Pickin’ A Part: Bryan Sutton in Telluride

Hot Rize performing at the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Festival - photo by Tim BenkoBryan Sutton was born to play the guitar. When it came to a career, he never had a Plan B. Not needed. Clearly.

Thursday was Bryan’s day at the 42nd Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He lit up the stage early evening as part of the legendary Hot Rize: deftly delivering tunes such as Western Skies, Blue is Falling and A Cowboy’s Life, from the chart-topping When I’m Free album, along with other gems from Hot Rize’s vast repertoire. He then set the sky on fire with the wryly named Telluride House Band which consists of Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Bryan, himself. In that set, among other feats, he laid down some of the most beautiful guitar runs heard by humans, rapidly picked a barn-burning How Mountain Girls Can Love, rolled off perfect notes on Roll On Buddy, belted out Backwater Blues, and grooved to Stomping Grounds.

Bryan’s playing is solid, soulful and strong. It is crisp, incisive and true. Your feet hop to his beat on one song and on the next, you are practically weeping from the depth of beauty in his sound. I could not believe my eyes the first time I saw him play. Surely, his fingers could not be moving so quickly and with such precision. They actually do though. Time and time again. His fingers fly up and down the guitar neck and never fail to pluck the exact string in the exact spot at the exact right time. His talent is jaw-dropping. The energy in just his left pinky could power a major city. He plays perfectly each show, and each show somehow he is more perfect.

I was thrilled at the opportunity to ask Bryan some questions before his Telluride sets. He seemed almost mortal as if he was not the mythic figure from the stage who picks every song flawlessly no matter how complicated or fast. Truly gracious and humble. Even so, my hand still shook the entire time I spoke with him: a natural reaction, I think, to being in the presence of greatness.

BT:  What got you into playing guitar?

Bryan: My family is a musical family. My grandfather was an old time fiddler and my dad is a really great musician. So, it was pretty much all I had ever done as far as extra-curricular kind of stuff as a kid. I played a few sports and things like that. But, I grew up in a very musical family and a very musical community. There was always something going on. I was on stage with my dad when I was 3 or 4 years old. I was doing a lot of playing and watching a lot of playing. I was just immersed in the whole scene around Ashville, North Carolina. Everything always felt very natural about it to me.

BT: Was there a certain point you decided this is what you wanted to do with your career? Or, was there ever a moment when you did not think you would be doing this?

Bryan: As soon as I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, the music was always number one.  I never had a Plan B. It really hit hard when I was in high school. I was looking at guys I am playing with now like Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. I would hear them on great records I had and see them at great festivals, and I would say “I want to do that.”

BT: For fans, the House Band takes the stage and the magic just happens year after year. But, in reality, I imagine, you have to rehearse. Do you guys talk about the show all year long? How does it work?

Bryan:  Standard procedure, as it has developed, is to figure out when we can all get together. It is usually a day in Nashville in April or May. We know it is coming up so people spend a few days [preparing]. For me, it is digging through some Doc Watson songs or maybe I have some original things that have just been recorded that would be fun to play with these guys. You try to strike a happy medium of songs that are engaging and fun to learn and also fun to play, and not too hard. We cannot get too inside with this as it is one gig a year. There is a little bit of learning, a little bit of woodshedding on some of the pieces and a lot of remembering and arranging. You’re trying to keep it as light as you can. But with these guys it is not going to be a slog-through of bluegrass standards all night long. That is part of the magic of Béla, Edgar, Jerry, Sam and Stuart. The body of work among them, without even dipping into bluegrass traditional stuff, is great.

We had a rehearsal last night, but Jerry was not there so today is the first time we have all been together since May.  There is always an element of danger.

BT: How did the idea come about to do a Hot Rize album after decades?

Bryan:  Pete has good answers for this. But, we all realized that people really love it and the songs are really good, and, collectively, we felt that the legacy of the band was worth it. [With the album], we are out touring and playing a lot so I think it is good for the body of the work the band represents and all those players, and the entertainment value. Hot Rize still commands a certain corner in the world of professional bluegrass all its own, and it is cool to be a part of that.

BT: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I assume, is special to you for various reasons. Can you talk about why it is special to you?

Bryan:  It is often the only time of the year I really get to sit down with friends and catch up and play music. There are lots of little jams that go on late night, and many opportunities to play on stage here and there. It is really the only time we all get to hang out. It is sort of like camp. It is one of the only festivals where musicians come to hear the other musicians play. It is a really cool thing.

BT:  What is next on the docket for you?

Bryan:  I hope to make another record by the end of the year. I am really enjoying playing under my own name and with my band. The last record I made had more singing and original stuff on it so I am going to continue that. I’ll try to make playing with my band part of the big balance of everything in the next year and beyond.

Readers, quickly grab yourself a copy of Into My Own, where you can hear Bryan not only as the expert guitarist that he is on treasures such as Overton Waltz, Log Jam, and Cricket on the Hearth, but also as a gifted vocalist on songs such as Swannanoa Tunnel, and Run Away. He even plays banjo on it too! While you are at it, pick up his Almost Live album as well. It captures the energy of festival performances, and many of his fellow House Band members join him for its songs. Almost Live is magnificent; it will never let you down.

See a show too though. Witnessing Bryan play live absolutely cannot be missed.

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About the Author

Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a devoted bluegrass enthusiast. An Upstate New York native who resides in Washington, D.C., Jen attends shows in and around the Nation’s capital, a bluegrass haven. She also makes the trek to as many festivals as possible each year. The sweet sounds of New Grass Revival took hold of her in high school and she has studied up on the genre backwards and forwards since then. Her hope is to get even more people hooked as she is on bluegrass music and its extraordinary artists and community.