Doyle Dykes Talks Honoring His Faith, with a Little Help from His Friends

Doyle Dykes on how he teamed up with Eric Johnson and Tommy Emmanuel on his latest sacred music release, 'Treasures of the Spirit.'
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Doyle Dykes long ago surrendered his career to his deeply held Christian faith. His illustrious “life behind the guitar” (the title of his 2017 album) has been a journey on which he has encountered many kindred spirits, including his mentor and friend Chet Atkins, who called Dykes “one of the finest fingerpicking guitarists around.”

“I didn’t take guitar lessons,” Dykes says. “I went to the Chet Atkins school of pickin’. Chet used a thumb pick most of the time, and did everything with his right hand. He played the guitar like a piano. He played the bass, and then the rhythm, alternating between his thumb and fingers with his strumming hand. It would be like rocking your hand on the piano keys. I once bought a Del Vecchio guitar for Chet. He later gave me one of his guitars, saying, ‘I’ve always appreciated what you do with the church, and I have something I’d like to give you.’”

Dykes’ faith finds majestic expression on his latest album, Treasures of the Spirit. Recorded at Eric Johnson’s Saucer Studios in Austin, it finds Dykes performing a set of modern and classic religious tunes, accompanied by Johnson and Tommy Emmanuel. For Dykes, these musical efforts are as meaningful as the spiritual encounters he details in his 2011 memoir, The Lights of Marfa, which derives its name from mysterious orbs that appear in the sky near that West Texas town. He sees such celestial phenomena as metaphors for the personal and professional blessings that have illuminated his life. As Dykes approached his 65th birthday this past May, he reflected on them and the musicians he has encountered along the way.

You see your life as a succession of miracles, one of which was the fulfillment of your childhood ambition to perform at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

I come from a long line of guitarists, and naturally, as a kid, I dreamed of running away with my guitar to Nashville to play the Opry. After graduation from high school, I joined J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Elvis’s backup group. Soon afterward, I married my high school sweetheart, who told me after a couple of years working on a regular job, “You need to be playing again. You’re not getting the most out of life unless you do.”

Within two weeks, in 1975, I finally got my wish playing at the Opry with Grandpa Jones, who was then famous as a regular on [the TV show] Hee Haw. Grandpa opened lots of doors for me. I didn’t know about old-time country music, western swing or jazzabilly until I traveled with him. I was with him several years, opening the show at the Opry. I’ve played there regularly ever since. One amazing night was when Chet, Duane Eddy and I played “I Saw the Light” at the finale of Guitar Man Night at the Opry.

I understand you once almost met Elvis but decided against it at the last minute. What happened?

Once when I was with the Stamps, I was at the Hilton Hotel and next in line to meet Elvis. I walked out of the room. I was raised with a very deeply religious background. I just didn’t want to get into the partying and all that. I said, “I’m just not ready for this. I’ll meet him some other time,” and I left. Whether or not that was right or wrong, at the time I didn’t feel right in my heart that I should be there. But I had a great deal of respect for him. You can’t judge him.

Chet’s influence on you is well known, but the Beatles have also inspired you, and you’ve paid tribute to their songs.

Back in the late 1990s, I was in a record store and bought every Beatles album I could find. As I was about to pay, my producer called to say I’d been invited to perform on a [1999] Beatles compilation album, Here, There & Everywhere. I recorded “Girl” for that release. I’ve also recorded “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as part of a medley, and I’ll soon record another one. Since George Harrison was a guitarist, I wanted to meet him. My friend Duane [Eddy] loved George dearly, and he loved Duane, so I felt I’d probably meet him one day. When I was at the Cavern in Liverpool, where the Beatles started, they gave me a brick in the Wall of Fame. You can’t always anticipate the things that are given to you in life.

On Treasures of the Spirit, you play some of your favorite hymns accompanied by some of your closest colleagues. How did the album come about?

I was on Eric Johnson’s last acoustic album, EJ. He gave me a copy dedicated, “To my treasured friend,” and that inspired the title of this album. Those songs are treasures — gifts written by spiritual people. They just flow and can be some of the easiest stuff I’ve ever done. The cover is a lithograph of Pierre Matisse’s A White Rose for Heidi. He gave one to me, to my daughter Heidi and to “The White Rose Lady,” Sue Crews. Sue is the autistic woman who miraculously gave me a white rose, unknowing that my daughter had prayed for one. It was divine providence. That’s where the white rose on my signature guitars comes from.

I recorded most of the record last year at Eric’s Saucer Studio in Austin, mostly with the Olson guitar. I used my White Falcon 1955 reissue Gretsch on two or three songs as well as the Sand guitar custom-made for me by Kirk Sand. I also used my Doyle Dykes Signature Godin Multiac on a couple of songs. Eric plays on “Cuerdas de Luz” [“Strings of Light”]. It had been in my head all week. I thought I was playing it for the first time, but Eric assured me it was already a song. I performed “Blessed Assurance” on a Gretsch. Fred Gretsch wanted his guitars to be used more in a liturgical setting, so it seemed appropriate.

The album also features you and Tommy Emmanuel performing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Why did you choose that song?

I released a DVD, Live Sessions, on which Tommy and I played it, totally unrehearsed. This was one of the greatest moments I ever had as a guitarist. So we lifted it for the album. The most ethereal song on the album is a modern hymn, “I Bowed My Knees and Cried Holy.” My engineer Kelly Donnelly asked me, “Why does that feel so special?” I said, “The whole thing is about heaven. It’s not about anything in this world.”

What guitars did you use on the album?

I’ve been using my custom Olson made from pernambuco wood as my main acoustic guitar. It has its own sound. For my nylonstring, I use my custom Kirk Sand. I was just in the studio with my two Guild six-string guitars that I designed a few years ago. It’s a signature, like my Taylor [Doyle Dykes Signature Model]. This one has different things that appeal more to me personally, like an Adirondack top and bracing, and an L.R. Baggs LB6 pickup. I shortened the neck a bit and I put on Gotoh keys. I put the Gretsch-style markers on the neck, like the thumb markers Chet had. I told him, “I’m not copying you, I’m honoring you.” When I use electric guitar, either recording or playing, I usually use my Gretsch White Falcon.

What’s your next project?

I’m mixing an eclectic collection featuring a Merle Travis medley as well as songs by Tom Petty, Radiohead and Supertramp. Once again, I use my signature Guild six- and 12-string models and custom-made Sand.

Can you describe your recording process?

I don’t overdub guitar parts. I usually just play solo. When playing with a band, I’ll have other players do their part. I’ll use [Fender] Twin amps and vintage Music Man amps. When I’m playing, I’m playing toward the mic and trying not to move very much. We use two mics: one on the guitar as the centerpiece, and then another just for ambience. You put them left and right in the mix and get more dimension out of the amps. I’ve never been a purist. I love acoustic guitar, but it’s not in my wheelhouse. So when I started playing acoustic music, I still wanted that warmth of the amps.

Your playing is breathtakingly swift. How do you prepare to play, and what do you do to keep your hands in shape?

I try to play a few hours daily. Beforehand, I’ll stretch my hands and fingers by turning them a certain way, and I’ll put my digits together like a spire and just shake them at my side.

You’ve said your serene acceptance of life has allowed marvels to take place in it. Can you talk about how your faith works with respect to your career and your plans for it?

Sure. I was once in line to become a member of the Opry. It’s a life’s dream of mine, and it could still be a possibility. But sometimes in life, maybe you’re more effective doing something else. I know people who have run for president, but I think they were more effective not being the president. I think sometimes you can be a greater blessing by not being where you want to be all the time.