?
JD: I feel like I’m in the prime years of my career. I have more musical ideas now than I have ever had on a daily basis, and more friends and collaborators than ever before to make them fruitful. I’m so happy to say that my hands are in good shape, and love having a show where I feel I can pull off almost anything I can imagine hearing.
In the last few years, I have worked with Larry Fishman and Paul Beard to create another path for all of us that uses a pickup system to take the dobro guitar to places not possible to go in the past. I never tire of looking for the next best thing.
SJ: Any closing thoughts for all of the aspiring dobro players out there?
JD: I hear so many great young dobro players. Gaven Largent, Josh Swift, and Jay Starling are just a few. The difference from when I was learning to play to now is so vast. The tools for learning to play the instrument are more plentiful than ever. What Rob Ickes has done with the ResoSummit is remarkable. My advice to all aspiring dobro players is very basic up front; Listen to everything that comes your way. Listen to each other. Be very aware of other musicians around you and try to extend their ideas to get you through your next solo. Get inspiration anywhere you can find it. It doesn’t always have to be musical. And breathe.
Rob Anderlik is a professional musician specializing in dobro and Weissenborn guitar. He is an active member of the music scene in Chicago and a frequent collaborator with players in a variety of musical genres and maintains an active schedule of gigs and studio projects. He can be found on the web at http://www.robanderlik.com