What can be said about Doyle Lawson that hasn’t already been said? In the game for half a century, venerated elder statesman of bluegrass Doyle Lawson has accomplished just about everything a musician could hope for. Yet as celebrated as he is, Lawson’s never been one to rest easy. In a genre where tradition is perhaps overly respected at times, he’s always sought to move the music forward.
“You need to push that envelope,” he says. “The alternative to growth is death.”
That approach has given Lawson a singular identity, which he believes is a key to his long-term success.
“If I wanted to do a particular type of song or treat it in a certain way, I would,” he says. “I’m a stylist, and I have an identity. That’s how you stay around. If you don’t have identity, you don’t have longevity.”
Lawson’s spent his career making records in the bluegrass vanguard, and his latest release, Roads Well Traveled, is no exception. Staying true to form, he takes more than a few chances on the record and delivers an eclectic set of songs with strong crossover potential.
CMT Edge: You’ve been playing professionally for 50 years. Why did you wait so long to do a record like this?
Lawson: My approach has always been very open and receptive to where my heart and my mind would lead me. And this recording here, I wanted to address some things that are real contemplative and some that are lighter. I wanted to cover some of the softer side of bluegrass and try to balance it out to have a package that would hopefully appeal to people across the board who like roots music, bluegrass or more traditional country.
In the liner notes, you write little blurbs about each song. What prompted you to do that?
These songs, they grab me in a personal way. I can relate to every song on there so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just share my thoughts with the people.”
It’s interesting to read what you think of the songs. They’re so varied, and some could be crossover hits. Was that something you were going for as you were selecting them?
Well, obviously I’m a professional musician, and I drive my income to provide for my family and me, as well as all the other people in my organization. You can’t leave your business perception out of the whole thing. … But I have always looked for and recorded songs that were what I wanted. Nobody has ever told me that I could or could not record a certain song. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had the freedom of choice. And that allows the artist to look for and find material or even write material that is special to him. That’s half the battle because if [the artist] likes the song, they’ll give it a good treatment. If they don’t like the song, you don’t get much out of it from the artist, in my opinion.
The Carl Jackson song “When Love Is All You Want” has some poignant lines in it. That lyric, “Even in the worst of times, the worst of times were good,” really sells the song.
Absolutely! It’s real. That’s the epitome of true love — that no matter how good it is or no matter how bad it is, it’s still all good.
You say in the notes you had that song for a long time but waited for the “right time to record it.” Why now?
To be honest with you, it’s where my head and where my heart is. Roads Well Traveled, [that title] serves a two-fold purpose. I’ve been a professional musician for 50 years now, and I can tell you there are a lot of roads that are well traveled by me. (laughs) That was part of it. But then most importantly, it was a song of life. These songs, [they’re about] roads of life that are well traveled. So that became the theme — roads well traveled.
In the notes to “Dobro Joe,” you recount how you fashioned a makeshift capo out of a lead pencil when you were a kid. Any other stories like that you could share?
We lived on a mountain farm in East Tennessee, and I was working for my dad most of the time on our crops, so I couldn’t deliver papers or work for somebody at the grocery store. I had to work on the farm for my dad, so money was pretty hard to come by. I remember when I would break a string, there’d be many times that I would tie that string back to the guitar. So sometimes I’d get it [at a fret] where if I used it a lot, I had to maneuver around and figure out how I could jump past the knot to keep from cutting my finger on it!
The harmonies on this record are otherworldly. Does your affinity for harmony singing go back to your parents having a gospel quartet when you were young?
I’m a harmony freak. I love harmonies, and every chance I get to sneak a quartet in, whether it be gospel music or secular, I do it. Daddy was involved in a gospel quartet from the time I was probably 5 or 6 years old. While all the other kids were outside playing, when they’d practice, I’d sit right at their feet, and I watched and hung on to every word. And it’s served me well. From the time I was small I could sing any part of harmony. The only thing I didn’t do well was the bass vocals because my voice was too high — but I knew the part! (laughs)