There is likely no more common topic of discussion in bluegrass circles than Doyle Lawson’s latest band. In his more than 40 years as a bandleader – and headliner – Doyle has reformed his touring group more times than he’d probably care to remember, and each time he watches a number of his star players move on to start a solo career or enter another line of work, he comes right back with a band as strong as any he had fielded in the past.
But 2020 has brought a new challenge, with a full year’s worth of work shut down in a flash. For a full-time touring act like Lawson, that is a hard pill to swallow. Having shows booked and needing to replace a member is one thing; having a top notch stage show with no dates is another thing altogether.
We spoke with Doyle earlier today about dealing with all this, and the recent changes he has announced to the Quicksilver lineup. Several of his bandmates pre-COVID have left the group, a couple doing so before the pandemic struck, and others as the strains of the shutdown took hold.
Long time banjo man Joe Dean has left, as has guitarist and vocalist Jake Vanover. I asked if these departures were because of the restrictions.
“100%… they left because we couldn’t work. Stephen Burwell moved to Nashville about the time this stuff hit, and wants to do session work there. Josh Swift has already told me he wanted to focus on his studio. The other guys had to go to work somewhere. It’s pretty disheartening to have to make a change like this, but I understand why they made the decision they did.
Since my dates were all cancelled, I furloughed them so that they would be eligible for unemployment. They were very fortunate to find decent work with benefits.”
But like he always does, Lawson has assembled a new group and is rehearsing with an eye towards going back out as soon as restrictions are lifted. Eli Johnston, who had taken his leave in 2018, is back playing banjo and singing both lead and harmony parts. Ben James will be on guitar, likewise singing lead and harmony, and Matt Flake will be on fiddle and bass vocals. Jerry Cole is staying put on bass. All are experienced bluegrass road guys, and Doyle says that things are shaping up nicely.
“Rehearsals are going good, but at the same time the guys are managing to pick up some other work here and there, with my blessings. With conditions being the way they are, I told them that we’ll base our schedule around yours. A man with a family has to have some sort of income. This way I have some rehearsal time that we need, and they have the time they need for other things.
My job was to try to rebuild for the day when we could work again. We’re dealing now with hope and a little bit of speculation. When things return, I’ve got to have a band ready to tour. And that is where we are.”
Lawson also spoke about the toll the shutdowns have had on him, and everyone else in the music business.
“It was like turning the water faucet off all at once. It’s had a deep impact. And it doesn’t just affect part of the music industry, it affects the whole thing – and every industry out there as well. Overall, what has happened has pretty much stopped any forward progress that we may have had… we’re at a standstill.
My bus hasn’t been off the lot since March 14. It looks like 2020 is just a lost year. We can’t make up next year for what we lost this year. 2021 will have to take care of itself. It can’t resolve the problems we’re having this year.”
Fortunately, all this hasn’t given him any thoughts of hanging it up and retiring, which he could surely do with his head held high after nearly 60 years as a performing artist.
“I had thought August would see touring return, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. Now we’re hoping for September.
I keep hoping that this thing will pass. I still want to work, and I have a desire to do things. I’m an old road dog, and I’m not ready to slow down yet.”
When Doyle first got on the phone this morning, he had been reviewing some old songbooks that had come his way from the estate of a cousin who had recently passed. He’s already thinking about new material for the band, and how he might arrange some of these great old songs for a future recording.
And that’s great news for the legion of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver fans eagerly awaiting the return of live music again.