What a congenial guy, Bryan Sutton. Here I am, describing to him the challenge of distilling a musical specialty out of his vast list of Nashville session credits, plus the sideman gigs and ensemble collaborations he’s taken on, and he offers an apt metaphor: “I’ve enjoyed trying to be the character actor for everybody else’s stuff.”
But it only works to a point. Big-screen character actors like Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken don’t do solo work unless it’s some sort of way-off-Broadway one-man show. Sutton, the first-call acoustic guitarist, on the other hand, has just released Into My Own, the fourth album with his name alone on the cover. He calls this “giving energy to my original stuff.”
When Sutton says “original,” he also means “rooted in tradition.” Circling back to the mountain music of his western North Carolina stomping grounds — where he studied and celebrated the licks of regional legends and where he played and harmonized with his family band — gives him plenty to work with in his own picking, songwriting and, yes, for the first time on record, singing.
Sutton: When I was a kid, I sang in our family bluegrass band and in church. So it was a big part of the music I played when I was a kid. Not as much as the guitar, but it’s always been around. And when I moved to Nashville and started doing a little more of the session-player thing and playing with Ricky Skaggs and these professional singers, I sort of put it on the back burner for a little while.
But when I started playing a little more with Tim O’Brien probably four or five years ago, he and I were doing a duet show, so I ended up singing a lot more with that. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been feeling myself wanting to do that more. I really enjoy it. It’s a really fun thing to do, bottom line. And I didn’t want to wake up in 15 years and wish that I’d pursued it like I’m doing now.
It’s a little strange, just because people expect me to be, you know, guitar player guy. But I guess to try to honor my own artistry and continue to peel back the layers of whatever it is that I really do, I feel like that’s part of it.
As a hired gun, you can’t just play any old thing you want. Your solo albums are a different matter. This one has a blend of old-time, bluegrass, jazz, folk and singer-songwriter flavors. How true of a reflection is it of your musical interests?
Developing as a songwriter has helped me kind of get a deeper sense of what I am, and I feel like this record represents that more than anything I’ve done. Ever since I was in high school, I’ve always been a fan of a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different kinds of guitar playing.
It’s hard for me to just make a bluegrass record. I’ve done that. That was something that I felt like I needed to do. But when I set out to make a solo record, I feel like it needs to have some variety on it. I guess that’s who I am ultimately. I love old-time, I love bluegrass, I love the jazz things that I’ve done — that hot swing kind of thing.
You recorded the song “Swannanoa Tunnel” for this album. Can that be traced back to the part of North Carolina where you grew up?
Yeah. The Swannanoa Tunnel, it’s still there actually. They don’t use it anymore. … The story of it is basically one of the retired Civil War generals from North Carolina decided to take it upon himself to get the train [to isolated areas] and decided to blast through the mountain, as opposed to going over it. … You had these people who had never used nitroglycerine before. … I think there were 500 people killed in this project. It’s a pretty tragic story in and of itself.
The song is not one that’s done a lot. I did some research on [North Carolina folklorist] Bascom Lunsford a couple years ago for a show that I was doing over there and got into this story and got into Bascom’s version. Part of the words that are on there are from Bascom’s collection. … Learning the story, I added a few other things to it that I felt like at least created somewhat of a narrative.
I found a recording online of Lunsford doing it, but I’m less familiar with him as a performer than with his role in founding the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. I figured you must have attended or performed at it a time or two.
Oh, yeah. Bascom started the folk festival in 1927, I believe. It’s the longest-running folk festival in the country. He also started in the ‘60s, based on the popularity of the festival, this thing they called Shindig on the Green, and that still happens every Saturday night between July 4th and Labor Day in downtown Asheville. It’s a coming together, sort of a hometown Opry thing outdoors. A lot of my memories of playing music around that area were centered around the festival and Shindig on the Green.
You did a trio project last year, Ready for the Times, with David Holt and T. Michael Coleman to explore the traditional music of western North Carolina. The three of you did a Doc Watson tribute show earlier this year. What does being associated with regional tradition mean, especially when you’re also known as an adaptable Nashville session guy?
It really keeps me grounded, knowing that I come from an area that’s so rich with the music and the musicians. Part of what I look back to, as an adult, is the people. The region is the people, and the music of the people that I grew up around means a lot to me. I will always be a North Carolinian. … I feel very connected to that area and that music.
Asheville was a hot spot before a lot of commercial recordings — before the terms bluegrass and old-time music. It was just called mountain music. One of the things that separates Doc Watson from a lot of other acoustic traditional performers is that he [was] still playing mountain music. It’s still kind of a hybrid, sort of gospel and almost, for the age, pop-swing type components but also fiddle tunes and these old ballads. Things that you wouldn’t hear in bluegrass music you hear in mountain music, and things that you wouldn’t hear in old-time music you hear in mountain music.
To know that I’m connected to that is a big deal to me, and I don’t ever want to lose that. As I’ve had my career as a session guy and done a lot of different styles of music with a lot of different kinds of people, I feel like I can do that because I have a place to come back to.