Talking First Generation Bluegrass Giants with Doyle Lawson
Talking with Doyle Lawson about bluegrass is a lot like talking with Thomas Jefferson about America’s independence. There is something personal and tangibly real when a music legend is able to talk in the first-person about their own relationships with other music legends of historic proportions.
Doyle Lawson can call on his relationships with all of the first-generation greats of bluegrass in conversation. Bill Monroe inspired him to join the genre. Jimmy Martin gave him some of his first pointers and let him join his band in his late teens. He played as part of J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys in the 60s and 70s. Lawson was a member of the famed bluegrass band, The Country Gentlemen (headed up by another legend, Charlie Waller), in the 70s.
But since 1979, Lawson has headed up his own creation: Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Between the IBMA and the SPBGMA, they’ve won over ten Vocal Group of the Year awards. They’ve set the standard with all-time bluegrass great songs such as “He Lives In Me,” “Blue Train,” and “Little Mountain Church House.” The band members have changed over time, but their quality harmonies and impeccable musicianship have remained constant.
We caught up with Mr. Lawson in between show dates on his tour bus where he shared his passion of the bluegrass genre with Engine 145.
Ken Morton, Jr.: First of all, congratulations on your recent IBMA nomination for Vocal Group of the Year.
Doyle Lawson: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you very much.
KMJ: At this point in your career, what do nominations and recognitions like that mean to you and the band?
DL: Well, you know they’re always special. It kind of gives a nod of approval for your efforts. And although I’ve been at this a long long time, it still lets me know that people still know that I’m trying to do the very best performances that I can and make the very best records I can make available. It kind of gives you a little kick and makes you want to try a little harder. If that’s possible for me, anyways. They’re always special, though. I’m quick to tell anybody that it’s not about the awards, but that they’re very special. No one appreciates them any more than I do—even if they’re just nominations. For me, it has always been first and foremost about the music. If you go out everyday and do the very best you can, you’ll reap the rewards however ever they come. That might be awards or monetary or whatever they may be. It starts with the love of the music and hard work.
KMJ: You mentioned the length of time you’ve been at this. I don’t mean to insinuate that you’re retiring any time soon, but what do you hope your bluegrass legacy to be when your playing career is all said and done?
DL: I hope they remember that I tried to give everybody the very best that I could. In my career, that’s always been my goal. Whether I was working for somebody or whatever scene that might be, individually I always tried to give more than 100% if that’s possible. Whenever I do retire, which I don’t plan on doing anytime soon, I’ll know when the time comes when it’s the right time to step aside. But I’ve always given it the very best that I had.
KMJ: I had an opportunity to watch you play at the Bluegrass Underground this summer and I know you took some significant time at the microphone to pay tribute to those influenced you in the early part of your career. And I know you’ve done that extensively over the course of your career with Quicksilver. Why is that so important to you?
DL: I think that is part of maintaining the traditions of bluegrass. There are those pioneers that blazed this trail and many, if not most, of these first-generation musicians have either retired or passed on. And their memories are very important. There’s that old saying that “out of sight is out of mind.” It seems that time has a way of eroding accomplishments of people like the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. We know and we try to remember that. But at the same time, the younger generations come on, they’re not as in tune with the first generation people as many of us were and are. It’s a personal thing. I don’t tell anybody what they should do. But for me, I never want to forget my roots. And I never want to forget the people that got me here to where I am today.
KMJ: You mentioned Bill Monroe. Who are some of those other big influences on you over the course of your career?
DL: I mentioned Bill Monroe because he is the reason I wanted to play bluegrass. I heard him on the radio on the Grand Ole Opry when I was about five years old. That was 1948 or 1949 and he was playing with the stars of that day. And of course, one of the biggest stars was Hank Williams. Eddy Arnold was another star of the day at that time. Roy Acuff. Ernest Tubb. There were all kinds of people like that. And they all played great country music. I love good country music. But Bill’s music was different. It really tugged at my heartstrings. As small as I was, it touched me in a way I’d never felt. I just fell in love with the high lonesome sound and the intensity in the emotion that was presented in his voice as well as his mandolin. There was something about that banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass together that was exciting for me. And for me, other music didn’t. That’s why I wanted to learn how to play.
And it set a course for me that when I was 14 years old, I met a man that had worked for a man who had worked for Jimmy for about five years. And that’s, of course, the man we refer to as the King of Bluegrass, the late Jimmy Martin. I met him when I was 14 years old and he took some time with me and gave me lessons and techniques in playing the mandolin and how to hold my wrists properly and how to keep my fingers close to the fingerboard. It was little things like that which at 14 years old you would never think about.
Four years later, I went to Nashville and took a job with Jimmy and I was playing banjo. There was Jimmy and Bill and then I worked with the late Charlie Waller for almost eight years in the Washington DC area. That was a band called The Country Gentlemen.
The late Don Reno was a friend of mine. We lived in the same town for several years before he died. I was living in Lynchburg, Virginia and we were neighbors there. I was living there. We were working in the same industry and he was influence.
Mac Wiseman is another one that has virtually retired from the road. He’s still doing some things from home. But he’s around 86 years old. Father time has slowed him down. He opted to back away when it was time.
But people like that. Another is Bobby Osborne from the Osborne Brothers. Those are just some of the people—certainly not all of them. I could go on and on. Those are just a few. I don’t mean to leave out anybody. Of course, I grew up in East Tennessee and over there and in the coal fields of southwestern Virginia were Ralph and Carter Stanley. When I was a kid, I heard them on a local radio show out of Bristol, Tennessee from Virginia. They were on a radio show called The Farm and Fun Time Show.
You can see that I was brought up and steeped in the first generation musicians of bluegrass. I’ve got one foot in the first generation and the other foot in what I’m doing now.
KMJ: That probably leads into my next question well. You’ve recently added a couple of new musicians into Quicksilver. Both are young guys in their early 20s. How is it working with youth like that on a daily basis?
DL: Anyone that’s come and seen a performance knows that while they might be young, they have lots of experience. My newest addition is a banjo player only twenty years old. He’s a young kid named Jessie Baker. But musically, he has a musical knowledge and an expertise of a man twice his age And it shows, which is why I hired him. And he had all the necessary tools when he came. And not only is he a great banjo player, he can turn right around with the guitar. If you’re a fan of the late Merle Travis or Chet Atkins, he can knock you out a real sweet tune in that style of guitar playing. He can even play some mandolin. He’s a very very talented kid and he fits right in with what we’re doing.
My guitar player (Mike Rogers) was actually a drummer for a country singer named Craig Morgan for about eight and a half years. But he grew up over in South Carolina around Myrtle Beach and was around bluegrass music. His father played the fiddle. And he loves bluegrass and the time was right so he came aboard. And while they both might be relatively new to the bluegrass scene, they are not amateurs by any stretch of the imagination.
KMJ: Do you find that the youth in the group pushes you or is it still vice-versa?
DL: Oh, I push them hard. (laughter) You know, we really do challenge each other. And that’s good. That’s what excites me. They challenge me. And I challenge them more. But I know all the shortcuts. I’ve been doing this a long time—longer than any of them have been alive. We have so much fun on stage. But we challenge each other musically. But we do it with admiration and we do it as a unit. The music has to be solid. It can’t be every man for him self. There has to be some cohesion and unity to the music. We keep that intact. But at the same time, it doesn’t bother me if one of the guys wants to stretch out a little bit. That’s okay, as long as we keep the unity and the cohesiveness that we have to have.
KMJ: You’re one of the few modern bluegrass acts that uses percussion. Is that a personal choice or is it something else with a certain style that you’re looking for?
DL: It’s a personal choice, first and foremost. People fail to realize, because they haven’t been involved in this particular genre of music as long as I have, that when I was in Nashville and took a job on the third day of February in 1963 as a banjo player for Jimmy Martin, he had a drummer. He did it much the same way I do now, he uses brushes. We add a little snare drum for the percussion and the rhythm. Over a period of time, some people have carried drums off and on the road. By and large, the majority of people haven’t carried them on the road. But the majority of people, when they did their recordings used some sort of drums. But I’ve always thought that if I’m going to record with it, I want it on stage. I want the live song on the radio to sound as close to the original recording as we can. That ensures me that for the most part, they’re hearing what they hear on the CD. They’ll hear the real us. I’ve never been one to load up an album with too many guests because if you don’t carry it on the road, sometimes people come away disappointed. “They didn’t sound at all like their recording.” I don’t want that. I want people to see me in all of my entirety. I want them to hear the same thing on the recording as they do in my appearances.
KMJ: What’s next for Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver? Any upcoming projects in the works?
DL: As you know, we have a real gospel music following in addition to our secular one. We’re collecting material for our next gospel recording. By and large, it will be all original stuff this time. The material will be by bona fide writers. One plus I have is that my guitar player, Mike Rogers, is also a very good songwriter. He’s brought me some things that he and some of his co-writers have been working on. And it’s really exciting. It will continue in some of the vein that you saw in the Bluegrass Underground show. You’ll hear the same format with the percussion and all of that. We intend to keep all of that because in the southern gospel world, we get a lot of airplay. That will be an added plus for us. I think by doing that, we’ll get even more airplay than we’re getting right now.
KMJ: What’s your goal for a release date for that project?
DL: Hopefully by February or March of next year.
KMJ: And my last question for you, what is bluegrass to Doyle Lawson?
DL: You can answer that in a number of ways. First of all, it’s an honest to goodness heartfelt emotional piece of music that people can get into the content or context of the song. If it’s a happy song, you play it happy. If its melancholy, you try and get the people in that kind of mood. But I’ve answered this question before in a way that makes some kind of people raise their eyebrows. When they ask me what bluegrass is, I say, “Bill Monroe. Lester Flatt. Earl Scruggs. Chubby Wise. Cedric Rainwater.” Those are the five people that set the tone and wrote the book for the music you hear now. That became the model for what we know as bluegrass today. Over the years those guys were doing things in music that no one else knew how to do. They had all those fingers flying around and people were asking, “How do you do that?” And people would say, “There’s no one in the world that can sing that high. These guys aren’t human.” They set the tone and those five guys I mentioned are the pillars of the music we play today.
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