Doyle Lawson is an interviewer’s dream. Good-humored and thoughtful as he fields questions countless previous interviewers have probably thrown his way, he also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass history and a remarkable mind for detail. The 55-year-old bandleader, arranger, singer, mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist, booking agent and record producer remains very much a student of bluegrass music, one who approaches all his roles with that same attention to detail. Nowhere is this more evident than in the consistently tight, focused vocal harmony and instrumental work that has remained the stock in trade of his band, Quicksilver, for a generation.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s formation. It has been, in Lawson’s words, “a monster year,” dominated by a touring schedule of 250 nights on the road, performing on both the bluegrass and gospel circuits. In July, Sugar Hill released Winding Through Life, the group’s fourth consecutive gospel CD and its eighteenth release for the label. In September, Lawson will be inducted into Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Bean Blossom, Indiana. “That’s quite an honor, especially for me with Bill being such an important part of my musical life. I don’t know that I’m worthy, but I sure do appreciate the fact that they want to do this.”
Lawson’s recorded output in these twenty years has not been limited to his work with Quicksilver. Beginning in 1980 with The Bluegrass Album, he has joined periodically with stellar musicians J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Tony Rice and Todd Phillips (and later Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas) to record six well-received albums of traditional bluegrass, emphasizing classic material from the 1940s and ’50s. This collective, eventually dubbed by fans the “Bluegrass Album Band,” was a major force in directing the attention of younger listeners to the material and artists of the genre’s first generation.
Before Quicksilver, Lawson’s output included three albums as a member of Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys, scattered tracks as a sideman with Jimmy Martin, and a string of releases during his eight-year membership with progressive bluegrass pioneers the Country Gentlemen. His only solo release, Tennessee Dream on Rebel, was recorded shortly before he formed Quicksilver and features his potent mandolin skills.
Winding Through Life is a more eclectic work than its immediate predecessor, Gospel Radio Favorites, which featured Southern gospel songs from the 1940s (with guitar-only accompaniment by Lawson), or 1987′s completely a cappella Heaven’s Joy Awaits. Its fourteen selections combine classic-style — but new or little-known — bluegrass material with quartet music from the tradition of Southern gospel (or “jubilee gospel,” as it was called in his youth), along with a couple newer songs in a decidedly contemporary Christian style.
Among the latter, a standout is “River Of Tears”, featuring a compelling lead vocal by guitarist Barry Scott in a voice reminiscent of Vince Gill, and a sparse, tasteful accompaniment of guitar, bowed upright bass and fiddle. The song, a meditation on the tragedies of life and the joy of salvation, lends a line from its chorus to the CD’s title and, according to Lawson, is the source of a loose but guiding theme: the stages of a personal life in faith.
For a group that has developed a popular and much-imitated repertoire of secular bluegrass, the release of four sacred music records in as many years may seem like a burning of bridges. But this is not a situation where an artist has “found religion” and abandoned secular music. Quicksilver still performs secular material onstage, and Lawson does not expressly rule out the possibility of future non-gospel releases. His reasoning for the current string of projects reflects a more complex combination of musical, personal and business concerns.
Gospel music has been a major part of Lawson’s life and legacy since he was born in 1944. His father was in an a cappella quartet, schooled in the shape-note tradition of music notation and hymn singing. “They sang in churches and things around like that, but they didn’t play or sing for money,” Lawson says. “They sang because they loved to sing, and they believed in what they were singing about. They would go to revivals and sing in churches and all of that within probably a 75-or-100-mile radius of the East Tennessee area. Once in a while they would go over and do a radio program with a preacher on a Sunday afternoon. That’s where I learned to love gospel music, and particularly a cappella.”
Lawson points to two selections from Winding Though Life, “Heaven Alone Will Satisfy Me” and “If Jesus Is There”, as examples of the music he learned from his father. Lyrically, they’re simple statements of rock-solid faith, but harmonically, they’re deceptively complex, with subtle chord shifts and voicings rarely heard in traditional bluegrass.
This formative exposure had a major effect on Lawson’s development as a musician. It was the underpinning for a lifelong fascination with vocal arrangement, noticeable even in his earliest recordings as a member of J.D. Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys in the late ’60s. It’s even more evident in the entire body of Quicksilver’s work, sacred and secular. It explains why he could see the potential of a song such as Randall Hylton’s lushly chorded “My Heart Is Yours” and shape it into a performance that is heartfelt yet remarkably precise in its execution. And because much of his early experience with gospel music was in its primary form, Lawson was in a position to reinvent its introduction into the bluegrass band setting, much as Bill Monroe and other first-generation artists had done decades before.
Somewhat apart from his musical instincts, the Christian awakening Lawson experienced in May, 1985 played a major role in his decision to devote much of his energies to the sacred side of bluegrass, and to become a presence in the mostly separate milieu of Christian music. Is it a ministry? “Yes it is,” responds Lawson. “It’s a way for us to be a witness. I don’t think it’s necessary to carry a sign on your back and tell the people that you are. I think the way that you live and lead your life each and every day is an example for people that they can look and pretty well know what kind of person you are.”
Sometimes the impact is more than just musical. Lawson tells of one such encounter involving a man he met at one of his concerts. “He had been in trouble most of his life. He’d been in prison for years. He’d been involved in drugs. ‘You name it,’ he said, ‘I’ve done it.’ He said he had gone to meet his supplier to buy more drugs, and he heard a song on the radio by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and the song was ‘There Is A God’. And he said he had a feeling come over him like he’d never had before.
“And he got in his car and he left. And he said, ‘I don’t know if [the supplier] ever showed up or not. I haven’t seen him since, because just a short while after that I gave my life to the Lord.’ Stories like that…when they come and tell me things like that, you know, that makes me thankful that we have done something that would be positive in somebody’s life.”