august 2009

Doyle Lawson: ‘I’ve never been ashamed to tell people I play bluegrass music, even when it wasn’t cool to do that.’

The Bluegrass Interview

Doyle Lawson

Prime Cut Bluegrass, Aged 30 Years

By David McGee

Doyle Lawson, one of the most revered artists on the contemporary bluegrass scene, reaches a milestone this year, with his new album, Lonely Street, marking the 30th anniversary of his solo career. He could hardly have offered a better reminder of exactly what’s special about him and his band, Quicksilver. In addition to a sprightly bluegrass rendering of the oft-recorded title track (a major pop hit for Andy Williams in 1959 but also covered by a slew of country artists over the years, not the least among them being Patsy Cline), Lawson and company survey Marty Robbins’s affecting plea, “Call Me Up And I’ll Come Callin’ On You,” one of Porter Wagoner’s catalogue gems, “Big Wind” (co-written by one of Porter’s Wagon Master stalwarts, George McMormick, along with Wayne Walker and Alex Zanetis), a Buddy Cannon-Tommy Collins heartbreaker, “Ain’t a Woman Somebody When She’s Done,” a winsome reflection on old times, “Yesterday’s Song,” from the collaborative efforts of Lisa Shaffer, Mark Simos and Jon Weisberger, a celebratory gospel closer from Chris Stuart, “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come,” a touch of social commentary in the lilting but pointed “The Human Race” (in which Lawson queries, “We’ve flown to the moon/but have we missed the boat along the way?”), and a new co-write of his own, with Quicksilver’s redoubtable resophonic guitar master Josh Swift, “Down Around Bear Cove,” which blends swing and bluegrass elements. Always one to honor his roots (personal as well as professional—his online biography begins, “I was born on April 20, 1944 in Ford Town, a part of Sullivan County, near Kingsport, TN, to Leonard and Minnie Lawson. I have two brothers, James and Les, and one sister, Colleen.”), he kicks off Lonely Street with a feisty rendition of the Bressler Brothers’ tribute to the father of bluegrass, “Monroe’s Mandolin” and has some fun with it by teasing the listener into believing it’s going to be a soft, slow meditation before the band breaks into a swaggering stride behind Darren Beachley’s plaintive tenor vocal.

In short, Lonely Street, for all its abundant energy and soul, is an album full of memories for Doyle Lawson. Growing up, he heard the sound of music all over his house, as his parents and sister sang in gospel trios and quartets in churches and at revivals. The Grand Ole Opry radio show was a regular feature of Doyle’s childhood Saturday nights, and it was on one such broadcast that he heard Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys and decided he had found his calling. With a borrowed mandolin he taught himself to play by following along with songs on the radio, on records, even on TV shows. At 1959, at age 14, he met Jimmy Martin, and four years later, in February 1963, moved to Nashville and was hired by Martin on banjo, another instrument, along with guitar, he had taught himself to play in the intervening years, figuring it would be to his professional advantage to be able to play more than one instrument. After two years with Martin, Lawson joined JD Crowe in 1966, playing both guitar and mandolin, then reunited with Jimmy Martin in 1969, went back with Crowe in 1971, and that same year began a fruitful, near-eight-year run with the revered Country Gentlemen. In March 1979 he left the Gentlemen to strike out on his own, desiring the opportunity to put together a group that had a sound as distinctive as those in which he had served his apprenticeship.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, 'Trouble Keeps Hanging Around My Door,' Thomas Pont Beach, Brunswick, ME, 2008

As he writes in his biography, “To that end, in April 1979, I formed a group that I first named Doyle Lawson & Foxfire but soon changed to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. I was looking for ‘our sound’ and that first group tried many different types of songs. I wanted a strong quartet like the ones my dad used to sing with. In the next few months, Terry Baucom, Jimmy Haley, Lou Reid and I laid the foundation for what has become the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver sound. The makeup of my band has changed many times in the last 27 years. I jokingly tell folks that Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver is the ‘farm team’ for bluegrass. I try to integrate each member's special talents into my group, while not sacrificing the Quicksilver sound. While the sound changes a bit with the introduction of a new band member, it is important to me that people hear what they expect to hear when we take the stage, no matter who is in the group.”

Along the way Doyle has earned the respect of his peers and of bluegrass fans worldwide, and not least of all of those musicians who have been promoted from the “farm team” to success on their own. They tell a similar story: working for Doyle Lawson is to get a thorough education in discipline and, for lack of a better term, public relations, whether you like it or not. Doyle himself freely admits to being a stern taskmaster. Jamie Dailey, one of those former Quicksilver pickers who has gone on to staggering success with his partner Darrin Vincent, joined Quicksilver as a fairly unpolished but undeniably talented 22-year-old in 1998 and stayed for nine years before teaming up with Vincent. In this publication’s April 2009 cover story on Dailey & Vincent, Jamie recounted how he thought he was joining one of the most respected groups in bluegrass history, which he was; what he didn't know beforehand was that he was also going to boot camp in the process. The experience with Lawson proved pivotal to his current achievements.

"I learned from Doyle how to play and sing as a unit, not just one person," Jamie says. "Most important lesson I learned on stage is to listen to everybody around you, not just to yourself. If everybody listens to each other and you play against each other and with each other, you're gonna play as a unit. And that's exactly what I learned there that was the most important lesson. Second, he taught me how to be a road pro. Third, and most important, was discipline, discipline, discipline. And I got my hand smacked many times. I'm telling you, the first two years I was there I literally felt like I was in the military. At rehearsal he'd get right near your face, and he would lay down on you. 'Listen to me, son! That is not what I told you! Are you listening to me!?' And I'm sitting there shaking in my shoes thinking, I'm gonna have a heart attack right here right now. This is it. But I listened, I dug in, I tried, I didn't give up. You couldn't pay me three million dollars for that experience. No way. Being part of that history right there was cool to me."

'Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On,' Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, with Jamie Dailey singing lead, warm up backstage at the Grand Ole Opry prior to the 2006 IBMA Awards show. Hot stuff indeed, even if it gets cut short. ‘I learned from Doyle how to play and sing as a unit, not just one person,’ Dailey says of the many lessons Lawson taught him during his nine years as a Quicksilver member.

Doyle and his wife Suzanne were married on June 24, 1978. They have three children—a son and two daughters—and one grandchild. Along with collecting western memorabilia and nosing around old cars (he owns a 1946 Ford Coupe, which he says is for sale because he doesn’t have enough time to drive it), Doyle is a devout Christian, who attends Cold Spring Presbyterian Church, where he enjoys participating in a Men’s Bible Study Group when he’s off the road. The gospel song closing Lonely Street strikes one of many personal chords on the album for Doyle, perhaps the most important one. Again, from his biography: “The gospel music that we record and perform on stage has always been important to me. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have made many more gospel recordings than secular ones. It is apparent to me that the folks who buy our music and come to our concerts feel, as I do, that there is no better message than the message of Jesus Christ. On the first Sunday of May, in 1985, I rededicated my life to our Lord Jesus. It is my fervent hope that my ‘musical mission’ will lead others to Him.”

Doyle Lawson is a good man who has made a substantial contribution to the music he loves. Sustaining a solo career for 30 years is no mean accomplishment, and says much about the appeal of his music to both the progressive and traditional elements of the bluegrass audience. On this occasion, we chatted with him about the overarching themes of Lonely Street and his continuing hunger to bring his music to the people. His answers illustrate the commitment and values that have served him well in his life and in his music, and go far towards explaining why he has become a bluegrass icon.


This is the 30th anniversary year for you as a solo artist and band leader. Were you aware of that when you started planning this album, and did that affect your approach to the recording?

Doyle Lawson: Actually, it didn’t. I didn’t give it too much thought. I was concentrating on the recording and I never thought about the milestone of 30 years. I did for my 25th year—for some reason we look at the silver, the gold and all that, but the ones in between we don’t put much thought in until someone reminds us of it. That’s a lengthy career as a solo band leader.

So you weren’t really concentrating on the 30th, but I’m looking at how you tip your hat to Mr. Bill on the opening number and otherwise you have songs that were either written or recorded by Andy Williams, Porter, Marty Robbins—artists who are of your time—and you close with a gospel number, which I know is close to your heart. It almost seems like a survey of your time. How did you go about selecting the tunes?

Lawson: First of all, I always have been very harmony conscious. I look for songs that lend themselves to the kind of harmony I want to do as far as the vocal trio, quartet, duet, whatever the case may be. As in all of my recordings, initially I go with that when I start collecting material and trying to find the songs. It’s not far-fetched to tell you that I listen to between 500 and 700 songs to come up with ten or twelve or whatever the number may be that I end up with. “Lonely Street,” I wanted to do that because it’s a classic in country music, co-written by Carl Belew, who was a pretty big name around the Louisiana Hayride, back in those days. I’d always heard it as a vehicle for a solo artist—Jim Reeves, Andy Williams, Patsy Cline, the list goes on and on of people who have recorded it over the years. But I thought it would be really good for a trio. But I wasn’t happy with the tempo. It just didn’t feel good to me. So I thought, Why don’t we kick it up to a good, steady tempo on 4/4 time and see what it feels like? And we actually sing it in pretty much the same meter that you’d do it if you did; we just kind of doubled up on the music as far as the beat. When we started doing that, the song came alive.

Bill Monroe (left) at the Brown County (Indiana) Jamboree Barn in 1963, with, from left, Joe Stuart, Bill Keith and Del McCoury. Inspired by Monroe’s music, Doyle Lawson found his calling: ‘When I first heard him, I was four, five years old, and there was just a magic and a feel to his music that got hold of me and, quite honestly, to this day has never turned me loose.’

“Monroe’s Mandolin,” of course, it’s no secret to anyone who knows anything about me, Bill Monroe was the reason I wanted to play bluegrass. When I first heard him, I was four, five years old, and there was just a magic and a feel to his music that got hold of me and, quite honestly, to this day has never turned me loose. Of course Bill has passed on and time has moved on, but I hope we never forget that man’s impact and his role as the premier figure. I certainly would never discredit or discount the impact Earl Scruggs had on our music. I think the banjo solidified what we came to know as bluegrass music. When Bill hired Earl, he already had Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise. But when Earl came to that band, that became the ground floor of what we know as bluegrass. But you still have to look at that one fellow who had a dream, and I think he was searching for that something, because if you listen to his recordings prior to that, they were different in some ways. You could hear an accordion in there, or the banjo with Stringbean—String was not a real three-finger roll picker; he was of the older style. But when Earl came to the band—and it’s only my opinion—that’s what really solidified the sound of bluegrass. I think Bill had a dream and a vision of what he wanted to do with the music called bluegrass. He was from the bluegrass state of Kentucky. So “Monroe’s Mandolin” is just a little tribute I wanted to do to honor the memory of Bill.

You talked about “Lonely Street” and how you bumped up the tempo a little bit. It became the title song for the album, and there is a fair deal of heartbreak and melancholy among the song selections. Did that seem an apt title?

Lawson: It did. Two reasons I used “Lonely Street.” One is the title itself is short and right to the point. When you’re dealing with CDs you’ve got a limited amount of space to work with in graphics, unlike the old LPs of yesteryear when you had a big cover that allowed you to do a lot of wonderful things in graphics that you just can’t do anymore. The previous album I did for Rounder was More Behind The Picture Than The Wall. I always felt like as far as a title for a recording that it was too long. But for that particular recording it kind of introduced the theme of the recording, as does “Lonely Street.” But I’ve always like the song “Lonely Street”; it’s a song that is familiar to everybody, and I think if you could breathe some new life into it, then you could get away with recording what some people refer to as an old warhorse. But it’s not—it’s a great song that I think even after I’ve recorded it someone else in time will do it again. It’s that kind of song. But “Lonely Street” does apply—it is a kind of heartbreaking and melancholy type recording.

This Marty Robbins song you recorded, you have to be a hard-core Marty fan to know this song. It wasn’t one of his big hits. Did you know Marty?

Lawson: I didn’t know Marty good. I knew him when I saw him. He was a wonderful, friendly fellow. Marty was real down to earth, never took his star status too serious. Obviously he was aware of who he was. But he was a very approachable person. To me he was one of the greatest stylists, as far as vocalists, in the history of country music. I’ve always loved his stuff. He had the ability to cross over, take any song and make it his. Didn’t matter what genre it came from, when he got through with it it was a Marty Robbins song. I’ve tried to do that in my recordings. Folks who have never heard “Call Me Up” by Marty, if they hear my cut, they’ll know that it’s done in the style of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Which is to say I took the song and made it a part of me. In the mid-‘50s when Marty was hitting the scene here on the east coast—out in Arizona he was a pretty big name back then, but it was more regional—he took it by storm. I love his music; to me there’s a wealth of gems that folks never heard Marty Robbins do.

Marty, Porter, Andy Williams is a pop singer but that song has been covered by a lot of country artists, as you noted. Do you feel there’s a big divide between country and bluegrass, or just a thin line?

Lawson: I think there’s a thin line between any music you put in a certain category. Now we have contemporary country, we’ve got traditional country. Same in bluegrass. But I think the gulf between bluegrass and country has narrowed. It’s almost—almost—become—seamless. And I’m talking about acceptance also. And it’s not a bad thing. I do hold fast to that, if you’re going to categorize something, there must be a reason they’re doing that. So if you get past the boundaries or the tradition that identifies that kind of music and you’re not playing that kind, then you’re doing something else. I’m happy, I’ve never been ashamed to tell people I play bluegrass music, even when it wasn’t cool to do that. Lots of country artists are doing bluegrass—Merle Haggard did a bluegrass recording last year. Merle’s another stylist—whatever he grabs ahold of. Of course he did his songs, he just did them with bluegrass arrangements. You and I both know Merle can take any song and make it his.

You’re an established, traditional bluegrass artist. Do you feel much kinship with the so-called progressive wing of bluegrass? The guys who are using classical modes of composition and a lot of improvisation? Do you relate to that at all?

Lawson: Well, bluegrass has always had a lot of improv in it; that was one of the beautiful things about it. Lot of people never play the same thing the same way twice. That’s good for some people; I like a little more discipline in it. Oddly enough, when I started I was considered contemporary. Over the years, that’s how the music evolves and changes. Now I’m no longer contemporary; I’m considered traditional. But my heart has always been in traditional, probably a little more than contemporary. But if you look at my recording career over the years, I’ve never been afraid to take any kind of song and make it a Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver song. In 1979 I recorded my first solo album, Tennessee Dream, and on that recording was “Lover’s Concerto,” “Sunny,” so what they’re doing today is certainly not new to me. I was doing it 30 years ago, and people were doing that before me. I think the approach is a little different and the technique is different, but yet, they’re not doing anything that is new to me and JD Crowe, Sam Bush, who was with the NewGrass Revival. I think that was a group that was ahead of its time. But, you know, I think there’s a kinship there and I think we have to look at things with an open mind and open ears. I will confess there might be some music out there that some people mistakenly perceive as bluegrass because they really don’t know any better—and I don’t mean the artist; I’m talking about the general public. I really wouldn’t classify the Old Crow Medicine Show as a bluegrass band; they’re more of an old-time group in their approach. And that’s okay. I think there’s a place for everybody.

You’re not a topical or political songwriter and you don’t usually record songs like that from other writers, but you do have “The Human Race” on this album, which addresses a world in chaos. Did you have any second thoughts about how your fans might react to such a song from you?

Lawson: No. None whatsoever. It needed to be said, it’s a great song, very timely. I mean we can’t stick our heads in the sand and think all this stuff will go away. It won’t. We are living in perilous times right now. People are anxious and wondering what’s going on, what’s going to happen. When you have things worldwide with the economy being like it is, world situation being like it is—and our country is no exception; we’re feeling a lot of global stress. No, I had no qualms at all about doing that. I felt like people needed to hear it, and that people, when they listen to it, will appreciate it.

That also is the occasion for one of the best vocals you’ve recorded on any of your recent albums. It’s strong, affecting, sounds like you’re really emotionally invested in the song, especially the lyric, “We’ve flown to the moon/but have we missed the boat along the way.” That kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it?

Lawson: Absolutely. I love my country; I am a pure blood patriot. But if we face the reality, we’ve squandered, we’ve wasted and been too careless with everything.

How did this song come to you?

Lawson: I’m always looking for stuff and listening. You’d be amazed at the stuff I have on my iPod that I listen to. For a guy that’s played bluegrass practically all my life, I have a real wide variety of music that I like to listen to. I confess I’m partial to some of the earlier country music. I can’t get my teeth into a lot of the new stuff, but that’s just my taste. You can’t criticize somebody if they’re having hit records and taking the world by storm, nor would I do that. But realistically I like some of the earlier stuff better—I like it because when you heard Carl Smith, you heard Carl Smith and his band; when you heard Ray Price, you knew it was Ray and the Cherokee Cowboys; when you heard Jimmy Dickens, you knew it was Jimmy Dickens and the Country Boys; when you heard Ernest Tubb, you knew it was Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours. All those people had a sound about them; an identity. That’s what I miss today—the identity. I have trouble telling one from the other because it’s kind of formula, you know. But, you know, if it’s working, more power to ‘em, because it’s a rough old world out here!

Doyle Lawson with Quicksilver lead singer/guitarist Darren Beachley: ‘I have people ask me, ‘What’s the best band you’ve ever had?’ Well, I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do that. Whatever period of time this certain band was together was their time; the band before that, it was their time. It’s wrong to say, ‘Well, yeah, I had these guys, but I didn’t really like them; I like these guys better.’'

This strikes me as one of the strongest Quicksilver lineups you’ve ever had. Darren Beachley is just great throughout this album, Carl White on the bass, Joey Cox on the banjo—terrific playing all the way through. How do you feel about this configuration of the band?

Lawson: Well, I’m very pleased. I’ve never compared one to the other, nor do I expect anyone to come in and be a carbon copy of the one who was here before. That’s unfair to the individual who takes the job. What I do expect them to do is to adapt to the sound and the music I’m playing. But the timbre of his voice is going to be somewhat different than the other, although I think the timbre of Darren’s voice is akin to the timbre of Barry Scott’s voice. But yet, I didn’t expect him to be Barry Scott, no more than I expected Russell Moore to be a Lew Reid or whatever. As far as the lineup, I’m very pleased with it. I think the record came out great—there’s the proof. I have people ask me, “What’s the best band you’ve ever had?” Well, I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do that. Whatever period of time this certain band was together was their time; the band before that, it was their time. It’s wrong to say, “Well, yeah, I had these guys, but I didn’t really like them; I like these guys better.” If you don’t like ‘em, don’t hire ‘em. They all bring something to this, and they all contribute to it in their own way.

You have a humorous note on your website about Quicksilver being a “bluegrass farm team,” given all the players that have come through Quicksilver and gone on to work with other prominent artists. But when it comes time to add somebody to the band, what do you look for in a prospective Quicksilver candidate beyond the ability to play your music?

Lawson: I look at character first. There are do’s and don’ts here that they are expected to abide by. I lay out what they can do and what they can’t do. I’m very careful because I do a lot of gospel recording, and I do some gospel concerts along the way also. I am a born-again Christian, and I certainly am not ashamed of that; at the same time you have to be very careful because if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. I tell the guys, “Look, one thing you have to understand is that people watch you offstage probably more than they do onstage. So represent me and what I’m doing, and bluegrass music as a whole, in a way that would not be an embarrassment to anybody.” So I look at that. Obviously the talent has to be there—do I hear him being able to do the job that is required? That’s basically my approach to it. I can pretty well tell if somebody can do it and if they’re willing to work at it. You have to have a good work ethic here; not be afraid to work. If you give me a hundred percent, I’m probably the easiest guy to work for; if you don’t give me a hundred percent, I’m probably the worst guy you’d ever work for.

Doyle (left) and Jamie Dailey (right). To the charge of being a harsh taskmaster with regards to directing Quicksilver, Lawson pleads guilty: ‘For anybody to think they can just go out there and just halfway do something just for the money is totally unfair to the public. I would never do that. If it ever got to where it felt like that was what I was doing, I would hang it up. I think we are obligated to the people to give them the very best we have to offer. And the little details you need to pay attention to are very important, because the little things you don’t fix develop into big things you will have to fix.’

On that point I talked to Jamie Dailey a couple of months ago for a story, and Jamie was one of the farm team who made it on his own—

Lawson: Absolutely, and doing great, too.

I asked him what you had contributed to his growth as a musician, and he talked about a few things, but number one was how demanding you were in rehearsals to get it right. He said, “He would be in your face if you weren’t playing the right thing or behaving the right way.” Jamie loves what you did for him because he felt like he did not have a strong enough work ethic to succeed the way he has now, and he points to that experience with you as setting him on the right path. Do you consider yourself a harsh taskmaster when it comes to getting the act together?

Lawson: Absolutely. I’m guilty, I confess. But I think it’s necessary. Listen, this is a business. It’s always been (sighs) my feeling that if you command a certain figure to do a concert for people, and these people come out—especially today, spending their hard-earned money on a twenty to twenty-five dollar ticket, spend cash money getting there, maybe have something to eat along the way, pick up CDs, too, whatever, that can be a fairly expensive evening out. For anybody to think they can go out there and halfway do something just for the money is totally unfair to the public. I would never do that. If it ever got to where it felt like that was what I was doing, I would hang it up. I think we are obligated to the people to give them the very best we have to offer. So it starts with the rehearsals. And the little details you need to pay attention to are very important, because the little things you don’t fix develop into big things you will have to fix. So yes, I am a real stern taskmaster when it comes to that.

Now does that come natural to you, or was that learned from your tenures with Jimmy Martin, JD Crowe and others?

Lawson: It actually started with my father. My father was a common laborer. He loved to farm and he worked a job when he didn’t farm; sometimes he did both. But whatever he did, he did it as best he could. He had a certain way he did it and he would show me what he wanted done and how he wanted it done. And if I didn’t do it—well, for instance, we might be in a cornfield on a hot July day, and he would stop ploughing while we were hoeing the corn and would come over and say, “That’s not the way I showed you to do that.” He’d take the hoe out of my hand, show me what he wanted me to do, hand it back to me and say, “Now go back and start over, do it right.” It doesn’t take but a couple, three times until you get the idea that you’re better off to do it right the first time. He drilled in me, “Whatever you do in life, I don’t care what it is, but whatever you do, you do it the very best you can do or just don’t fool with it at all.” That was the way he was. Anything he did, that’s how he did it. So that carried over to me.

So your work ethic is directly connected to those days in the cornfield, learning how to do it right.

Lawson: Absolutely! So I’m an eighteen-year-old kid, I go to Nashville and hook up with Jimmy Martin, who probably in 1963 was at the top of his game, having hit records. He was so much like my dad in terms of “you gotta get it right. Almost right is not good enough—you’ve got to get it right.” Over and over and over he drilled me on playing the banjo and little things that I, at that time, couldn’t hear, but he could. Then I wound up a little later on, couple years or so later, in a band with JD Crowe. He came from the Jimmy Martin school, same school as I did, and Crowe, absolutely, his thing was about tone, timing, the separation between the notes, playing together. It started with my dad, so when I got to Jimmy I wasn’t surprised by that—I had already been to school with my dad. But it’s carried over. My son is like me. He’s not in the music business, but he has some pizza stores he owns. He runs his stores just like I run my business. Everything is right, and if it’s not right you don’t stay there very long. I taught him just like I was taught and he took it to heart. I was fortunate to learn from folks along the way as I matured as a musician. Then I went on to JD and to the Country Gentlemen in 1971. There, musically, I had matured.

When I went to the Gentlemen I had a chance to learn how to entertain people, too. People take the entertainment part of the business for granted, but people like for you to make them laugh, they like for you to make them relax. I’ve always tried to talk to the people and not at them. I learned how to do that with the Gentlemen, I had the freedom to do that as well as produce music. I started producing their records, and I’ve always been into arrangements, starting with JD on up to this day. But the Gentlemen let me produce their music, and that was a great advantage. I was always curious how that music worked after we got it laid down, so I asked if I could sit down at the board and they allowed me to do that. I had just finished an album with them when I left, but I went back and I mixed the recording for them after I was already gone because I felt like I was obligated to do that. I certainly have had a lot of people I’ve been able to study along the way and I’ve looked at people and thought, My pa wouldn’t do it that way. Then I’ve looked at other people and thought, What a great idea—I believe I could apply that somewhere in my approach to the business. It’s just being aware. And I will tell you, Jamie was a good student. He listened, he asked questions, he was very inquisitive. I tell people, the list is long of people who have come through here and are now doing their own thing, and I always say I can tell the ones who have listened and the ones who haven’t. If they didn’t listen, they might splash around and not do too much; the ones that do listen, you can see ‘em out there.

Do you have a favorite instrument among the instruments you play? Is it banjo, guitar, mandolin? Do you prefer one over the other, or does it really matter?

thumbnailLawson: Well, if I was given no choice of what I could play I’d be happy playing any of them. But mandolin has always been my preference. When I was about 11 years old I started learning to play the mandolin, and I learned to play banjo as I got a little older, as a young teenager. I figured when I got old enough to leave home I was gonna go to Nashville and hopefully I could hook on with Bill or Jimmy Martin. I had the good fortune to meet Jimmy when I was 14 years old, and I got to know him. But I figured out, we’re talking 46-plus years ago and times were different. The people you could pick with, there weren’t as many options. Bill was a mandolin player, Jimmy had Paul Williams at that time, who was his brother-in-law; Jesse McReynolds was the mandolin player. Don Reno and Red Smiley had Don’s son Ronnie, and Mac Wiseman didn’t carry a band. Stanley Brothers by then had pretty much dropped back to George Shuffler on guitar, Ralph and Carter, sometimes a bass, sometimes not, sometimes a fiddle. So my options weren’t too great as a mandolin player, so I thought, If I learn to play banjo, maybe I can get a job with somebody. And it worked. I went to work in February of ’63 as a banjo player for Jimmy Martin. But my preference—and over the years I played guitar with JD Crowe, and mandolin—has always been mandolin, it’s my first love.

I also note on your website that you’re becoming Internet savvy. You do credit the good folks at Lotos Nile with helping you with this, but you have added a lot of new features on your website in order to interact with fans and keep them abreast of your activities. Rhonda Vincent has been using her website very effectively for awhile now to communicate and connect with her fans. Are you seeing positive results and are you a willing participant?

Lawson: I am a willing participant, and I told Kissy Black, who heads up Lotos Nile, “It’s not a crime to be dumb, but it is to stay dumb. When you talk to me about this stuff, I gotta tell you, 97 percent of it’s going over my head, but I’m willing to listen, I’m willing to learn and I’m willing to work with you on this.” We’ve seen a definite plus to this.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, “Help Is On the Way,” a powerful gospel performance: ‘My faith has taken me through many low ebbs in my life, low times when it looked like it wouldn’t even be possible to continue on with things getting rough and all that,’ Doyle says. ‘But you hold on to the faith, because the Lord tells us He will provide everything that we need. So I take that exactly like it is, and He has provided everything I need.’

You mentioned earlier in our conversation about being a born-again Christian, and you close out this album with a terrific gospel number, “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come,” a celebration, not a mournful song. What role does faith play in your life and how does it impact your music?

Lawson: It’s the most significant part of my life in my approach to everything. You have to be true to yourself. My faith has taken me through many low ebbs in my life, low times when it looked like it wouldn’t even be possible to continue on with things getting rough and all that. But you hold on to the faith, because the Lord tells us He will provide everything that we need. So I take that exactly like it is, and He has provided everything I need. But I have to tell you, He won’t give you everything you want, because we don’t need everything we want. I believe when you put God first everything else falls into place, as it should be.

I’m looking at my next recording to be a gospel recording. Generally I’ll do one and then another, a secular and then a gospel. There was a time, for six years, I did nothing but gospel, but that was by design because I wanted to try to expand my market over into that part of the music. And it worked. Truthfully, my gospel music has always outsold my bluegrass. So I wanted to get a chance maybe to go to the quartet convention they have every year; I’ve been up there, oh, gosh, I don’t know how many years, I missed one of probably the last ten years of quartet conventions. It’s southern gospel based, but they let us come and play, and people really enjoyed it. I’ve made a lot of friends through that, and last September I had my first number one gospel song, and that song, and the CD itself, Help Is On the Way, were both nominated for Dove Award this year. I didn’t win, but that’s—well, I don’t know how many nominations that is for the Dove Awards but if I keep chipping away maybe one of these days I’ll get to win one. I’ve had about seven nominations in Dove Awards now, and that’s covering the entire scope of gospel music, not just southern gospel. It’s sort of like the Grammys are in the secular world. I’ve had the good fortune to have five Grammy nominations. I’ve never won any of them, but when you can make the top five I don’t think you’re really a loser, you just don’t take home the big trophy.

It’s like the Olympic ideal—you win when you enter the arena.

Lawson: Right.I ran into Chris Stuart, a writer from the West Coast, up in New Jersey. And I spoke to him and told him I really liked his songwriting, and I do. He asked if he could send me something, and I said sure. Not too long after that I got this song, “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come,” and I called him and said I was going to cut it, and we did. It’s a good song, it’s a positive song. Nobody likes giving up a loved one, or a good friend, whatever the case may be, but you know, the end of life here is not the end of you. There’s an eternal life, and that is hard to comprehend—eternally means forever and ever and ever. We look at somebody—well, my mother will be 94 years old next month. She’s an old lady by our standards, but eternity is forever. If you’re a child of God, you just try to imagine what that will be like. I thought “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come” was a perfect vehicle to end the album. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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