Five (or more) questions with Bryan Sutton

GUITAR HERO: "There's a bounce and energy that has been maintained from the early dance roots of a lot of fiddle music," says Bryan Sutton. Beyond bluegrass, he's also a fan of classical piano and '80s metal.
GUITAR HERO: "There's a bounce and energy that has been maintained from the early dance roots of a lot of fiddle music," says Bryan Sutton. Beyond bluegrass, he's also a fan of classical piano and '80s metal.

Asheville native Bryan Sutton isn’t just another guy with a guitar. After launching his career as a member of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, he went on to play and record with artists like Keith Urban, Taylor Swift and Harry Connick Jr. “I simply want to make the best music possible with the best people possible,” Sutton says. “I try to not pre-qualify what that music is or who those people are.”

Though his background is in bluegrass, the guitarist has studied various traditional and pop approaches. “I learned a long time ago that there’s not much room for an ego when it comes to backing someone up,” he says. “The more I can kind of lose myself in the interest of the bigger musical picture, the better off everyone is.”

Sutton also has a solo career. His new album, Into My Own, shares a title with a Robert Frost poem about a young man who sets out to find himself. “This record represents a bit of me stepping into some musical zones that aren’t as familiar and comfortable,” he says. The record includes contributions from Sam Busch, Noam Pikelny, Stuart Duncan and others. And while those artists won’t be joining Sutton at his Friday, July 11 album release party at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, he will be backed by Sam Grisman on bass, Mike Barnett on fiddle and Casey Campbell on mandolin.

Mountain Xpress: Are you ever intimidated to work with celebrity musicians? And who’s at the top of your list of musicians you’d still love an opportunity to play with?

Bryan Sutton: I use to be a little more star-struck than I am now. … I’m fortunate in that, in the studio environment, it’s not so much about the crowds, big screens, lights, etc. Famous artists realize they aren’t onstage, and if they’re comfortable, they can relax a little and just try to make some good music.

I’d still like to work with someone like Sting, Merle Haggard or maybe Metallica.

Your new album presents some very traditional mountain music themes in a way that feels refined and light and modern.

I love music that looks forward but reminds you of where it came from. That sums up one of my main goals as an artist. Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Norman Blake and Jerry Douglas are only a few of the folks I’ve learned a lot from about this approach. It kind of boils down to being true to who I am. Upholding tradition, yet allowing music to evolve has been a theme for me for a long time.

When you arrange a traditional song, is it daunting to work with such well-known and loved pieces of music?

I try to find something about older songs that feels fresh to me. With “Been All Around this World,” I found a collection of lyrics that, to me, helped tell the story in a better way. With “Cricket on the Hearth,” I liked the idea of taking a basic fiddle tune and arranging it in way where a five-piece bluegrass ensemble could sort of “share” the tune by trading bits of it around. … These old songs still have a lot to give in the way of fun energy, and they don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.

At this point in your career, do you feel like you’re still learning about bluegrass music?

I’m continuing to learn about different facets of the bluegrass world. Maybe I’ve spent a lot of time with bluegrass guitar styles, but now I’m focusing a little more on singing, writing and leading a band. A little more of the big picture kind of things.

Does Western North Carolina still impact your sound and, if so, in what ways?

The traditional music of WNC has a sound that’s a kind of blend of what folks nowadays would call folk, bluegrass and old-time. It’s hard to call it one or the other, and to do so limits what the sound is, as the titles folk, bluegrass and old-time were created long after the sounds from this region were developed. Doc Watson always called it “mountain music,” and that seems to hold up.  There’s a bounce and energy that has been maintained from the early dance roots of a lot of fiddle music. There’s also a storytelling component that, to me, is tied very much to the old ballad singing approach. I would hope that someone listening to anything I do would hear these roots in my music.

What is an album or band you listen to for inspiration that might surprise us?

I love a lot of solo classical piano music. Beethoven, Bach and Schumann are few of my favorite composers. I also have a guilty penchant for metal — especially … from the late 1980s into the early ’90s. Bands like Metallica, Racer X and Dokken are really fun to listen to.

WHO  Bryan Sutton’s album release party

WHERE  Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com

WHEN  Friday, July 11 , at 9 p.m. $15 advance, $17 at the door

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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