Artist2Artist: Bryan Sutton – Relevance & the Art of Turning Stuff Down

Bryan Sutton“John Hartford talked about the process of driving a river boat is not to look right in front of you, but to look a mile down the river.”

Busy musical artists oft times become tangled in their own lack of long-range strategy. The majority of us in the pack fear the act of turning down a booking or a favored-called-in by a colleague. Bryan Sutton understands the challenge.

He tours with his own band, The Bryan Sutton Band, and he’s a beloved member of Hot Rize. In between those notes, he is the go-to online acoustic guitar guru at what could be thought of as the Juilliard of online music instruction schools, And without question Bryan is one of the most in-demand guitar session players, popping in and out of studios coast-to-coast for projects and collaborations that grab his interest.

Even with Sugar Hill Records and his publicist in the assist-mode, Bryan faces the growing wave of fielding nonstop phone calls, text messages, social media tag alerts, “calendars on top of calendars on top of calendars” – as Bryan describes his music business juggle.

“Pete Wernick and I were talking about this the other day and he said ‘John Hartford talked about the process of driving a river boat is not to look right in front of you, but to look a mile down the river’” — and so started this discussion between Bryan and myself during our Artist2Artist on stage interview at the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth Georgia.

Bryan Sutton interviewed by Lisa Jacobi“The strategy is staying ahead of it. Overbooked… sometimes double booked is a problem.

You learn to project and learn to get a sense of what this will feel like if I get too busy.

Imagining what 3 months from now is going to feel like. Or imagining if somebody calls for a session and I am getting off a plane after 2 weeks on a road trip. It is a growing process to be okay with turning stuff down.”

Then there are the unexpected wrenches in the machine. I witnessed it first hand at the venue. Bryan and the band arrived for what they thought was an on-time load in and soundcheck for an 8:00 show. Only to discover that what was in their books for a show at 8:00 was scheduled at the venue for 7:00. That missing hour could have put the entire band into a tailspin leading to a nasty tug-of-war with the sound crew and theater.

Bryan handled it calmly and in stride. No loud voices, no panic. His demeanor was picked up by the guys in his band. They quickly uncased, got with the house sound man Shalom, and went directly into a soundcheck. Doors open for audience was moments away and I fully expected him to cancel our Artist2Artist interview. Instead, he promptly changed into a tailored jacket, joined me on stage in front of yet another set of microphones, and as you listen in our interview, you would never know that anything was amiss.


An example of a pro? 

Bryan SuttonNot necessarily. We all have witnessed bad stage attitudes of some professionals who lack the skills necessary to field unexpected line-drives that are hit their way. But Bryan is an example of a pro who has his life in balance — and who has found his center.

This idea of centering is a critical tenet of what he shares with his students in the program.

“I really try to center people toward this idea about what do you love about the acoustic guitar? What do you love about the imagery of flat-picking?”

As Bryan amusingly acknowledges, “what guitar player doesn’t want their hand to look like Tony Rice or Doc Watson?”

“What I’ve learned to do and what I hope to impart is that there is a spiritual enjoyment about acoustic music that draws me,” says Bryan. “The fundamentals of how to insure more consistent tone, how to get to that place… is when we focus energy in a certain way and allow things to happen versus force things to happen. As hard as that is to absorb initially, it does work.”

This lesson from Bryan’s acoustic guitar concepts should be applied by more of us in our professional lives in general. And he’s been true to this since coming on the scene some 20 years ago as a teen with the tour de force band Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Bryan says, “my mantra is to make the best music possible with the best people. I will always work with people, but I don’t want to work for someone. I’m all about collaborations and bringing like-minded people together.”

That mindset of choosing the best people for your professional circle, and being the best you can be for them, will on occasion be recognized beyond the listening audience with notable awards. The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has recognized Bryan with what seems to be a *we’ve lost count* number of best-of nominations and wins. The plum of recognition came in 2007 when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) recognized Bryan and his friend Doc Watson with a Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for the duo’s version of the Canadian old-time tune Whiskey Before Breakfast.

“When a Grammy comes along, to be able to say ‘wow, this really means something, people are listening’ and it is encouraging. Staying in it and being a relevant part of the conversation from year to year is a goal net for me,” says Bryan.

Being Relevant. Being Surrounded by Excellent People. Being Centered.

That about sums it up. You might want to write it down and tape it to your fridge.

Thanks for reading and for listening. I’ll see all of you next month on the full moon with my Artist2Artist talk with a divine note maker… the mandolin and clarinet musician Andy Statman.