It was James Taylor who first dubbed Jerry Douglas the “Muhammad Ali of the Dobro.”
The nickname, much like Douglas’ sterling reputation, has stuck.
“That’s great to get some guy like that poking names at you,” said Douglas, whose prowess playing resonator guitar and lap steel has made him one of Nashville’s most in-demand musicians. “It’s all-out respect.”
Douglas is sure to earn some more accolades at the 25th annual Live Oak Music Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday at Live Oak Camp in northern Santa Barbara County. The all-star lineup includes singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, blues singer Ruthie Foster, folk vocalist Maura O’Connell and the Stooges Brass Band.
Chances are, Douglas has crossed paths with some of the Live Oak acts before.
In addition to his 14 solo albums, he’s played on more than 2,000 albums — collaborating with the likes of Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty and Earl Scruggs. He’s also the co-music director of the BBC series “Transatlantic Sessions,” which unites American roots artists with their Celtic counterparts.
“It’s very humbling to know that you’re standing in the presence of greatness,” said the 13-time Grammy Award winner, who performed at Live Oak in 1994. “These people are just being themselves …. (And) you’re just kind of wondering what the hell you’re doing there.”
Douglas, who grew up in northeastern Ohio, credits his steelworker father with introducing him to the dobro.
“Every morning I would get up to go to school and he’d be going to work and we’d be listening to Flatt and Scruggs,” Douglas recalled, tuning into hear “Uncle Josh” Graves on “The Martha White Show” when the weather permitted. “That went along with all the stuff I was hearing at night when I was going to bed from all the rock stations in Cleveland.”
The adaptable dobro, equally well-suited for blues, rock and bluegrass music, “bridged a gap for me,” added Douglas, who picked up the instrument at age 8. “It made it OK to listen to that music, in my mind.”
Even so, he kept his professional ambitions low-key.
“Nobody knew that I played music … on any real level until I graduated from high school and they found which bar I was playing,” said Douglas, who played with his dad’s group, the West Virginia Travelers, before joining progressive bluegrass’s Country Gentlemen in 1973 at age 17.
The musician moved to Nashville in 1979 to launch his solo career and won his first Grammy Award just four years later as part of the bluegrass band New South, whose membership included banjo player J.D. Crowe, guitarist Tony Rice and mandolin player Ricky Skaggs. Stints with Boone Creek, The Whites and the acoustic supergroup Strength in Numbers followed.
Meanwhile, Douglas was building his reputation as a session musician.
“It was a nonstop three (recording) sessions a day for 15 years,” Douglas said, but he eventually burned out. “That iron was hot for a long, long time. I just pulled away from it and decided I’d done enough.”
In 1998, he met Alison Krauss, who was searching for a temporary dobro player for her band.
After two weeks with Union Station, Douglas recalled, “They all surrounded me and said, ‘You just stay. We want to keep doing (this) and we want you to be a part of it.’ That was 16 years ago.”
The partnership has resulted in eight of Douglas’s Grammy wins — including a shared Album of the Year for 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. That chart-topping album, which garnered a total of five Grammys, had sold more than 8 million copies as of 2011.
“It really, really raised the profile of bluegrass and old-time music,” Douglas said of the soundtrack, which inspired a 2000 concert documentary and live album, “Down From the Mountain.” “(Here was this) crazy music that we were all told several times in our lives that we would never make any money playing. Boy, were they wrong.”
While Union Station specializes in a more subdued country-bluegrass sound designed to showcase Krauss’s angelic soprano, Douglas explained, “My show is much more raucous and blues-improvisational. … With my show, we take more chances.”
His freewheeling style can be heard on his latest solo album, “Traveler,” recorded in Nashville, New Orleans, Montreal, New York City, and Banbury, England.
“I wanted to push it and see what happened when I got outside of my comfort zone,” said Douglas, who rounded up an all-star team of Big Easy musicians led by pianist Dr. John.
“Traveler,” which features Sam Bush on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, Omar Hakim on drums, Viktor Krauss on bass and Del McCoury on harmony vocals, has cameos by Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Mumford and Sons and more.
The album marks Douglas’s first time working with an outside producer, Russ Titelman.
“His track record is impeccable. He’s got these mega-hit records behind him,” Douglas said of Titelman, who has worked with Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and other luminaries.
“I felt he had my best intentions in his bag of tricks,” he said. “He was steering the boat, but I was supplying the fuel.”
Douglas’s upcoming projects include a “dobro trio” album featuring Mike Auldridge and Rob Ikes, and an album of Flatt and Scruggs covers. Both should serve to preserve his “King of the Dobro” title.
Compared to when he picked up the dobro, “There are a thousand more people playing them,” Douglas said. “I hope I’m partially responsible for that. Half of my existence is to be a diplomat for an instrument, to spread the word for the dobro.”
IF YOU GO
8:45 p.m. Sunday Main Stage, Live Oak Camp
Live Oak Music Festival
2 p.m. to midnight Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. Sunday
Live Oak Camp, Highway 154, near Cachuma Lake
$40 to $125 festival pass, $20 to $55 day pass; $10 to $70 parking
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.