Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel team up for UK tour


Two of the most talented musicians in the world have recently teamed up and are currently touring around the UK. Australian guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel and Dobro extraordinaire, Jerry Douglas, have put on quite the show as they travel together around Europe.
I’ve seen and spoken to Tommy a couple of times now and have always been impressed, not just by his skills and work ethic but by his passion and attitude towards music, whilst I had always admired Jerry’s playing style from a distance. As I sit down with them both to talk about how the tour came about, Jerry begins by reflecting on his earliest days out on the road. “My dad’s a guitar player and he had a band, when I was about 13, I started playing with his band, but we were playing in what we call beer joints until I was 16. Then I got hired by this premier bluegrass band and went out on the road with them and I just remember thinking, I love this. I was gonna go to college and university to be an English major but I tossed that idea out and learnt the hillbilly language of the South.”
Since then, Jerry has toured with various artists and on his own, from Bela Fleck to Alison Krauss and Union Station and though with each tour, with each performance, the focus is very much on the song and how best to deliver it, Jerry’s mindset changes depending on the show. “Music is all about an attitude, different genres of music are differentiated by their subtle differences in the attitude in which you’re playing.” He goes on to talk about the different projects and his thought process, “I have a band called the Earl’s of Leicester, I got the idea for the name of the band, while I was in the UK actually, I passed a sign for Leicester. They don’t know how to pronounce it here in the States though. I created that band to make people remember who Flatt and Scruggs were and why they were so important to the genre of music that we were playing. It gave me chills the first time we got together and rehearsed it, it was a slam dunk. We even took on the characters, so of course our mindset changes when we’re playing that. It made a big splash in the bluegrass world, we made a record and won a GRAMMY so I guess we made our point.”
He goes on to compare his shows with Union Station to these shows he is doing now with Tommy. “Playing with Union Station is much stricter than playing with someone like Tommy. We had this angelic voice out in front of us from Alison but the intros to the songs, were as recognisable as the words of the song.Whereas with Tommy, there’s a lot of room for improvisation throughout the entire show.” Tommy, giving an insight into this tour in particular, adds, “Jerry always says to me, when are you going to call me up? What is the song? I don’t know. He’s like, I’ll just listen. It’s not as predictable as people think. Jerry and I don’t rehearse a lot; we work out the arrangement of a song, we play it a few times to make sure we got it right but we don’t over rehearse, we like to leave a mystery around what’s coming. Jerry’s the Muhammad Ali of the Dobro.”
Tommy reflects on the first time the pair got together and how this particular tour came about, “I’ve been aware of Jerry Douglas since the 70s. I didn’t get to meet him until about 15 years ago. We became instant friends and we kept seeing each other at different shows and things and then we decided to have a go at doing something together. So we worked out a few tunes to play and then we ended up doing the Opry. But we did a few of those kinds of things, some bluegrass festivals, Merle fest etc. When we started planning this tour, my manager, who is also Jerry’s manager suggested we play together so we decided to go for it.”
Tommy is known for his energetic performances and I was keen to know how he prepares and what he thinks about on stage. “When I go on stage, I’m going home, I have no reason to be nervous. People always say, how do you psych yourself up for a show? I’m like, you don’t want to psych yourself up. You want to be calm and clear when you go out there. Of course, you’re excited, and especially when you see or hear the crowd.”
When taking to the stage feels like going home, what does it feel like to have all that taken away? For Tommy, lockdown was tough, “I missed it like I miss my family,” he says but he focuses on the positives, “It made me do other things, I had to adjust like everybody else. But when I got back out to play live again, it was heaven. I did October, November, December, I did three separate tours in America and it was the biggest numbers I’ve ever had there and it was the biggest sale of merchandise ever in my life. How can you not be encouraged and enthusiastic about that?”
One project that Tommy worked on during the pandemic was the music for a film. He explains the unusual process from start to finish, “I did the music for a film that has just come out, a Queen Latifah movie. The film’s called ‘The Tiger Rising’. I was in San Jose and the musical director was in Los Angeles so I would just record what I was writing on my phone and text it to him. He’d listen to it and if he thought it was good for the scene, he would orchestrate it with keyboards. Then he would load it into the film, and see how it worked. Over a period of a couple of weeks, I wrote the whole film, just working on it every day. The director and the producer loved the music, so I flew to Nashville, the music director came with me. I recorded all my guitar parts for the whole film. Then the next day, we took over the big studio Ocean Way in Nashville, and recorded an orchestra all around the music that I’d written. So it was a live orchestra with my guitar playing that I’d recorded the day before. So we actually did the whole film in two days.”
After the pair, both legends in their own right, have come together to tour the UK after having long and successful careers, I wanted to know what their proudest moments have been so far. “I guess, the first time I played with James Taylor, because I was such a fan of his,” Jerry begins, “I grew up listening to to his music, and suddenly I’m playing with him! I got an award a few years ago, a National Fellowship from the National Council for the traditional arts, it’s sort of a stick to your guns award, I’ve been doing this all my life. I was named a fellow and that was a very proud moment for me.” Meanwhile, Tommy struggles with the question to begin with as he tries to narrow his achievements down. “Playing at the Olympic Games in 2000, with my brother, that was the biggest audience in television history. It was a labor of love and it wasn’t easy. It took a long time to rehearse and get the whole thing together and my brother and I want to play live. That was the most incredible thing for us. So the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, I would have to say, was probably the pinnacle of my life.”
There is still time to catch Tommy and Jerry on the road as they continue to tour the UK through to March 11th.

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