Steve Sutton passes

Photo of Steve Sutton by Ted Lehmann

Well-known North Carolina banjo player Steve Sutton passed away unexpectedly yesterday at home in Waynesville, NC. He was 61 years of age.

Steve had been through multiple surgeries on his neck and spine in the past few years, but it is not thought that these issues were related to the cause of his death. In fact, the most recent surgery had corrected his spinal problems and he was able to play again without pain. At this point, doctors suspect that he suffered a heart attack.

Bluegrass music had been Steve’s sole profession throughout his life. As a teenager his facility with the banjo attracted the attention of major stars like Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin, both of whom hired him to tour with them before he turned 18. But even before that he was performing on stage, starting at age 11 with Raymond Fairchild. In college, he studied trumpet and marketing at Western Carolina University.

Sutton was also a fine guitarist, who worked for many years in the Marc Pruett Band. He had been playing of late alongside Marc’s Balsam Range bandmate Darren Nicholson in western North Carolina.

Darren remembers Steve not only as a master musician, but as his lifelong mentor and dear friend.

“Steve got me my first mandolin when I was a kid. I had a inexpensive student instrument and he saw some promise in me, and took me down to the music store and paid $3500 in cash for me to have a Gibson mandolin. He also got me my first professional job in music with Alecia Nugent.”

But mostly, what Nicholson remembers about Sutton was the joy he took in music, and his delightful sense of humor.

“He was just a barrel of laughs. We always had fun touring together, and we were always laughing. He had a beautiful spirit, and a beautiful mind… and he was absolutely hilarious.”

Over his life, Sutton had played with nearly everyone in bluegrass, and they all considered him a friend. He had picked up the nickname “Drac” some years ago, short for Dracula. Darren said that it came from a silly joke they made when they were playing together, and it just stuck.

He performed for a time with Rhonda Vincent, but like so many former Sunny Mountain Boys, always credited Jimmy Martin with teaching him how to play with close rhythmic precision.

His interests ran to nearly every style of music, which allowed him to quickly find that “just right” sound backing up other instruments or singers.

Here’s a video of Steve playing Earl Scruggs’ Randy Lynn Rag with The Crowe Brothers a few years ago.

Darren offered this final tribute to his friend…

“He’s a crown jewel of our mountain music. I hope to see him get the credit he much deserved for his talent and music. He never got into the political side of the music business… he just always played great, greeted everyone with warmth, enjoyed every second of his life, and kept on always being Steve. And we love him for it.”

Nothing has yet been announced about funeral services, but loose plans for a musical memorial later this summer are being discussed.

R.I.P., Steve Sutton.

UPDATED 5/16: Funeral services will be held on May 18 at 6:00 p.m. in the chapel at Wells Funeral Home in Waynesville, NC. Visitation will follow at 7:00.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to: 

Bluegrass Trust Fund
c/o The IBMA
4206 Gallatin Pike
Nashville, TN, 37216

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Tim Galyean

    One of my favorite memories of Steve is his impersonation of Ralph Stanley and his clawhammer banjo version of ‘Little Birdie’. Anyone who ever saw it will know what I’m talking about.
    Steve was a good friend and as Darren noted a gifted musician who was always there to share and inspire others, He will be missed and fondly remembered by all who knew him