Veteran bluegrass stylemaster Doyle Lawson and his band, Quicksilver, are rightly celebrated for their sound — smooth vocals graced by tight harmonies, and paired with flawless instrumentals.
But if not for one peculiar personal habit of Lawson’s, his fans wouldn’t have the chance to snatch up copies of the group’s latest CD, which has been 25 years in the making.
There’s simply no getting around it: Doyle Lawson is a packrat.
How else to explain the award-winning singer and mandolin player being able to come up with 50 tracks from his own personal recordings of band rehearsals and concerts dating back to 1979?
A School of Bluegrass — a two-CD set of remastered tunes that was released this spring by Crossroads Music Group, an Arden-based record company specializing in bluegrass and Southern gospel — boasts a heft that’s backed by a quarter-century of bluegrass history in the making. The homey feel to this silver-anniversary collection springs straight from its source: A dozen of the tunes were recorded either in Lawson’s living room or in his two-car garage (once the cars and the cats were temporarily moved out).
“It’s just us in the raw form — in the early days and down through the current group,” reveals the genial Lawson during an interview with Xpress at his label’s offices.
The rawness stems from limitations in the recording process itself: using only a single mike during rehearsals, and laying down live shows to typically two tracks of tape. Yet even though the respective songs couldn’t be gussied up in the here-and-now via the mixing board, the group’s work still wears a polish born of hours upon hours of practices.
All work, all play
Lawson’s insistence on lengthy rehearsals brings us to another important facet of the musician’s personality that’s shaped Quicksilver over the years.
“Doyle has a reputation of being real picky,” reveals his wife and manager, Suzanne Lawson, who accompanied her husband to Arden from their home in Bristol, Tenn. “Really, really picky. Too picky.”
“Well, I do, I admit it,” concedes the affable musician, who nonetheless doesn’t apologize for demanding that his band members play the right notes with the correct phrasing, while at the same time not overdoing (or underpowering) their singing.
In fact, Lawson’s brown eyes crinkle and his face lights up when recalling the 12-to-18-hour practice sessions that went into creating his own backing band after he left a virtual bluegrass institution, The Country Gentlemen.
“We did all kinds of things to pull the group together,” recalls Lawson. “For instance, to get our harmonies and our phrasing, we would start in one room. And I would maybe stay in that room and the other guys would go three different directions. And then when we came back together, our pitch and our phrasing had to be together. If not, we did it again … until we got where … everybody phrased exactly alike. And it made you aware of being pitch-conscious, you know, staying on pitch. When you would go out and come back, you would keep that pitch.”
Lawson admits that he borrowed the technique from the legendary Earl Scruggs, noting: “That was a crazy thing to do, but yet it worked.”
On the eve of his 60th birthday, Lawson reveals that lessons he learned from his mother and father also influence his approach. As boys growing up on a farm, Lawson and his brother had to hoe their rows of corn to their father’s satisfaction. If they didn’t perform to his standards, they found themselves starting over.
“For a youngster … it doesn’t take long to get the picture: You do it right. Or you don’t do it at all. You do it right, or you can do it again. I’d rather do it right. And I’m glad they taught me that. I’m glad they both instilled that in me.”
That ethic, he admits, “goes right into my music.”
The passion of Lawson
The first five songs on A School of Bluegrass — recorded at a 1979 rehearsal in Lawson’s living room, which doubled as sleeping quarters for visiting band members — showcase an energetic troupe of musicians led by a bandleader who’d been itching to make his own mark.
Album opener “Mississippi Queen” explodes with blistering banjo frenzy (courtesy of Terry Baucom, who’s returned to the Quicksilver fold after a long hiatus). Surprisingly enough, the second song features Lawson on mandolin stretching the boundaries of the genre with “Come on Over,” a Bee Gees ballad that was getting airplay at the time the bluegrass dynamo recorded it. Then the bouncy “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” shows off the soulful harmonies that have distinguished Lawson’s gospel numbers through the years.
Later cuts reveal the group’s evolution through 13 iterations as the cast of musicians changed. In fact, A School of Bluegrass alludes to those former members, many of whom have since settled elsewhere in the upper ranks of the music industry — in groups including IIIrd Tyme Out, Mountain Heart and Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. The album’s very last track, recorded in January, features Lawson on mandolin, Baucom on banjo, Barry Scott on bass, Jamie Dailey on guitar and J.W. Stockman on fiddle — reflecting a mellower pace than the early days. (To be honest, though, the sheer volume of songs on the two-disc set makes it hard to fully absorb in just one sitting.)
And of the 25 or 30 musicians who’ve been members of Lawson’s “school,” all but three made it to a four-and-a-half-hour silver-anniversary concert held in Nashville on April 1.
A devout Christian, Doyle Lawson has done far more gospel recordings with Quicksilver than secular ones. Of his band’s 26 or 27 albums (Lawson has lost track), he estimates 70 percent are gospel. In fact, the group turns out a gospel record every year, notes Suzanne Lawson; 2003’s Thank God was the most recent.
Lawson’s excellence in the secular and gospel arenas has hardly gone unnoticed, particularly in 2003, a banner year for him by any standard. That’s when the International Bluegrass Music Association awarded Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver three coveted honors: Vocal Group of the Year (for the third straight year); Song of the Year, for “Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line),” co-written with John D. Loudermilk; and Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year, for “The Hand Made Cross.”
Lawson allows that he’s pleased with how his latest effort turned out. Of course, the very existence of those 25 years of tape that later became A School of Bluegrass also bears witness to his uncompromising quest for perfection. Lawson made the recordings through the years to help identify problems in the group’s performances before they went out on the road or took to the studio.
And even though the 18-hour rehearsals have gone by the wayside, Lawson still won’t venture into the studio to record a new CD until he and his band have logged 30 days of eight-hour rehearsal sessions — a rarity in the business, reveals Mickey Gamble, Crossroads’ chief operating officer, who worked closely with Lawson on the new album.
Through Lawson’s instruction, lessons that he learned long ago have been passed on to a new generation.
“The guys [who] have come through here and go on to other things, I can hear a discipline in their music,” Lawson reflects. “And I know where it comes from. And they’re all like that. They know exactly how they want it, and they don’t settle for anything less.”
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s A School of Bluegrass was released March 30 and is available in Asheville at Almost Blue (92 Patton Ave.) and Sounds Familiar (1950 Hendersonville Road), among other outlets. The group performed 225 dates in 2003. This year, the venerable bandleader and his crew are scheduled to appear at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair in Fletcher on Sept. 19. For other dates nationwide, check out www.doylelawson.com.