FLATPICKER EXTRAORDINAIRE BRYAN SUTTON started turning heads in his early 20s as a member of Ricky Skaggs’ band, Kentucky Thunder. Now, with acclaimed solo albums, a clutch of awards, and 15 years as a first-call Nashville session player under his belt, Sutton is ranked by bluegrass aficionados alongside such masters as Doc Watson (with whom he shares a Grammy), Clarence White, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake. Hearing Sutton spin lightning-fast phrases on his Bourgeois and Martin dreadnoughts, it’s hard to imagine anyone picking a flattop with more power and finesse.
For his fourth solo album, Almost Live [Sugar Hill], Sutton gathered 17 of today’s finest acoustic musicians—including banjo player Béla Fleck, Dobroist Jerry Douglas, guitarist Russ Barenberg, mandolinist Chris Thile, and fiddler Stuart Duncan— to tackle a mix of original and traditional tunes. Sutton’s command of bluegrass, Celtic, jazz manouche, and mountain music is as impressive as his blistering speed and sparkling tone.
What’s the story behind Almost Live?
As a sideman, I may be in four or five different bands during a given year. I play shows and festivals, and may even tour with these musicians, but it’s always a temporary deal. Almost Live is my attempt to preserve a bit of the magic, the synergy we experience onstage.
The project began in September 2007. That summer I’d been performing with Chris Thile in what was originally called the How to Grow a Band. Later, this group turned into the Punch Brothers. We’d just come off a tour and everyone was in Nashville for a couple of days, so I took that opportunity to book a studio for the weekend. We recorded “Big Island Hornpipe” as a group, and Chris and I cut “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” as a duo. The rest of the album slowly evolved from there.
How did you select the songs you recorded with Thile?
“Big Island Hornpipe” came out of an encounter he and I had some years ago at a festival. I’d composed the A section and was looking for a B part. He came up with a transition and that gave me a launching pad into the rest of the tune. I’d wanted to record it for a long time and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.
During the How to Grow a Band tour, Chris and I decided it would be fun to include a duet in the show. I’d always loved “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” so we worked up the arrangement backstage one night and just started doing it.
There’s amazing interplay between your flattop and Thile’s mandolin in “My Old Guitar”—I picture two kites dueling in the wind. You could only be that spontaneous tracking live, right?
Yes, we sat across from each other and played and sang into a stereo mic. Truth be known, we did 11 takes, and they’re all different.
Tell us about “Rye Straw Suite,” your telepathic duet with Béla Fleck.
I toured for a year with Béla in a band called the Acoustic Trio, and “Rye Straw Suite” was a piece we wrote together and performed throughout that tour. Something amazing happens when you gig consistently for a period of time. At first, you’re just worried about making it through a tune and playing all the right parts. Then at some point during a tour—it can even happen between one set and the next— you’re able to leave that behind and start making music.
I remember talking to Ricky Skaggs about this a long time ago. He recalled playing six nights a week in Lexington, Kentucky, with Tony Rice and [the legendary banjoist] J.D. Crowe and his band. Those guys were able to do anything—they could read each other’s minds. They didn’t need a set list; someone would play an intro and everybody knew what the song was from the first two notes. Magic stuff like that. I’ve experienced this touring with Béla, Chris, and many others featured on this album, and fortunately I was able to recreate it on some level in the studio. That’s what Almost Live is really about.
You also have a beautiful duet with flatpicker Russ Barenberg. What draws you to another guitarist’s playing?
I’ve performed with Russ a lot in the last five or six years—I’ve listened to him for hundreds of hours now—and everything he plays is just heavy with good melodic sense. Whether he’s improvising over chord changes or playing a fiddle tune, he knows how to make a line sound great. He’s rhythmically charged too. You know when a song is feeling right, because he taps his foot like a drum.
What I consistently draw from Tony Rice is an awareness of tone. I’m big into how guitarists interpret rhythm and Rice is always full of rhythmic surprises. David Grier is another one—you never know what you’re going to get, but it will be unique. David and I go back 15 years or so, yet it’s fresh every time we play.
Tell us about the guitars you used on Almost Live and why you chose them.
On this record, my main guitar is a 1940 herringbone Martin D-28. For “Loretta’s Waltz,” I played a Bourgeois D-150, which has Brazilian rosewood back and sides like the D-28. The D-150 has a nice sustain and brilliance I thought would suit that tune. On “Le Pont de la Moustache,” the Django-inspired piece, I played my 1994 Maurice Dupont MD-50. It’s an oval-hole Selmer/Maccaferri-style guitar with Indian rosewood back and sides, and a spruce top. I bought it around 1996; it’s the only Gypsy-jazz guitar I’ve ever owned.
You’ve featured mahogany-body dreadnoughts on other solo albums. Why did you select rosewood instruments this time, and how would you characterize the tonal differences between these woods?
In a rosewood guitar you get that beautiful warmth and sustain, whereas mahogany is known mainly for brightness, volume, and a quickness of sound off the box. As a flatpicker, you’re looking for responsiveness and rosewood guitars can be a little slow. When you’re playing at Doc Watson speed with a flatpick, some rosewood guitars get a little soupy sounding and the notes don’t cut through the band. Mahogany guitars are traditionally better for that. But sometimes with a mahogany guitar, low-end information gets left behind. I’m always looking for guitars that combine rosewood’s low end and mahogany’s midrange, and that’s what drew me to this 1940 D-28. It does it all.
Do you have a favorite technique for miking a dreadnought?
When I work with Bil VornDick, Gary Paczosa, or Dave Sinko—engineers who’ve captured so much great acoustic music over the years—I pay close attention to what they’re doing. Gary likes using a pair of microphones. If I’m sitting with the guitar, he’ll place one down at the lower bout angled up toward the high-E string and the other near the upper bout, almost in front of my face, angled down toward the top of the soundhole.
There’s a debate about the merits of using two mics versus a single mic. It’s easier to get distinctly different sounds from a given guitar with one mic. You can point it at the bridge or neck joint, and move it in and out to change tones. Two mics give you a wider image of that guitar—they blend its sonic characteristics.
Whether I’m facing one or two mics, I find myself moving around in my chair a bit to fine-tune the sound. For example, to get more low end I’ll bring the soundhole a little closer to the nearest mic. There’s no set formula for this because there are so many variables at play: the band itself, the way the headphones and room sound, and the infinite variety of mics I’ll encounter.
Any preferred mics?
We recorded Almost Live in several studios, so in an effort to get some thread of consistency in my guitar sound, I used a pair of vintage Neumann KM 54 mics through Brent Averill API preamps. The KM 54s are tube mics with nickel diaphragms, and they have that wonderful Neumann sound—brilliant, yet warm. I’ve owned pairs of 54s over the years.
I also used a Crowley and Tripp El Diablo ribbon mic mixed in with the KM 54s. I get plenty of high end from the Neumanns, but the ribbon mic gives that punch and a push of air coming off the guitar that’s really important in bluegrass. There’s a sound that Tony Rice has in the low mids—especially on some of those great early records, which were obviously recorded all analog—that does so much for a track’s momentum. A ribbon mic can accent things like G runs and walks into chords.
What about picks and strings?
I’m partial to Michel Wegen’s picks. Currently I’m using his 1.4 mm bluegrass pick, though I’ve also used a custom three-corner Wegen. At a recording session, I’ll empty a bag of picks onto the music stand. At any given time, I’ll have 20-30 picks available in varying materials, shapes, and thicknesses. Your pick makes a huge sonic difference because it’s what the string sees first. For most main tracks, I gravitate toward Wegen or tortoise shell picks. If I’m stacking guitars or adding a second part in a ballad, I might go to a thinner pick so the tone gets a little brighter and there’s more “pick” at the front of the note. Even with the same guitar, using a different pick and capo position changes the sound.
I’m constantly trying different brands of strings, but I lean toward D’Addario, Elixir, or John Pearse. For bluegrass dreadnought playing, I use a phosphor bronze mediumgauge [.013-.056] set. On my Dupont, I use Lenzner strings, gauged .011-.045. Most Gypsy-jazz sets have a .010 high-E string, so I was happy to find a set gauged a little closer to my dreadnought strings.
Now that you can stand back and hear Almost Live as a finished album, what’s your take on it?
I’m more proud of this record than anything I’ve ever done. This feels like a grownup record—a big step forward for me, especially as a writer. Look at Stuart Duncan, Béla Fleck, or Jerry Douglas: They can do things on their instruments that blow you away, yet the power of their ideas transcends any technique. I’ve always wanted that for myself—a greater musical awareness, as opposed to just being a guitar player. I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet—I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings in this area—but at least I know the mountain exists, so I keep climbing it.