Despite his proper status as a bluegrass icon, IBMA Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson is an everyday kind of guy. Taught to work hard for what you earn in life, he has been able to reach the top of the musical echelon in part because he pays attention. He pays attention to the stories of the human condition – stories of love, triumph, loss and pain, and the different ways any of us may choose to move through our trials and glories, which he calls the “realities of Life.” Connecting with humanity, he has learned how to reach people right where they are in their lives through the music he makes, a gift he has shared now with listeners for 50 years.
It’s no wonder, then, that with his latest release, Roads Well Traveled, Lawson has written and chosen vignettes from characters both real and fictitious, but all strike a chord with the listener because they all speak to our common fragility and experience. Lawson and his band Quicksilver – Joe Dean on banjo and guitar, Corey Hensley on bass and vocals, Jason Barie on the fiddle, Mike Rogers on guitar, percussion and vocals, and Josh Swift on Dobro and vocals added to Doyle’s mandolin and vocals – have always attended to these songs of life with respect, thus creating the foundation for Quicksilver’s enduring 34-year popularity.
It’s more than the content of the music, however. It’s also the vibe, the flow, the approach that counts. Lawson, who started his career in the early ‘60’s on banjo with Jimmy Martin and went on to play with J.D. Crowe and the Country Gentlemen before forming Quicksilver, realizes that not only do audiences evolve and change, but so does the music. To be successful, he maintains, requires a willingness to change with the audiences to give them what they want and to be ahead of the curve; in other words, to create the future of the music, rather than react to it.
“None of us have a crystal ball when it comes to the future of anything, you know,” he says at the recent CD release event held at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Hosted by Sirius XM, the occasion also featured a showcase performance from the band. “What we do have is a vision.”
“One thing we can always be assured of is change. It’s gonna happen. You can’t avoid it. It’s been said many times that what doesn’t grow, will stagnate or die. It will never be more than what it is unless you allow it to morph into something more and bigger. Let it grow, and trust that people will have respect for the traditions and boundaries that are somewhat set there, you know.”
Lawson doesn’t just stop with the philosophical perspective, a “pie in the sky” view of what he thinks needs to happen. He actually has follow-through ideas on how to grow bluegrass music.
“If you want to grow the music, then you’ve got to attract young people,” he says with certitude. “You have to appeal to them and give them something that they can relate to. So to me, that is my vision, to do that. Not just me as an individual, but all of the artists…You’ve got to take a few chances. That’s been true since Bill Monroe and Lester and Earl. They all embraced changes of vision in order to broaden their horizons, and they all made great music.
“I’ve continuously tried to find songs that will appeal not only to the people who have been with us all along, but the people who are coming on to it, too. We’re getting new people who are coming from other types of music, and they’re discovering this [bluegrass]. Give them something they can relate to today. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
With Lawson’s goals I mind, it’s easy to approach Roads Well Traveled. Lawson talked about a few of his favorite cuts from the record, one of which is How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years, written by Tom Botkin, Kevin Denney and Patrick K. Shull. If you remember the Patty Loveless country single How Can I Help You Say Goodbye from 1994, Goodbye to Sixty Years is strongly reminiscent.
“Most people will tell you when they hear it, right off they’ll say it’s a real sad song,” says Lawson. “Well, it is, but what I found in that song, which means just as much to me, probably more, is positive. This couple has been together as man and wife for 60 years, and that’s a positive thing for me. That’s how I looked at it. Losing anybody that you love is indescribably hard, but when I looked at the song as a whole, I saw the positive.”
One Small Miracle was written by Country Music Hall of Fame legend Bill Anderson and Grand Ole Opry star Steve Wariner. It’s a heartbreak song in the fullest tradition, a common theme, but it features an uncommon twist.
“This is a song about the love a man has for a woman that he just can’t get past,” explains Lawson. “What I liked about the song was that he didn’t go to the bar and get drunk and fall off the stool, he called on the Lord for help. He just needed One Small Miracle. Now, I like that. Rather than going and drowning your sorrows in a bottle, which doesn’t erase anything, he’s seeking a miracle from God Himself.”
Doyle identified personally with the character Dobro Joe, written by Thomas K. Porter IV. When someone wants to play music, they’ll find a way, and as a young kid learning to play, Lawson found that he and Dobro Joe had something in common.
“Dobro Joe is the story of an old, broken-down fella whose hands are shot. He can’t hold a slide anymore, so he tapes it to his hand so that he doesn’t drop the bar.
“Now, I remember taking a Number Two lead pencil, and cutting grooves on the ends and putting either a heavy rubber band or a wire, and I made me a guitar capo, because I didn’t have a capo! And if I couldn’t find a lead pencil, I’d go in and get one of Mother’s butter knives out of the drawer…but I couldn’t let her see me! (laugh) So that was something I could relate to.”
Sharp listeners may recognize the album’s closer, Fiddlin’ Will. Written by Jesse McReynolds and originally recorded by Jim & Jesse, Vassar Clements has also had a go with the song before this current version from Quicksilver. A real toe-tapper to end the record on a high-note, it also has an interesting story.
“It’s just a happy song,” he smiles. “Jim & Jesse had that song back in ’62, I believe it was. I always liked that song, but I could not find it through BMI, ASCAP, anywhere, I could not find Uncle Will Played the Fiddle. So I just called Jesse and said, ‘Tell me about it.’ He said, ‘Jim and I had an uncle named Will who played the fiddle. Back in those days, Uncle Pen was doing pretty good for Bill [Monroe], so I figured maybe we’d have some luck with our Uncle Will!’ So that’s how we finally got the song.”
Lawson and Quicksilver will be hitting the Roads Well Traveled this upcoming season, with both regular dates and a few special appearances. The Bluegrass Album Band, of which Doyle is part, had a successful appearance in February in North Carolina and plans reprisals at both Bloomin’ BBQ and Bluegrass in Sevierville, TN, in May and Rudy Fest in Grayson, KY, in June. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver will host their annual Bluegrass Festival on May 9-11. And, Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction host Kyle Cantrell will welcome Doyle to Track by Track at 11:00 a.m. (EDT) on April 3rd to talk about Roads Well Traveled. There is also a Sirius XM special planned at a future date that will showcase Quicksilver’s performance at the release event, also hosted by Cantrell.
So, as Lawson himself put it, he and Quicksilver will be “busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger.” Not the most glamorous of images, but the point gets across. This outfit is looking forward to getting out on the road to share this new release to fans young and old, loyal and new. His flexibility seems to ensure that his vision for change and expansion for a wider audience will remain intact. And that only helps all of us.