Like any working musician Bryan Sutton spends a lot of time traveling, but rarely has a road trip inspired such a fortuitous collection of musical encounters as his new recording Not Too Far from the Tree. Sutton first conceived of his new album of guitar duets "in a car on the way back from a trip," he says. "I was thinking about all these guys that had influenced me and that some of them weren't going to be around forever. I was thinking about records like Mark O'Connor's record of fiddle heroes and Jerry Douglas's record with all the Dobro players. And I got this idea of recording with these guys that were my heroes and also good buddies and advice-givers--people that have helped me in my career as a player. I felt like it was something I could do, and I felt honored to be in a position to be able to call everybody up and ask if they wanted to record."
Sutton is one of the most high-profile acoustic guitarists in bluegrass and country music these days, a first-call Nashville session player whose jaw-dropping technique, deep background in tradition, and fluency in multiple styles have landed him important gigs with Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Earl Scruggs, the Dixie Chicks, Bela Fleck, and others. But with his third solo recording he opted for a more low-key approach. Though it features some of the greatest, iconic bluegrass guitarists in history (Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, David Grier, among others), Sutton's new CD is a tribute to the kind of personal, spontaneous music making that often happens when guitarists get together to jam informally. "I wanted to get out of the studios, out of the sterility of standard record making," he says, "and capture as much of the music on my own as possible, so I decided to go to people's homes."I really like the musical conversation that goes on in a duet," he continues. "I like the reactions, and with this record I tried to capture as much of those nuances as possible. In a duo, you have the freedom to go as far as each person is willing to go. You have this great possibility to get one sound, one voice. The guitar has such a wide tonal range that in a good duet situation you don't miss anything, you don't want for bass or the mandolin chop or anything. You've got plenty of sustain and rhythm, all that stuff. When you get a trio, suddenly you have different roles to play. And in a band everybody has their specific part to do at any give moment. But with a duet you can constantly change dynamics and it's completely free."Sutton not only wanted to showcase his heroes, but also demonstrate just how his own playing as evolved under their influence. However, far from aping his partners, he simply listens and reacts, allowing the music to grow naturally. "There's a conscious level when I'm playing with these guys, where I'll be inspired to do something just because I hear it," he says. "I'm a real reactionary player. When I hear something, whether it be a cool lick from Norman or some weird chord voicing that David Grier is doing, it's going to inspire me to go somewhere spontaneously. It's all improv on that level. But there's also subconscious stuff that happens, little intercommunication things, rhythmic things, the general pocket and groove. I feel like we were able to capture the sound of two guitars sounding like one big instrument, and a lot of that happens subconsciously, where you're really trying to dig into the groove of what's going on--trying to complement the duet partner, whoever that might be. So the influence isn't demonstrated by me playing the same licks that I'd just heard, but in nuances of feel and tone, very subtle kinds of things."I never was one to really study other players. I didn't transcribe Tony Rice solos as a kid, but I would try to listen to the feel of what Tony Rice did and try to capture the crux of the intent of what was going on. The whole Not Too Far from the Tree idea reflects that, in that I'm obviously of that, and I do my own thing, but I know where it came from, and I don't take any of it for granted."Of the guitar heroes/friends he chose to record with, Sutton says:Tony Rice: Like every other bluegrass player, Tony has influenced me so much with his rhythm playing. The essence of whatever Tony Rice is is something we all search for in bluegrass. Another thing about Tony is his open mind and willingness to learn stuff outside bluegrass...that has inspired me to search. Norman Blake: Norman always reminds me of the beauty of simplicity, the beauty of allowing the tone of the guitar to speak. And I love the way he moves from chord to chord. Norman's got a certain pocket rhythmically that I love to try to get. Doc Watson: Doc was my first real guitar hero, like he is for everybody. But I really value his opinions on things. He told Ricky Skaggs that he liked his singing because he could hear every word he sang, and that spoke to me on a lot of different levels about what's really important at the end of the day, musically. It's one thing to play music, but you've got to communicate to people in an accessible way. Jerry Douglas: I count Jerry as one of the most influential musicians in my life, ever. His improv and what he does behind vocalists is always just perfect. When you hear something he's done on a track on someone's record, you feel like it couldn't get any better. Earl Scruggs: Earl's guitar playing just anchors a lot of what I've always loved about bluegrass guitar--strong melodic playing that makes good sense. Ricky Skaggs: The way Ricky played acoustic uitar on his country records just sounded to me like the way it ought to be done. As I've become a session player in Nashville playing on country records, I still adhere to all those concepts I picked up listening to him. David Grier: The biggest influence David has on me is his ability to affect my interpretation of what's going on in the music. He's a great conversationalist with the guitar, and playing with him I discover things that I didn't know I could do. George Shuffler: George has such a neat groove in his crosspicking. There's such a great rhythm to it, a lope. George has been a great friend, inspiration, and support, he's definitely influenced me in so many different ways outside of music. Jerry Sutton: Dad is a real solid person, a very smart guy, but unassuming. Any ability I have to play rhythm guitar and create pockets and good feels for things stems from listening to him. Jack Lawrence: When I was about 12 so, Jack put a lot of things in perspective for me of how flatpicking can sound--from the clarity and power he was able to get. Russ Barenberg: Russ is such a solid player, and his soloing is so lyrical. He reminds me to keep a melodic idea strong in my solos. He's one of those great improvisers, like Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, that always have a great melody in their solos. Dan Crary: Dan's influenced me the most in conceptual kinds of stuff--in the realm of clarity and dynamics in flatpicking.
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