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 is a Grammy Award winner and a nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year. But these are only the most visible signs of Sutton’s accomplishments. He inherited and internalized a technically demanding instrumental style and became for young musicians of today the same kind of model and hero that Tony Rice and Clarence White were for him. And supplementing his instrumental work, he’s now a band leader, record producer, mentor, educator and leader in online music instruction.
“I’ve come and gone and rambled far, still finding notes on this guitar,” sings Bryan Sutton in the truth-telling title track to his new album, The More I Learn. It was the right choice, summing up Sutton’s approach to his remarkable career. “The more I learn/the more I learn/that I’ve sure got a lot more to learn.”
This is a musician who could assume from the acclaim that’s followed him for more than 20 years that he’s the one who knows it all. But that would be incompatible with his character, and it wouldn’t have enabled him become the fully rounded, always improving musician that he strives to be.
Since he arrived in Nashville in the mid ‘90s, Sutton has been a young phenom, a trusted sideman, a sought-after studio instrumentalist, and a solo recording artist. On The More I Learn, he asserts himself as a songwriter and auteur in his own right – one who has assimilated wide-ranging influences in American roots music, and distilled them into something strong and personal. It’s the sound and approach he’ll be carrying forward as leader of his own band.
“It’s a manifestation of years of wanting to write more and sing more,” says Sutton. “I put doing this off for a lot of years, choosing to be busy with other things. My journey has been playing for a lot of other people but feeling like I had more I wanted to do.”
Sutton had been writing original instrumentals on his guitar for years, and it’s extraordinary to be around him when he’s riffing and improvising on the fretboard. Lately, those spontaneous licks began inspiring lyrics and verses and choruses. And after being around the songwriting culture of Nashville for years, as well as his current run with bluegrass band Hot Rize, Sutton found himself figuring out what he wanted to say, and what kind of songwriter he wanted to be.
He says: “I’m dealing with some of the issues a lot of folks deal with early in their career, which is trying not to write somebody else’s song, and trying to be honest and learning to trust what’s inside me.”
Longtime fans will be gratified that these explorations have only drawn him closer to the mountain music and bluegrass on which he was raised. But this is, after all, an artist who once titled a solo album Not Too Far From The Tree. “I’m not trying to write modern bluegrass,” he says (with all due respect to modern bluegrass, of which he has played a lot). “I’m influenced by a lot of things, but at end of day (my music is) close to the ground. I like to listen to songs that grab me on a base emotion.”
Sutton’s name rippled through the world of bluegrass music when he started playing guitar with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder in 1995. He was in his early 20s, fresh out of his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and he could play with finesse and speed, but with enough power and dynamics to be heard clearly over the big Skaggs band. Soon, his musicianship began showing up on studio albums by country stars, iconic projects including Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue album and key acoustic music projects such as Béla Fleck’s Acoustic Planet tour, when Sutton was called on to sub for his hero, guitarist Tony Rice.
While he juggled various studio and road commitments, Sutton made a string of guitar albums that solidified his stature as a preeminent instrumental recording artist and a leading figure in the evolution of bluegrass music. One highlight of many was winning a Grammy Award for a duet with North Carolina flatpicking icon Doc Watson. Every album had a story, and every song had a reason to be included.
The most recent major chapter of Sutton’s career has been his inclusion in Hot Rize, the legendary band that defined the bluegrass scene in Colorado in the 1980s. Now reconfigured, with Sutton replacing the late, great Charles Sawtelle, Hot Rize is writing original music again, which helped jumpstart Sutton’s interest in songwriting.
“We had some writing weekends together, which was a really good catalyst for my own process,” Sutton says. “You get on a thread and follow to its end. My writing started with the prep for (2015’s Western Skies album), and it really started taking off. Prior to that I’d never set aside whole days to write, and I started doing that.”
Sutton tracked his new collection of songs at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio in Nashville, which has become a refuge for roots musicians searching for a comfortable space and the in-house engineering mastery of Brandon Bell (Dierks Bentley, Sarah Jarosz). It was quickly decided that the industry standard approach of recording in isolation booths was wrong for this project. The musicians got back into the big room in a circle, just as they’d run the songs in rehearsal, and it worked much better as complete takes with no chances to fix things. “You accept some warts and some things that are slightly ragged around certain edges, but it all feels very real,” says Sutton. “I feel like I’ve tried to get to a point where I believe what’s in me, and I want to make that real for a listener.”
One such song is “Hills For The Head,” which ties the spirit of his Appalachian Mountain home to the Rocky Mountain magic of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where Sutton is a member of the famed “house band” with longtime colleagues Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Béla Fleck. He performs this one on the album as a solo with voice and guitar, but there are fine self-penned band songs as well. A Hot Rize writing session led to the brisk and tuneful “Walking Across This Land,” performed with fellow Hot Rizer Tim O’Brien singing harmony.
Several songs, including the romantic original “Play Me A Record,” and the Bob Dylan cover “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” are set with a spare instrumentation of one other guitar (Punch Brother Chris Eldridge) and bass (Samson Grisman), a configuration inspired by Doc Watson’s Southbound album, one of Sutton’s lifelong favorites. “I just think that’s a killer sounding record. It always takes me to a place I need to go,” he says. “It’s Doc doing a lot of fancy picking, but it’s not trying too hard. So if I am doing things that are a little more rhythmic or a little more brushy, that’s me trying to keep things from being too intricate – being satisfied with a good groove and a good tone on the guitar.”
Even with this new focus on vocals, the guitar remains prominent. In some cases, his intricate figures frame the songs, as with the ingratiating intro to “The More I Learn, while the pure instrumentals take us through various chapters of Sutton’s life. There’s a solo take on “Arkansas Traveler,” a traditional tune Bryan’s been flatpicking since he first learned how. The glowing, honest production takes us eight inches from Sutton’s picking hand and guitar top for a mesmerizing performance. New instrumentals worked up with full band treatment include the Irish-tinged “Virginia Creeper.” A melody inspired by the climbing, winding vine of that name is traded among Sutton, Noam Pikelny’s banjo, Casey Campbell’s mandolin, and Mike Barnett’s fiddle.
As a mountain musician from the bluegrass tradition, Sutton is esteemed in the school of American guitar that includes Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Tony Rice. As a Nashville picker who loves finding something fresh to contribute in the studio for a variety of artists, he’s become an heir to the A-Team legacy of Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, and Ray Edenton. There’s even a strong case to be made that Sutton has injected a lot more bluegrass and traditional sensibility into the Music Row environment than would have been there without him. Sutton is certainly a lifelong learner, but we’d be naïve not to recognize how much he’s taught us.