Contrary to popular belief, East Tennessee State University and other centers of higher learning which feature academic courses in bluegrass music are not “The School of Bluegrass.” That distinction undoubtedly belongs to hall of famer, Doyle Lawson, and his band, Quicksilver. Many of the top bluegrass artists of the past three decades are graduates of The School of Bluegrass, including Russell Moore, Jamie Dailey, Lou Reid, Jim Mills, Steve Gulley, Shawn Lane, John Bowman, Terry Baucom, Hunter Berry, and more. Doyle’s ability to cultivate young talent and “show them the ropes” of our business is unparalleled, leading to the School of Bluegrass moniker being placed on Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
For thirty-six years, Doyle Lawson has consistently kept Quicksilver among the top bands in our field, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down in 2015. In Session, obviously a play on The School of Bluegrass nickname, is the latest of Quicksilver’s forty-ish albums. Featuring the band’s current lineup (Doyle Lawson, Josh Swift, Joe Dean, Dustin Pyrtle, Eli Johnston, and Stephen Burwell (as well as previous fiddle player, Jason Barie)), In Session establishes that while Doyle Lawson has nothing left to prove to the bluegrass community, he still has a lot left to offer.
In Session truly features something for every bluegrass taste, from hard-driving songs about rivers and railroads to reflective numbers on home and heartbreak. The lynchpin of the Quicksilver machine is the fine vocal finesse which Doyle Lawson, Dustin Pyrtle, and Eli Johnston bring. I’d Just Be Fool Enough, for example, showcases this tight trio throughout, while I Told Them All About You adds Josh Swift’s on bass vocals to make a quality quartet. Soaring vocal harmony is nothing new to Quicksilver, but the ease with which this band executes is exciting. While the album has no weak spots per se, the vocals are the star of In Session.
However, this is not to say that the instrumental work displayed on In Session is substandard. One needs only to listen to the album’s lone instrumental, Evening Prayer Blues, to be reminded that if Doyle Lawson never sang a note in his fifty-two year bluegrass career, his mandolin playing would be hallowed as among the greatest of all time. Doyle’s picking on In Session makes the lack of an IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award for Doyle’s mantle all the more unsettling, although I’m sure its absence is forgotten by Doyle when he looks at his Hall of Fame plaque in Owensboro. Nevertheless, this glaring oversight by our association’s voters is a real shame.
Doyle’s legendary mandolin chops are not the only instrumental sounds worthy of commendation here. Joe Dean (banjo) and Josh Swift (dobro) continue to establish themselves as some of the best young pickers on their respective instruments, while current Radio Rambler, Jason Barie’s fiddle playing never ceases to impress. Stephen Burwell’s bow arm on Wilma Walker shows that he has what it takes to pick up right where Jason left off.
Aside from the album’s Top 5 single, Roll Big River, written by band members Dustin Pyrtle and Eli Johnston, one of the album’s many highlights is Carl Jackson and Aaron Wilburn’s Calling All Her Children Home. Speaking to the heart of Dixie in all of us, the song connects with displaced southerners who moved north to find work. You don’t have to be born below the Mason-Dixon line to appreciate the song’s sentiment or more importantly, the heartfelt delivery of Eli Johnston.
Lawson leads the charge on the traditionally-charged Reasons Why, a real get-up-and-go song that places Doyle’s powerful voice in the spotlight. Quicksilver has seen success with train songs in the 21st century, and Big Eight Wheeler continues in the tradition of Blue Train and Heartbreak Number Nine as a Quicksilver railroad number. Dustin Pyrtle’s big voice matches the power of the train perfectly.
Without a doubt, In Session‘s true capstone is Captain, an original co-written by Eli Johnston and Cody Shuler. It’s a crushing wartime tune of a heartbroken soldier with all hope gone.
Captain. Oh, Captain.
Please won’t you lay my body down,
for I’ve been in this battle for too long,
and my love has gone away.
The song has been a highlight of Quicksilver shows over the past couple of years, so Captain‘s inclusion on In Session should prove a welcome sight to Quicksilver fans. The song features the band firing on all cylinders and warrants a press of the ole REPEAT button on one’s stereo (guilty as charged). Captain is one of the most memorable Quicksilver songs in years, and I don’t say that lightly; it will go down as a modern day DLQ classic.
For those wanting a lesson in how bluegrass can change with the times while still honoring tradition, you needs look no further than In Session. The slick arrangements and light percussion will definitely appeal to younger audiences, while stellar picking and the inclusion of older songs like Weep and Cry and Evening Prayer Blues will surely satisfy bluegrass purists. Few artists can play both sides of the aisle as brilliantly as Doyle Lawson, and he and Quicksilver have been doing exactly that for thirty-six years. In case you have forgotten, the School of Bluegrass is In Session.