Bryan Sutton’s career — which we celebrate this week on Saturday Soundtrack — is encapsulated in this one paragraph from his website:
“Bryan Sutton is the most accomplished and awarded acoustic guitarist of his generation, an innovator who bridges the bluegrass flatpicking traditions of the 20th century with the dynamic roots music scene of the 21st. His rise from buzzed-about young sideman to first-call Nashville session musician to membership in one of history’s greatest bluegrass bands has been grounded in quiet professionalism and ever-expanding musicianship.“
Sutton was born in Asheville, North Carolina — a hotbed of bluegrass and traditional roots music — and he came to fame in the field as the hotshot lead guitarist in one of the biggest bluegrass bands of the 1990s: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. I first encountered his clean, quicksilver leads and solid bluegrass rhythm, as seen in Bluegrass Breakdown, from that part of his career. His lightening fast guitar solo begins at the 2:55 mark.
After three years on the road with Skaggs, Sutton returned to Nashville where he became the top call acoustic guitar session player for artists ranging from Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift to Dolly Parton (The Grass is Blue), Dierks Bentley and The Chicks. On the latter group’s 1999 album Fly, Sutton takes off on Sin Wagon, first in some interplay with the fiddle beginning at 1:32 and then on a longer solo at the 3:04 mark.
Duets are where I most enjoy Sutton’s playing, as he supports fellow musicians with innovative rhythm work and is not afraid of unlikely detours and explorations when it comes to the leads. In 2006, he took his admiration for his fellow pickers to its logical conclusion, arranging duo sessions with favorites and friends for Not Too Far From The Tree.
The latter’s track, a take on the venerable “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” won the Grammy Award of 2007 for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Every bluegrass guitarist reveres Doc Watson, but for Sutton, their shared North Carolina roots made the validation that much deeper. Even coming amid a string of nine IBMA awards, this was a career highlight that cemented Sutton’s name next to Doc’s, and in his field there’s no higher honor.
Here are two tunes from that album, beginning with the Grammy-winning Whiskey Before Breakfast with Doc, followed by Lonesome Fiddle Blues in a blazing duet of the Vassar Clements‘ classic with Tony Rice.
I Am a Pilgrim is not the tune Sutton performed with David Grier on the duo album, but this live version from the Station Inn is pretty tasty.
Sutton does okay in trios as well (he says with tongue firmly in cheek), as seen here with banjoist Bela Fleck and fiddler Casey Driessen.
And what the heck. One of my favorite configurations with Sutton was on Mark O’Connor’s 30 Year Retrospective album. Here is the amazing Granny White Special with O’Connor, Chris Thile, Byron House, and Sutton.
“The most recent major chapter of Sutton’s career had its seeds planted more than a decade ago when a call came from banjo star Peter Wernick. The legendary Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize was taking on infrequent reunion shows. Wernick, Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster asked Sutton to fill the guitar chair of the late Charles Sawtelle. Then about 2012 they decided to release a new album, tour harder and make Sutton a formal member of the group. In 2015 Hot Rize was nominated for two IBMA Awards including album and entertainers of the year. Fans from coast to coast and especially Colorado were thrilled to have this favorite 1980s era band back with the best guitarist in the business tossing out well wrought solos, as well as playing the deadpan role of Slade in Hot Rize’s alter ego band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
Here’s Sutton playing some straight ahead bluegrass guitar with Hot Rize on Nellie Kane.
Sutton is currently touring with Bela Fleck in support of his My Bluegrass Heart album and I was fortunate to hear this band recently at the Strathmore Music Hall. Here he is just a few days before the Strathmore concert playing Slippery Eel with Fleck, Sierra Hull, Mark Schatz, and Michael Cleveland. Sutton’s first solo comes in at the 1:42 mark, and then the soloists start trading fours (and more) at the 2:32 mark. Amazing!
And to end this Soundtrack, give a listen to Sutton and Chris Thile do a preternatural version of the old Delmore Brothers tune (which most of us know from Doc Watson) Lay Down My Old Guitar. I’d also “wish I could tie it to my side, and take it along with me”…if I could play like Bryan Sutton!
More to come…
Image of Bryan Sutton from BryanSutton.com