News/Thoughts

Bluegrass Music Icon Doyle Lawson

I got the chance to speak with Doyle Lawson nearly 10 years ago. As we settled in again for a quick catch up, we both marveled at how quickly time flies by. My grandparents used to say, “just wait till you get to be my age.” It didn’t make much sense then, but these days, I get it.

I asked Doyle, who has been in the music business almost 55 years now, what makes you keep doing this – what keeps this fun for you? “It’s the very thing that has always made me want to do this, that has kept me doing this,” he said. “It’s purely for the love of the music.”

Ten years ago he remarked, “My reward is getting to get up on stage and perform, and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces and put a little joy in their heart, and make them glad that they came.” That sentiment is still true, which is what makes Doyle and his band Quicksilver such a coveted addition to any festival ticket. That enthusiasm radiates from the stage; and it’s contagious.

How It Began
Doyle was born near Kingsport, Tennessee in 1944, and he began his career as a bluegrass musician there in 1963 with Hall of Honor member and bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin. For the next 15 years, he honed his skills doing what he loved best, singing and playing the mandolin, in emerging bluegrass groups such as the Kentucky Mountain Boys and then The Country Gentlemen. “From the time I was a small child I knew this was my life, what I was going to be doing as a career, and I never strayed from that,” Doyle said.

In 1979, he struck out on his own and formed the band Quicksilver. Those formative years paid off as Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver rose to the top. They released a series of acclaimed albums—including the pioneering all-gospel Rock My Soul in 1981. Sticking closely to the traditional bluegrass roots, Lawson developed a style that blends traditional and gospel elements with some progressive influences that has become the distinctive Lawson/Quicksilver sound.

Much of the group’s early music was influenced by drawing on material contained in Doyle’s father’s shape-note hymnbook collection (see related article in this issue), and on the sounds of African-American gospel quartets and southern gospel groups he heard as a young boy. They recorded more than 15 all-gospel bluegrass albums that featured a wide range of styles, making a powerful impression in the bluegrass community. He was also a member of the Bluegrass Album Band, which helped bring the repertoire and musical approaches of the music’s early giants to new generations of musicians and fans in a series of acclaimed albums made between 1980 and 1996. All of that helped to solidify Doyle Lawson’s position as a major player in bluegrass music today.

The Show Must Go On
Bands like Quicksilver are far from the weekend jam band. It’s a full time job. “It excites me to be able to go out on stage and do what we do,” Doyle said. “However, it takes a lot of work. We put a lot of hours into getting ready to go out there and deliver an hour or hour and a half of music. The payoff is worth it, of course. I’ve always been a believer that you should love what you do. If you’re dedicated enough and you pay enough attention to the quality, which is so vitally important to me, then it will all work out. I’ve been very blessed. My livelihood has allowed me to provide for my family and to pay my band enough that they can support their families. A good band makes all this possible of course, and I’ve been blessed with that too. Part of having a good band is being able to pay them well enough that they can afford to stay with you.”

While keeping good band members is important, the inevitable is going to happen. Players move up and move on from time to time. When you’ve been a band leader as long as Doyle has, you’re naturally going to experience some transition with your musicians. “The reality of course is that you can’t go into this thinking that the same fellows that you started with are going to stick with you all the way,” he said. “You just accept that. Ofdoylelawson course I would prefer things would never change, like most people. But that’s wishful thinking,” he chuckled.

Glass Half Full
“I’ve always been one that looks at things as my glass is half full, never half empty. I always try to look for the positive. You can run a lot faster and longer with the positive than you can with the negative. When I look back over the 38 years of this band and at those players who have gone on to carve out a career for themselves I do have a sense of pride for those guys. I don’t think there’s any ill will between any of us. I always want to end things, if they do come to an end, on a good note. I always try to wish them well when they decide to move on. Then of course I turn my attention to what’s necessary, which is filling that slot with the right guy that will be able to adapt to the Quicksilver sound quickly so we can get on about the music.”

Although bluegrass music has changed over the years, Doyle strives to stay true to what he knows are the roots of bluegrass music, and to the things that he believes are important to preserve for future generations. “There are vast differences in music today,” he said, “Not only in our music, but music in general, simply because of the passing of time and the advent of new technologies. Because of the computer, we’re able to reach people more quickly either by email or your web site – people go on it and they can order your recordings, read about the band, and check the tour schedule. Of course the venues we play, as far as bluegrass, are bigger and better as far as the environment and sound capabilities.”

With nearly 40 albums to their credit, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver has won numerous major awards, including seven International Bluegrass Music Association Vocal Group of the Year honors. Doyle received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award in 2006, and was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2012. The band’s last two releases, In Session, and Burden Bearer, received back-to-back Grammy nominations in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Life Is A Story
Their latest is called Life Is A Story. It’s a 12-song collection containing a mix of ballads, uplifting up-tempos, thoughtful lyrics, powerful picking and of course the superb vocal performances you’ve come to know the band for. The band features songs penned by IBMA songwriter of the year, Donna Ulisse, the late Country legend Harley Allen, and even a classic Chuck Willis R&B song.

“I’m a lucky guy. I get to do what I love to do, and earn my living doing it,” he said. “I love to travel, even though I’ve been all over the world, I still like the countryside. I love the west too. It doesn’t bother me at all if I decide to leave East Tennessee and drive to Southern California. It probably bothers my driver more than me,” he laughed. “I just love the country, and the views that we have. I enjoy this part of the world that God has allowed me to live in. There’s always something that I can see that I never noticed before. But the love of music, the being on stage, that’s the reward for all the other stuff I do to stay in this business. My reward is being able to get up on stage and perform, and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces and put a little joy in their heart, and make them glad that they came, and hopefully they’ll go away with less of a load on their shoulders if they had a rough week or whatever. That’s the reward for me.”

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