A Great Guitarist Digs Deep With The Legends
By Derek Halsey
Bryan Sutton’s resume speaks for itself. He came out of a musically inclined family in North Carolina with the intent of becoming a first rate recording session musician. Along the way, many of the world’s top musicians heard him play and then asked him to tour and record with them, including folks like Earl Scruggs, the Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, and Mark O’Connor. Sutton won the coveted International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitarist of the Year Award in 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2005. Whenever his name appears on the liner notes of an album, it is an attention getter for those who know of his talent.
His life is busy these days, with a young family to go along with the concert tours and recording sessions. Now, with his reputation fully achieved, he has released a new album of duets with many of America’s great guitarists. Titled “Not Far From The Tree - A Collection Of Guitar Duets With Heroes And Friends,” Sutton concocted a portable recording outfit and went around asking the legendary guitarists who influenced his playing from the beginning to duet with him, and luckily they said yes. “Not Far From The Tree” finds Sutton playing with Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Earl Scruggs, David Grier, Dan Crary, Russ Barenburg, Norman Blake, Ricky Skaggs, Jack Lawrence, George Shuffler, and his father, Jerry Sutton.
There is a lot to talk about here, with the lineup that this new CD features, and Bryan was gracious enough to grant an extended interview from his house in Nashville.
Bryan, it is good to talk with you again. What are you up to today?
It’s a day off here in Nashville and I’m practicing. I’m here at the house and I have some music to work on, and that’s about it.
How often do you get to practice at home?
Not a lot. Not as much as I should. It usually requires something I have to learn, or want to learn. But, I have two small kids so it seems that they take up whatever free time is left over after work.
I love the new album. To hear all of those different and great guitar players on one project is a real treat. How did you come up with the list, as far as the guitarists that joined you on the CD?
Thank you. Well, I sat down and tried to figure out all my favorite guitar players, at least all my favorite bluegrass guitar players. They were some guys that influenced me to some degree through the years, some earlier, some more recent. Everybody that is on there, I felt like, has basically shaped the way that I play. They have influenced me on a lot of different levels, both musically and personally, through the years. I obviously chose guys that were still alive that I could call up and make happen.
I think that is one of the wonderful things about your career right now, in that you are able to call up these great musicians and have them say yes to you.
Yeah, that was a pretty special part of it. These guys are my guitar heroes, but I’m very fortunate to be able to call them all pretty good friends. I’ve known some of them longer and some of them better than others, but they are all guys that I have come across in the last 10 or 15 years out there playing that I have created some sort of relationship with outside of just the first name basis kind of stuff. It’s real special to me to be able to know these guys on that level. That’s why I called it "A Collection Of Guitar Duets With Heroes And Friends."
Plus, as you and I know, I’ve met all kinds of musicians from all walks of life and music genres, and bluegrass musicians tend to be nice guys for the most part.
Yeah, everybody’s pretty accessible and it seems like I’ve always felt, from all of these guys on there, that people generally want to help you along your way and do whatever they can to help out.
Did you have to think long and hard about the songs that were chosen for each guitarist?
Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I showed up with my microphones and stuff and sat down and talked about it there. I had an idea. There were song choices that I thought would fit well for whoever that duet partner would have been at any given moment, a song that would fit their style, or even a song of theirs that actually influenced me. Like with Dan Crary, the tune ‘Forked Deer’ is one I learned off of a teaching series he had a long time ago called ‘Flatpicking Fiddle Tunes.’ I learned that tune directly from him, so it was special to be able to sit down and play it with him. With Earl, his guitar influence on bluegrass reached back into that Carter Family tradition so I knew I wanted to pick a tune that accentuated that. With Tony Rice, obviously, I wanted something that delved into some of the more jazzier things and something of the bluegrassier side, which is why we ended up playing two tunes. I just felt like I couldn’t get all the ‘Tony Rice’ I needed in one song. Stylistically, I didn’t really change my playing, I tried to be as in the moment as possible and be reactive to what was going on. My goal was, hopefully, that somebody listening to that can hear those individual styles, but also hear how each of those players has influenced me. It might be little tiny things that might jump out in my playing here and there based on somebody’s influence. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Were there any songs that you might have learned as a youngster that you wanted to take to a new level now that you are a more accomplished player?
Well, I just showed up and tried to create as much of a moment as possible. I was pretty pleased with a lot of the interplay that I got on the record. Again, it was more about the interplay and the conversation between the two guitars than it was the ‘you play, and then I play, and then you play, and I’ll play again’ kind of back and forth with one solo after another. I tried to make it, even in the mix process, to where the rhythm was as loud as any lead playing going on. I wanted the listener to feel like they had their head stuck right in-between two guitars, to feel what that would feel like, to feel the power and the beauty of that kind of sound. We would do a couple of takes of each tune and I’d go back and edit some of those great parts together to make the final version of the tune, and I felt like I was able to do that. Everybody plays good on there, and there were a lot of good solos on there, but what makes me the most proud and happy about it is that I feel that it’s a very musical record. Each song really says something about what the song can be.
The traditional song that you play with Norman Blake called “Bully Of The Town” has a real 1920’s kind of sound to it.
Yeah. Well, again, it’s Norman Blake’s personality. All of these guys have real specific personalities when they are playing, and that is one of their influences on me. Each of these guys have been able to communicate music through their guitar playing, and Norman specifically with his great interpretation of those old songs like that. It really does take you back in time to hear him play. He’s so musical and so refreshing. That’s been his influence on me, always remembering to keep strong to those traditions, and realize where they all came from, and why they were great.
You mention in your liner notes that “Bully Of The Town” was also a favorite song of your grandfather, Grover Sutton. Was he a musician?
Yeah. He was an old time fiddler, so I heard that song all my life. He mainly played fiddle during most of my life, but he played guitar to. Most of my first guitars were his or my Dad’s guitars, so there were always guitars around. But, his main instrument was fiddle later on in his life.
Did you ever play the fiddle?
Yeah I did. I played fiddle, pretty intently, for about seven or eight years. When I first starting to do recording sessions there was a guy named David Johnson over in western North Carolina that did a lot of the work there and he plays everything. He plays fiddle and mandolin and banjo and guitar, steel guitar and harmonica and all this kind of stuff, Dobro, and basically in order for me to get any sort of studio work I had to be able to replace him. If they couldn’t get him on a particular day I had to able to offer the same kind of things. So, when I first started to do recording sessions I turned myself into what they call a utility player, which meant playing mandolin and guitar, but I had to learn a lot more country electric guitar, and then banjo and fiddle came along with that. And that was what I did for about four or five years fairly solidly.
Who were your main influences on electric country guitar?
With the electric, Ricky Skaggs, Brent Mason, Albert Lee for sure, and then I listened a lot to guys like Don Rich with Buck Owens. And then Chet Atkins, obviously.
I watched you give a guitar workshop at the IBMA convention a few years ago and you talked about the importance of George Shuffler’s cross-picking style of playing. Is it possible to explain the Shuffler cross-pick style without showing it to somebody in person?
The best way to explain it is that it allows the guitar player to sort of mimic the way a banjo player would interpret a melody with a roll. A banjo player has got three fingers to roll with, and with all of those notes, the goal is to deliver a melody. What George Shuffler did was take that same approach, but with a flatpick. So, he would play the melody of tunes within a roll, and that roll is what they call cross picking because you get a real, sort of waterfall effect, if you will. He played his two strokes down and then one up. So you get ‘down-down-up, down-down-up, down-down-up.’ The hypnotic effect of that roll is the cross pick technique.
In that workshop you also pointed out that the guitar did not have a lot of breaks in a bluegrass song before Shuffler came along. What did you mean by that?
Yeah. It was an interesting time. There were a few examples of it. You had Hank Snow, for instance, in the country world doing a lot of single note lead guitar playing, and you had a few of it in bluegrass, even from Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe where a guitar would do a kick off. When Bill Monroe first played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 he played ‘Muleskinner Blues’ and he played the guitar and did that big opening guitar lick, which was essentially a lead guitar thing. He didn’t take an exact solo, but. What George did was to incorporate the concept that when a fiddle player takes his part, and a banjo player takes his part, the guitar player could also take his part. He made the guitar in bluegrass important just as Maybelle Carter made the guitar important in country music. They made guitar players important, and made it a part of the sound and part of the intent to have guitar solos, and guitarists that could play lead lines, as opposed to just playing rhythm.
I interviewed Jim VanCleve of Mountain Heart the other day and he has a completely different take on making a solo record. He also has a new record out called ‘No Apologies,” as you know because you play on it. With him, he wants to push the envelope and play some newgrass type of music on his solo work, while you tend to go back and explore the more traditional sounds of bluegrass music on your efforts. What are your thoughts about that?
Well, last year I was out on the road with Bela Fleck playing some really progressive music, and it seems like a lot of the stuff that I end up playing is fairly progressive like that. Doing my own records is sort of a chance to get back and play what I feel in my heart. It’s been kind of a growth for me. I’m starting to write more. It is forcing me into newer areas of music where I am writing newer kinds of songs. But, essentially, I’m just an old flatpick guitar player. I really love playing fiddle tunes, and I really love playing solid bluegrass. I feel like a lot of times I don’t get a chance to do as much of that as I want to on records because I end up playing more modern sounding things. So, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity on my own records to make an offering for people to listen to that really sounds like the music that is in my head and the deepest points of my heart.
How did your father and grandfather approach teaching you to play an instrument, or talking you into practicing an instrument, and so on when you were a kid?
Everything was always kept really fun. Music is such a strong part of the people that I grew up around. That is basically what we did. I grew up in it as deep in it as you can grow up, and it just seemed normal. There was never any push from him. It was there, probably, before he knew I was going to be there as far as wanting to learn, and showing up, and trying to hang in with jam sessions and things like that. He taught me a lot just by example once I got going and really started playing a lot. Watching how he conducted himself around everybody else, I learned a lot from him and my Grandfather about being a solid person. You can’t take that stuff to seriously at the end of the day. You’re just making music for people, and you have to go to bed that night knowing that you’ve done some good and that you enjoyed playing the music, and that is what I learned from my Dad and Grandfather and those guys around Asheville. There is little specific stuff about the music business and musical things that come and go, things that I learn and forget and relearn, but a lot of the basic tenets of how I carry myself and the attitude that I try to maintain I learned from Dad.
Did you father or grandfather play music for a living, or did they have day jobs?
Grandfather kept the books for an insurance agency, and then he made fiddles and traded fiddles and fixed fiddles throughout his retirement. Dad was a high school teacher, and then in his retirement he has been messing around with guitars and various things.
The song “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” that you play with Tony Rice is special not only because Tony plays it with you, but also because it was written by someone who was good to me in Vassar Clements. Vassar wrote the song with his wife Millie, and both of them are gone now. In fact, Vassar was dying as you recorded this.
Yeah, the tune came to mind because I was trying to think of a song that would be a jazzier kind of thing on there, something that would allow us to do a little bit of something outside of a traditional fiddle tune or a bluegrass tune but not get too far out there, and that is a perfect tune for that. Vassar was fairly ill when we recorded it and I called Tony a couple of weeks later and he said that he had told Vassar that we did it and he said that Vassar lit up when he told him. That made it all the more special.
How special is it to play and record with such a legend as Doc Watson?
He was great. Scheduling was an issue because I was so busy last year, and we were trying to find a time to do it and we finally realized that we were at the same festival out in Colorado. So, I hauled all my gear out there and he was a great gentleman to sit in there and do that. I was thinking after that was done that, while I wanted everybody on the record that was there, and that it would be tough to put a record out without all those specific guys, with Doc, in particular, it would have been really hard to do this record had we not been able to work that out. I was so relieved and thankful that we got it done, even if I did have to go all the way out to a hotel room in Colorado to get it. It was all worth it. He is a special guy, and none of us would be playing guitar the way we do if it wasn’t for him.
I’ve heard Doc tell the story that when he was younger he played in a dance band in North Carolina. He said that one night the fiddle player didn’t show up, so he tried to play the fiddle parts on his guitar, and that sparked his whole outlook on lead playing and solos for the future.
There are a lot of those stories from those early days of music where people were trying to cover somebody else’s parts, or finding a hole and needing to fill something with something else, so they created a whole new style.
The song you chose to play with Jerry Douglas cracks me up. How often, at this point in his amazingly progressive career, is Jerry going to play an old time traditional like “Bonaparte’s Retreat?”
(Laughs) When I was asking him about it he said that he never recorded it. I thought that he had sometime in the past. It was just one of those songs that, as I was going through these players and figuring out the songs that I wanted to do, I figured that he would be able to tear that one up pretty well. One of the great things about this is that I am blessed to be able to know these guys, and he has been a really good friend to me over the years. He has helped me musically and professionally and personally, and I’ve had some great talks with him about the music business and all that kind of stuff. But, he is an old bluegrasser at heart. As modern and as advanced as things get, he’s still got a lot of the basic intent in his musical heart. He’s all about drive and good tone and delivering good melodies and things like that, things we all take to heart when we play bluegrass. Songs like ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ come naturally to him because it allows him to do what he does best.
In a lot of ways you have taken Jerry’s place as far as all the studio work that he used to do. You are still doing a lot of studio work these days, aren’t you?
Yeah. When I first moved to Nashville about 11 years ago it was basically my intent to just be a session player. I hadn’t been playing that much bluegrass or flatpick kind of guitar. Like I said earlier, I was applying a lot of electric guitar and mandolins and fiddles and things like that. I just wanted to try and make it as a session player. So, as all of this bluegrass world for me has kind of developed, as far as my career as an ‘artist’ I’d guess you’d call it, I’ve always been able to maintain a steady career here in Nashville as a session player. It is great to be able to do both, but it is hard to balance both with a family. But, it is really rewarding. I love a lot of the musicians that I get to play with here in Nashville, some of the best in the world, and they really challenge me on a lot of different levels. I know that when Jerry was doing a lot of sessions, and Sam Bush, and Mark O’Connor, they were some of the big reasons I moved here, to play with guys like that. The drummers and bass players and electric guitar players, just to be able to be around those guys and hear different influences come out is really neat.
You play the song “Give Me The Roses” with another absolute legend in Earl Scruggs, only on here he is playing guitar and not banjo. There are people who still don’t realize how good a guitar player Earl has always been. And, he has always channeled the style of Mother Maybelle Carter whom he admired a lot.
For bluegrass guitar players, I guess he could be considered overlooked. But, like with George Shuffler, whom we talked about with bringing forth the concept that a guitar could take a lead in a song, that is something that Earl also has a big part in. He loved Mother Maybelle’s playing, and a lot of people wouldn’t be aware of that if it wasn’t for Earl. He brought that sound to a bluegrass audience and kept it there on TV and on all of those records that they made back in the 1950’s and 60’s. He has basically kept Mother Maybelle’s guitar tradition alive, and not just the specifics of her playing, but conceptually as well. That is another thing about bluegrass guitar, it is one of the quieter instruments when you compare it to banjo or mandolin or fiddle. So, a lot of those guys like Shuffler or Mother Maybelle and Earl, they were strong players. When you listen to the guys that came after them, like when Clarence White and Doc Watson started doing a lot of recordings, and then Tony Rice later on, guitar players were strong. They knew they had to be heard. You really had to step it up and go. For Doc to say that he wanted to try and play the fiddle lines on the guitar at a dance, its one thing to do that, but then to make it to where people can hear it and understand it was another thing. The rhythm and technique that those people were displaying back then was pretty amazing.
You and Tony Rice play a second song called “Dusty Miller,” and it is rocking. What is Tony’s station in the history line of bluegrass guitar and music?
On that song I wanted something that we could go to town on and play all the bluegrass licks we knew. He has had as much influence on bluegrass guitar as Earl Scruggs has had on bluegrass banjo. You don’t hear anybody play the instrument these days that hasn’t been influenced by Tony Rice. He was the tipping point for bluegrass guitar. I can see it as the era before Tony Rice, and the era after Tony Rice. Once he showed up, the way to play bluegrass guitar was different. What Tony was able to do, as I was talking about before with the whole digging in thing, not that Clarence didn’t dig in, but Tony has always kept such a strong sense of rhythm and a strong sense of how to drive a song along, and his leads do the same. One of the things that I’ve always picked up from him is that how he makes such a strong presence rhythmically, and his leads don’t back down either. Playing bluegrass is a real physical kind of thing, and it requires that kind of digging in. He has such a bluesy and a jazzy kind of approach, and it’s real greasy. When you break down what he does it is so syncopated and so rhythmic, and its infectious in the way it sounds, and you can always pick it out.
Bluegrass musician Katie Laur has always pointed out that Tony has a knack for picking the right tempo for a song, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, I’ve always thought that. When he kicks off a song, I think he learned that from guys like JD Crowe. JD Crowe is that kind of banjo player. You know in two notes when JD Crowe kicks off a song what the tempo is going to be, and it’s right. A lot of it comes from confidence. He is sure about where he wants it to be so that everybody falls in.
What was the tour like with the Acoustic Trio, featuring Bela Fleck, you, and a great young fiddler in Casey Driessen?
That was great. It was really one of the closest experiences I’ve had to actually being in a consistent band. We co-wrote things and co-arranged pieces, and it was great to see them get developed over the year that we played together. I love both of those guys a lot so it was always fun and I always looked forward to doing it, and I hope we can do more.
Now that you have made an album with the legends of past generations, have you ever thought of making a new album of duets with the great guitar pickers of your generation?
I have. I’ve done a little it of that. Flatpick Guitar magazine and Dan Miller have done some different videos and CDs through the years of different duets that I’ve done over the last several years. There is a video of Tim Stafford, Jim Hurst and I. And then some recordings of me with guys like Brad Davis or David Grier or Curtis Jones, great players like that. It’s on my mind. It may happen.
How often do you get to hear other players these days, and what do you think of them? Have you heard Larry Keel play, for instance?
We’ve done a few workshops together. I really like his sound. I like what he is doing. He’s a nice guy. I haven’t been able to play with Larry a whole lot. There are a lot of good guitar players out there right now. Chris Eldridge is probably one of my favorite guitar players to listen to right now. He is doing some things that people haven’t done yet, with some different interpretations of things. I always liked Tim Stafford. And, it is fun to listen to guys like Clay Jones. Jones has got such a drive about him, and intensity. Clay and I sort of grew up together. I knew him back when we were 12 and 14 years old over in North Carolina. We would show up at a lot of the same festivals. It’s neat on this end of it to see your buddies doing good and still playing music. Clay and I go back pretty far. It’s fun to dive in with a guy like that.
At last year’s Merlefest you put together a “Not Far From The Tree” presentation with Jerry Douglas, Jack Lawrence, Tony Rice, George Shuffler and your father Jerry all playing with you onstage. What did it mean to you to be able to do that?
It’s hard to put into words. I get over-emotional with that kind of stuff. I’ve never gotten to the point where I take that for granted. Every day that goes by I realize the blessing that I have to be able to do what I do, and with the people that I get to do it with. When moments like that happen I try and relish it as much as I can and try to remember every little aspect of it, and make the most of it. It’s overwhelming. I never set out, early on, to do those kinds of things. Even now when I get a call to play with any of those guys, or if I get a call to play with Bela or Sam Bush or Jerry or any of those guys, I can’t get over it sometimes. That is one of the neat things about bluegrass music is that so many of our heroes are still alive and playing great music and still creating. I’m so thankful and blessed to be in an era where you can get all of that and can go and play with Earl Scruggs. He is a good friend of mine, and I never dreamed that I could live this kind of life.
Another concert along those lines that you took part in was the 75th birthday jam for Vassar Clements at the 2003 Merlefest. I was lucky enough to be there to see and hear it. Here you were onstage with the late Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, and Mark Shatz. Not only that, but I thought of you as you were off to the left, standing next to Tony Rice, playing the same instrument that he revolutionized. Do you ever look down the stage and freak out that you are up there with those legends?
Yeah, it doesn’t seem real. I’ve had to force myself to sort of get passed some of that stuff because I can’t just be google-eyed around these guys when we’re working because at the end of the day we have to deliver some good music and do our job. I sort of liken it to seeing some young rookie on a football team, or somebody who might get to play for the Yankees or something, who gets to play baseball in his first year with some of those greats that were still around. Or something like Tiger Woods who got to come into the PGA and play with guys like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicholas and guys like that. It’s amazing to be able to play music with guys like Jerry and Sam and Bela, but to also be buddies with them as well. It certainly keeps me on my toes. I feel the responsibility of it more than anything. I know that I’m up there and I better be delivering some stuff. If I didn’t play as good as I can, or try and be as strong as I can be, then it’s not doing those guys justice and it’s not doing their legend justice. That was the thing about Jerry, he was a really good friend to me and a champion of me, I guess, and sort of sent me out in some situations, and you feel the responsibility of that. I don’t want to let those guys down, so I better step up and do my job. With Tony Rice, these guys have been so kind to me. A lot of people, it seems like, in acting and sports and things like that, you get some of these stories where they meet their heroes and are under whelmed or get a bad experience. I haven’t had anything like that. I’ve been impressed with everybody that I’ve gotten to play with. They have not looked at me as a threat or the young kid that won’t go away or anything like that. They have been open-armed and really encouraged me to get better and be the best that I can be.
And here you are making an album with these legends that may not be around many years from now. It is going to mean a lot to you down the road.
Oh yeah. Certainly. It’s one of those things that I’ll always be glad that I’ve got.