Doyle Lawson – Light On His Feet, Ready To Fly…Farther

By Michael Brantley

A lot of music artists who have been around for decades get to the point they shy away from interviews, appearances, and live performances, preferring to ride past accomplishments into the sunset. Not so for Doyle Lawson and his band, Quicksilver. As a matter of fact, the bluegrass legend could maybe even use a popular country music hit from a couple of years ago as his theme song—“My Next 30 Years.”

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver - Bluegrass Unlimited

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

“We’re touring heavily these days,” said a fit-looking and upbeat Lawson prior to a show. “We’ve done a lot of interesting things in the past year. I went up to New Jersey and did a session with Paul Simon, which was a lot of fun. We [have] new songs, new material, and [got] back into the studio as soon as possible to get a new album out.” (The new CD, Drive Time, was released in March.)

None of that takes into account playing in band configurations with Jimmy Martin, Charlie Waller, and J.D. Crowe; the number of top bluegrass acts whose headliners spring-boarded from Quicksilver; that after thirty years his previous album Light On My Feet And Ready To Fly steadily climbed the charts; or that his collaboration with Crowe and Paul Williams on Old Friends Get Together might be one of the finest bluegrass gospel releases of the century.

“I’m not finished,” Lawson said with a smile. “There’s no age requirement in this business, as long as you can be productive and play this music. Father Time will eventually tell you when it’s time [to retire]. Hopefully, I’ll have the good sense to step away when that time comes, I don’t want to be the fighter who took one too many fights. But, I’ve got a lot of things to do. I still love the travel, the music, the touring, the people.”

Early Influences And Career

Lawson grew up near Kingsport, Tenn., in a musical family with parents who sang in trios and quartets. That traditional music and emphasis on a cappella – style they performed in churches can be seen in his work to this day. At age five, he heard Bill Monroe for the first time and was hooked. “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he said. “My dad, Leonard, was singing in a quartet and when I was 11, I wanted to start playing the mandolin, so he borrowed one from a group member. I’ve always had an interest in music. I can’t remember a time I didn’t love it. My mother said I was singing before I got here.”

Lawson was born in the midst of World War II and his early days were shaped by the entertainment center of the day—radio. His location allowed him to listen to local shows, the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, and the Old Dominion Barn Dance, among others. Those acts had a great influence on his taste.

Like so many early bluegrassers, Lawson learned mostly by listening to performers on the radio, TV, and records. Lawson met Jimmy Martin in the late 1950s and decided that if he wanted to be a professional musician, he needed to learn more than one instrument, so he started working on guitar and banjo over the next four years. “I was such a fan of Jimmy’s music, especially when he teamed with the Osbornes,” Lawson said. “When I heard ‘20/20 Vision’ on the radio, I thought that was some of the greatest singing I had ever heard.”

In 1963, Doyle landed the banjo job with Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, a spot he’d hold for three years. It was tough, but no doubt taught some lasting lessons about music. “There are a lot of war stories out there about Jimmy. He was a complex man,” Lawson said. “There was a lot of good in him. He knew what he wanted. There was no indecision, and he told you what he wanted. ‘All right’ was not good enough. Through a lot of persistence, I taught myself to play the banjo, but I knew nothing about it other than it had five strings. [Jimmy] asked me to show him my forward roll, and I told him I didn’t know what that was, I was just playing what I was hearing. His outgoing banjo player, showed me some rolls and that turned the light on. Jimmy was hard on me. But only after I got away and matured musically did I understand. As I look back now, when Jimmy saw potential, he tried to dig into it and bring it out. When you’re young, you don’t see it that way. I thought he was hard on me to be mean or hateful.”

After about three years, Lawson found himself hanging out with another Sunny Mountain Boy alum, J.D. Crowe. He sat in with Crowe, playing guitar, and ended up getting work out of it. “He called me when his guitar player got sick. That fill-in lasted for five years,” Lawson laughed. “J.D. was very open-minded about song selection, very outside the box. He was the perfect match. We’d throw songs at each other like ‘I’m Walkin’’ or ‘You Can Have Her.’ We were not afraid to try anything, but whatever we did, it was bluegrass…and it worked.” In 1969, Lawson returned for a run with Martin again. But by this time, he had some seasoning. “I went back to play mandolin, and it was a lot different. I had matured and I had my act together,” Lawson said. “It was very enjoyable. I’ve always enjoyed Jimmy’s music, and his records will stand with the best of all time.” However, after six months, Lawson rejoined his friend Crowe and stayed on until 1971.

That’s when another edgy group came calling—the Country Gentlemen. He would join the group on mandolin, but also played banjo for a couple of months. “Ricky Skaggs was with us, and they weren’t afraid to step out of the box either,” Lawson said. “But they didn’t step so far out they couldn’t get back. I learned how to really entertain people. [Being a great performer] wasn’t just about playing well, it was about doing what you needed to do to entertain, the routines, the eye contact with the audience. We’d do songs where we’d play the instruments behind our backs or we’d start ‘Cripple Creek’ at 16 and then speed up to 72. Bill Emerson had an ear for a good song that was second to none. But you can’t just have the ear, you’ve got to have the vision, and he had both.”

The departure of Emerson would add yet another building block to Lawson’s skill set, a piece that would prepare him for something even bigger in the future. “When Bill left, it fell into my lap to get the music together, and I was inquisitive about what it took to get it done in the studio,” he said. “I did some mixing, and was on the ground floor of the whole process. The expanse of knowledge I gained from that…to this day, no one mixes my vocals but me.” Lawson would make it almost a decade with the Country Gentlemen, finally departing in the spring of 1979. He was at a crossroads.

Ready To Fly

Even though Lawson was happy, a question kept nagging at him: Was there something more out there? It stayed with him for a couple of years until he finally decided he had to find out. “It was a big decision, because I enjoyed where I was, I loved the guys I was playing with, and it was a good place to be,” he said. “I felt like I had finally arrived. But, I also felt there was nothing else to contribute, and I didn’t want to go on autopilot and just go through the motions. I had turned down groups I could have had fun with, but I had already been there and adapted to what a particular band was doing. I thought about what it would be like to go out on my own. I was 34 at the time, and I thought if I didn’t do it then, I would chicken out. Some thought I wouldn’t make it, but that wasn’t me. I take challenges head on. I also wanted total control. You could be a partner in a good band, but the majority ruled. When you are in control, the downside is that if you mess up, there is no one else to blame.”

As the search began for bandmembers, Lawson recalled a North Carolina group for whom he’d produced one side of an album (Southbound). He’d been impressed with rhythm guitarist Jimmy Haley and the group’s lead singer, Lou Reid. Both men were interested, and Haley suggested a fellow that Lawson knew as a fiddle player, but most bluegrass fans know for his prowess on the five-string—Terry Baucom. With one call to Haley, Lawson had his band. But, it was not a sure thing at the time. “When we got together the first time, honestly, none of us felt the magic,” Lawson said. “But then we got together again, and it just clicked. So we went for it.”

The powerhouse group was assembled and ready to hit the road as Doyle Lawson & Foxfire. But there was a hitch. The name ‘Foxfire’ had been researched and seemed good to go, but right away there were letters and phone calls crying foul from a string of groups with the same moniker. “The last thing I wanted was to be confused with someone else,” he said. So, he turned to as good a source as any for answers—his mother, now 95. “I drove up to see her and as we were having coffee, she suggested the name ‘Quicksilver.’ A definition of the word is ‘unstoppable, a force to be reckoned with.’ By the time I got back home, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver sounded right.”

History would show what a strong group of singers and instrumentalists the band would be right out of the gate. That made it much easier to let the sound evolve instead of trying to fit a style to the personnel. “What I wanted was what it was going to be. I didn’t want to limit the options,” Lawson said. “It could be hard-driving or contemporary, but above all, I wanted that quartet sound like my dad’s band had when I was growing up. We took no prisoners. We weren’t afraid to try anything. We’d have three fiddles and a guitar on stage. It was fun, but it was a challenge. At a show in Virginia once, we started to the stage one morning with no instruments except for a guitar. Someone asked, ‘Where’s the banjo?’ Someone else asked, ‘Where’s the bass?’ We told them we wouldn’t be needing it today, and we did a guitar and quartet a cappella. It wasn’t long after that we released Rock My Soul, and everybody started quartets.”

The group’s first #1 song was “Blue Train” on the Hard Game Of Love album. The title cut has also proven to be a favorite over the years, even though at the time it was overshadowed by “Blue Train.” However, Rock My Soul was a key album, being all gospel and just the group’s second release. Other big hits from the early days were “Help Is On The Way,” which made it to #1 on the Southern Gospel charts and “Eternity Has Two,” which went to #3.

“I always look for every song to stand on its own merit on a CD, particularly now [in the digital age], so it is possible for download,” Lawson said. “Everybody is always looking for a hit, but as long as I’ve been doing it, I still get surprised. The public decides. I’ve had songs I thought were the best I’ve done not do as well as others.”

If Lawson has one trademark, it is the tight harmonies that he’s been able to maintain over nearly forty years. Like most other successes, it was no accident. “Barry Poss [Sugar Hill Records] asked me one time, when did we ever stop singing,” Lawson laughed. “We didn’t. We’d sing in the van, we’d sing on the way to a show, and we’d sing all the way back.”

Bluegrass Music’s “Farm System”

Like all bluegrass bands that are around for long periods of time, bandmember changes are inevitable. There have been times when it seemed the DL&Q tour bus needed to install a revolving door. However, Lawson wasn’t just churning up bodies and leaving them by the wayside—bandmembers were leaving to start or join other powerhouse bands. Just a quick glance of alumni reveals a who’s who in bluegrass, including Jamie Dailey, Steve Gulley, Barry Abernathy, Shawn Lane, Reid, Baucom, Hunter Berry, John Bowman, Scott Vestal, and a host of others.

“I guess I’m a good teacher,” Lawson laughed. “It’s a two-edged sword. I like to feature people, when they come in, on something strong that they do. I’m not a selfish band leader. I put people first. That encourages them to move out front more, and do it faster.”

Yielding the spotlight is part of the reason the band has such dedicated, hard-working performers, as those with an eye on the future know they can get the experience and exposure to move on in a relatively short time frame. This, of course, can leave a veteran bandleader shorthanded at times.

“Is the trade off worth it? Yes, I think it is,” Lawson said. “They get to stay as long as they want, provided they do what they’re asked, and when they’re ready to go, we send them on their way, and let them spread their wings. I have a sense of pride in that. I’ve always felt [those who moved on] were paying attention. The music has to go on, it has to grow and flourish. People ask me all the time if I get tired of people leaving. I say, ‘What if no one had left Bill Monroe?’ There would have been no Flatt & Scruggs, no Reno & Smiley, no Osbornes…the music would have stopped.”

Current configuration

Changes in the band have resulted in a Quicksilver that has been together as a unit less than a year. Lawson has surrounded himself with a young group of pickers that include Josh Swift on resonator guitar, Jason Barie on fiddle, Corey Hensley on bass, Mike Rogers on guitar and Jessie Baker, who recently replaced Dale Perry on banjo. Swift, who’s been with Lawson for the most consecutive years, finds himself the veteran at three years in the group. He came over from Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain.

“I had gone to pick with Darrell Webb in Gatlinburg, and here comes Doyle Lawson,” Swift said. “He stopped and watched and, at an intermission, told me he liked my playing. A couple of phone calls later, we agreed I’d meet him at IBMA to pick. Next thing I know, he invites me to play onstage at a showcase, and there I was in shorts. I had to call my dad to bring me some clothes. Doyle said, ‘No pressure.’ Then he asked me if I knew ‘Julianne.’ I didn’t grow up on bluegrass and did not own any Doyle Lawson records. I told him, ‘I’ll know it by the time it gets to me.’ When we stepped offstage, he asked me if I wanted to go to Texas with the band the next day.”

Swift, 24, had only been playing the reso-guitar for four years when he joined the band, but credits Lawson with his growth as a musician. “He’s taught me where not to play, where to put what notes, and where to stick with the melody,” he said. “He’s opened my ear. I hear things completely different now. He shares every bit of his knowledge.”

Barie came on board in 2008, after touring with Carolina Road, Bobby Osborne, the Churchmen and Larry Stephenson, among others. Barie points back to Lawson’s statement about a key requirement of success in Quicksilver being to do what you’re asked. “When you’re playing with Doyle, you’re playing with the best of the best,” Barie said. “If he sees talent and promise in you, and you’re hard-working, he’s the most easygoing person you could work for. If you don’t work hard, he can be very hard to work for.”

Hensley joined the group about two years ago as a guitar player and has since switched to bass and taken on a lot of the vocal chores. “Doyle carries a reputation as the best, and he deserves that,” Hensley said. “He’s not any different from the boss at any other job; not too many bosses are just going to let you coast and not do your job. He’s got a lot of Jimmy Martin in him, in that he knows what he wants. He’s a perfectionist and he wants it to be right.”

Guitarist Mike Rogers may best epitomize Lawson’s theory of looking for talent or potential no matter where it might be located. In September of 2010, he plucked Mike, drummer for country music star Craig Morgan, to come be his guitarist and handle a big chunk of the vocal chores. “When we brought in Mike, it was an opportune time to revisit the show, to revamp and redo it,” Lawson said. “There were a lot of songs we’d been doing for a long while, and sometimes songs that you’ve recorded with one configuration are not right for another.”

As for Rogers, he couldn’t be more excited about his transition. “I’m loving it. I’ve always listened to bluegrass, and this is the coolest gig I’ve done,” he said. “It’s challenging. I’m real comfortable singing tenor, and sometimes he puts me on the baritone part. This band has the magic. It’s like a puzzle, and all the pieces are there, coming together. Jason, Jessie, and Josh, they just get it done. Me, Corey, and Doyle singing, there’s something about that makeup. It feels like a unit.”

The first recording with the band’s current configuration, Drive Time, is out just as festival season kicks into high gear. Also, for thirty years, DL&Q has hosted its own festival in Denton, N.C., and has become one of the top draws in the state. While the music industry and bluegrass specifically has changed drastically in just the first ten years of this century, Lawson has proven time and again that he can adapt and succeed.

“It’s not the same, but it’s never the same,” Lawson. “On the business end of it, there is the digital world. Downloads have put the crunch on everyone, and where you used to go into a venue and set up a table and sell albums, kids just want songs for their iPods. Table traffic is cut in half. The good thing is, recording facilities are better.

Progress has its price.” Former band member, Perry, may have Lawson’s legacy summed up best. “A lot of bands come and go. Whenever Doyle makes a change, he’s able to maintain his sound. His music will stand the test of time.”

Comments are closed.