If anybody could teach a master class in bluegrass, it would be Doyle Lawson. He’s a 2012 inductee to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, an honor that coincided with his 50th year as a professional musician. In addition, his award-winning band Quicksilver is regarded as the farm team of bluegrass, with innumerable musicians passing through over the last four decades.
At 70, he’s robust and fully engaged in the bluegrass scene. Prior to a show at Nashville’s Music City Roots, he chatted on his bus with CMT Edge about his new approach to recording, his well-stocked vinyl collection and his latest album, In Session.
CMT Edge: You have some exceptional songs on this album. What was your process for gathering this particular batch? Did you go about it differently?
Yeah, I wanted it to be a little on the lighter side. The Road Well Traveled (from 2013) had some great songs on it. There were two or three that were real dark and I wanted this one to move a little bit more. I wanted to get deeper into the bluegrass side of it, so that was initially my approach. I mean, I like doing all kinds of stuff. Material-wise, as you know, songs have no boundaries for me. It doesn’t matter where the song comes from. It’s the treatment that you give it.
I got “You, You, You” from the Ames Brothers. “I Told Them All About You” — that’s a song from way back in the ‘50s, I guess, but I thought that was a good-hearted song. I touched on Bill Monroe on “Reasons Why” and his brother Charlie recorded “Weep and Cry.”
When you want to hear old songs like that, do you go back to your vinyl collection?
I’ve got both — I’ve got the CDs as well. I’ve got a collection like you wouldn’t believe.
Have you been able to part with any of your vinyl records?
I sold a few of them, and I say that I’m going to sell all of them, but it’s really hard for me to do that. And I’ve got a lot, too! I’ve sold a few collectible things that I had duplicates of, but I don’t know, I can’t turn them loose. I have the first LP that I bought when I got my first job in a furniture factory in East Tennessee. On my first paycheck, I bought Mr. Blue Grass by Bill Monroe. The next week, I went back and bought Country Music Time by Jimmy Martin. And I’ve still got both those albums! (laughs)
The harmonies are outstanding on this record. How much of that do you arrange in advance, and how much do you improvise when you record?
The last few recordings, I took a different approach. I’ve been doing it so long, you know. Generally what we do now, I know which songs I want to do and I have an idea (for arranging) some of them. But what we’ve been doing of late, we go in and do a head arrangement really quick, then cut it.
I felt like sometimes in the early days — and you live and you learn as you get more experience — that when you rehearse a song, and rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it, when you get into the studio, it doesn’t have that luster it had. So, I found that for me, it sounds fresher doing it this way. So I said, “We’ll record it, then we’ll learn it.” (laughs)
It’s probably fun for you to record today.
It is fun! It’s not as hard — the work’s not as hard. But number one, we don’t depend on tuning machines to put us in tune. I can’t tune you on the stage.
And if the guys in your band can’t hit those high notes …
They won’t be there in the first place. (laughs)
It must be interesting to watch the dynamic from a rotating cast of characters in your band.
It’s a good collection of guys. Everybody gets along. From the outside, my bus looks like a huge bus, but when you’re on this bus as much as we are, you’d be surprised how small it gets. You have to learn how to give each other space. Once in a while, somebody needs a little space of their own.
And you dress the part – everybody’s got the clean-cut look.
Yeah, but I’ve let them go into jeans now. That’s OK — they’re young, so I said, “You can wear jeans, but they better not have any holes in them. And no blown-out tennis shoes.”
So, if you’re going to wear jeans, they have to look new.
I think so. As you can see, I crease my jeans. I’m from the old school. (laughs) Me and the late Mike Auldridge are the only two people I knew of that creased their jeans.
This record sounds fresh, but I wondered if you consider yourself a nostalgic guy. Do you linger in the past sometimes?
I don’t linger in the past, but as long as I’ve done this, you can’t help but be reflective. When I do reflect, or “linger” if you want to use that word, it’s a good thing. I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been a few bumps or potholes along the way, but you know, the good things outweigh the bad. My memories are all good.
And as far as even the bad times, I recall people that I have been associated with, who are no longer with us, and I recall them in a really affectionate way. I don’t have any enemies, and there’s nobody I’ve been associated with musically where I can say, “I hate him.” I don’t have time for that.
I wanted to ask you about that, because the last song on the album is “Americana,” and it takes someone with some years and experience to sing that.
Yeah, I wanted to do that because I’m very patriotic. I love my country. And I don’t mind telling you that it saddens me to see where we are, compared to how it was growing up. … I miss the small towns and I do reflect back on those times sometimes, when the downtown area was hustling and bustling, with people moving — before the shopping mall. That was the reason I wanted to record that song. I love small towns, I really do.