Bryan Sutton

“You know that Isaac Newton quote?” asks the award-winning bluegrass flatpicker and noted Nashville session ace Bryan Sutton. “‘If I’ve seen farther than others, it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’ Well, that’s exactly what I was trying to demonstrate with my new record.” The giants in this case are 12 legendary guitar heroes who have directly impacted Sutton’s mind-bending playing, and his new release, Not Too Far from the Tree [Sugar Hill], is a collection of traditional bluegrass songs recorded as a series of duets with each of his chosen sages: Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas, Dan Crary, Norman Blake, George Shuffler, Jack Lawrence, David Grier, Russ Barenberg, and Sutton’s father (and first guitar guru) Jerry Sutton.

With such a formidable cast of collaborators at his disposal, a less visionary artist might have been satisfied booking a state-of-the-art studio to track an ego-gratifying, but soulless cutting session. Instead, Sutton chose to approach the project as a pilgrimage, packing up his 1940 Martin D-28 Herringbone and bare-bones portable studio, and then traveling to each player’s home. He explains, “I recorded everything live without overdubs on an Alesis ADAT-XT 8-track digital recorder, using three microphones: a Neumann KM 54 on each guitar, and a Neumann U 87 overhead. Bluegrass is such a living, breathing, and socially collaborative music that I wanted to capture the moment of being with my mentors in their own space as a living reflection of how they’ve influenced me.” The result? A compelling documentation of Sutton’s unique and inspirational musical sojourn.

Was it intimidating to play with legends like Tony Rice and Doc Watson?

There were times I had to pinch myself when I realized who I was sitting next to, for sure. When you work with guys like Doc, Tony, Norman Blake, and Jerry Douglas though, you see how when they play, they’re not thinking about what lick or run they can throw into their own part, they’re processing music on a global level and trying to contribute to the greater musical good. As I’ve grown as a player, I’ve tried to take a more communal approach too. I realized it’s okay not to play every single note I know in every solo. I no longer feel like I have to show off, but it’s still taken me time to build up to that level of comfort where I can play simply. Being accepted by my heroes actually boosted my confidence in that respect.

How did you select the song for each duo?

My guiding principal was to find a tune that captured each guitarist’s signature style, but the particulars varied in every case. With Dan Crary, I knew I wanted to do “Forked Deer,” since it was something I’d copped from his instructional tapes. With David Grier, I love his interpretations of the old classics and the way he can dress up a simple melody, so I had “The Old Spinning Wheel” in mind. When I approached him about the project, the first tune he suggested was “The Old Spinning Wheel,” so amen, brother! With Tony Rice, I chose “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” because I thought it would bring out the jazzier aspects in his playing.

How many takes did you usually do for each song?

Generally between five and seven. I took the ADAT recordings and transferred them to Pro Tools for editing, and a few cuts are composites of different takes.

What were the challenges of being the producer, mobile recording engineer, and artist on this project, and how did you overcome them?

There was one day when I recorded duets with three players—my dad, George Shuffler, and Jack Lawrence. I wound up driving all around North Carolina. For that reason, I like the ADAT’s simplicity—you turn it on and let it go. With a computer, you’re constantly saving things and checking to see if it’s still running. There are digital recorders available with more capabilities than an ADAT, but the simple setup gave me a solid platform to work with and allowed me to concentrate on the music. It was a limitation I was willing to impose to make things easier on myself.

Is that also why you choose to play the same guitar—a 1940 Martin D-28 Herringbone—on all the tracks?

Yeah. I knew there were going to be 12 different players—and that meant 12 different guitars—so I thought that by having my sound consistent, the listener would get a sense of exactly how each player interacted with me. It was the reference point—the one constant in each musical equation.

Any advice for pickers who want to try similar mobile recordings?

First, you should invest in good microphones. That’s really where sound quality starts, even more so than instruments in some respects, because a guy like Tony Rice is going sound like himself no matter what guitar he plays on. You also want something that’s simple to set up, take down, and transport, so you’re not putting all your energy into pre- and post-production. For me, the point of mobile recording was capturing the moment.

Did you work out arrangements before recording?

Mostly we just sat down and played. On “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” Jerry Douglas and I talked about the arrangement beforehand, but since we already have a lot of playing time together under our belts, we felt confident about going on an improvisational foray. Ultimately, we recorded a 15-minute version of the tune, which I whittled down to the best five.

You’ve mentioned that Douglas taught you the value of being a good listener. How so?

Jerry’s a master of fill-in licks—little phrases that tie melody notes together. During “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” you can hear me pick up on these phrases he’s doing and try to compose an answer on the spot, and vice versa. That’s one of my favorite tracks on the record because it’s a pure musical conversation, and you can’t have a conversation with a person if you’re not listening to them.

Did you make a conscious effort to play or not play in the style of the person you were performing with?

No, other than to say my goal was to clue the listener in on what each of these players had given me. I’m more of a reactive kind of player, so I tended to go where they went, letting them take the lead in terms of sound, tempo, and direction. It’s a duet record, but I also wanted it to serve as a tribute to my heroes. I wanted the listener to hear elements of both of our playing at any given time.

So is there an easy way for listeners to tell which of you is playing what?

Hopefully not, actually. I wanted to make a record with two people creating one sound, instead of two people throwing solos back and forth. I purposefully didn’t pan the instruments wide or have the lead guitar louder than the rhythm guitar. I wanted it to be a big wash of sound.

Was there any particular player who led you into an area you don’t normally go on your own?

David Grier has so many twists and turns in his playing, and his interpretations of tunes are looser than most. He’s an off-the-cuff kind of guy, and his personality is reflected in his playing. I’m much more planned, and my playing tends to go along more traditional roads. But when I play with him, he brings some left-of-center things out of me.

Having played with all of your major flatpicking heroes in such an intimate setting, are you able to see things in your style that weren’t derived from them?

There are certain things I’ve tried to apply to bluegrass flatpicking that are outside the guitar realm, but even those come from specific players. Take Mark O’Connor’s violin for example. Sometimes pickers tense up playing straight eighth-note rhythms, but if you notice Mark’s bow going back and forth across the strings in a traditional bluegrass tune, you’ll see he’s often doing a dotted eighth-note rhythm. I translated this feel to guitar by practicing slowly with a metronome and overemphasizing the downbeat. This can really relax your playing and help it breathe more.

How do you find a balance between assimilating your influences and forging your own voice?

For one, I never learned things note-for-note. I just listened to artists and tried to interpret their essence in my own way. Transcription books are all well and good, but I would encourage people not to make it a goal to learn someone else’s solo. Instead, try to capture the essence of their solo in your own way.

Any other cool soloing insights you can offer?

Don’t neglect the melody. Too often you’ll hear young players reel off the melody to a song beautifully, then the solo comes and it’s like they’re trying to get as far away from the melody as they can. They’re too busy thumbing through their lick library to pay attention to what’s going on around them, and in doing so, they lose track of the basic concepts of good music—rhythm, melody, and collaboration.