Bryan Sutton on the “DNA of Bluegrass”
The Asheville, North Carolina, music scene has its share of local-boy-makes-good stories. And with his 1997 debut onto the national scene, guitarist and Asheville native Bryan Sutton quickly made a major impression in bluegrass and the wider music community. Named IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year eight out of the last 15 years, Sutton also won a Grammy Award in 2007. His latest album, Into My Own, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category.
Though he’s now based in Nashville, Sutton’s local roots run deep, and inform his music. “My initial exposure to music was in Western North Carolina mountain towns,” he says, “with my grandfather playing fiddle and my Dad playing banjo.”
Though he’s played – and still plays – rock and jazz guitar, Sutton’s first love remains the mountain music of his heritage. “A lot of what I experienced as a kid growing up in Asheville – Shindig on the Green, for example – is still there.” He credits Asheville’s approach to music as part of his own musical development. “Anybody can fit into Asheville’s music scene; it’s really open and lovely. If I still lived there, I would be as active as I could be. When I come to Asheville, it really does feel like coming home.”
On Into My Own, Sutton adds something new: his vocals. But while his singing voice might be new to listeners, it’s not new to him. “I sang in a band we had when I was a kid; it was my Dad, my sister and a couple of our friends. I was never a lead singer, but I sang a lot of parts. But in the last ten years, I’ve been leaning into wanting to do more lead vocal work. For me, it’s a good combination of a natural step and a necessary challenge. I never want to get too comfortable with what I’m doing.”
Even though he thrives on challenges, on exploring new dimensions in his music, Sutton is comfortable within the bluegrass idiom. “My goal is always to honor the traditions in bluegrass, but also to include what’s original to me, what might be considered more progressive.”
Sutton’s arrangements on Into My Own showcase the musical contributions of his fellow players. He immerses himself into the songs. He says that approach is a hallmark of two American musical forms that he loves: bluegrass and jazz. “The energy is about getting like-minded people together,” he observes. “I really enjoy that energy in the music of Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, and a host of other people in bluegrass. It’s a precedent that was set early on — one musician doing something, making a statement, and then another one coming along and answering that or adding to it.”
It’s just part of what Sutton calls “the DNA of bluegrass.”
Sutton brings that same sensibility to his work as an in-demand Nashville session player. “In the end, the session player is kind of like a character actor. The role of a session guy is to get your own self out of the way, to be the vehicle for somebody else’s ideas.” While he showcases his own music on Into My Own, when it comes to session work, Bryan Sutton is as skilled a musical “character actor” as you’ll find in Nashville. “Any given day,” he says with justifiable pride, “I can be a rock and roll acoustic guitar strummer, or I can play a fanciful, classical-sounding solo. And hopefully I’m able to nail whatever I’m doing.”
Depending on one’s interest, one is either amazed and entertained or bored to tears with Bill Kopp’s encyclopedic knowledge of the popular music of the last fifty years. A rock/pop music historian, he has amassed a collection of way more than 6,000+ albums, nearly half of those on vinyl.
Bill has written for the now-defunct Skope (where he ran things as Editor-in-Chief for two years), Billboard, No Depression, Trouser Press, Ugly Things, WNC Magazine, Mountain Xpress, The Laurel of Asheville, Shindig! Magazine, 60sgaragebands.com, Stomp and Stammer and Jambase.org, among others.
He has written liner notes for CD reissues of albums by Brotherhood (a Paul Revere and the Raiders spinoff group), jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bobby Lance, and progressive rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
Bill has interviewed and written features on artists including Chris Squire (Yes), The Psychedelic Furs, Bill Wyman, Todd Rundgren, The Flaming Lips, Ray Manzarek (Doors), R. Stevie Moore, Harry Shearer, Larry Coryell, Nick Lowe, Van Duren, George Thorogood, Ozric Tentacles, Steve Hackett (Genesis), Tommy James, Graham Parker, Captain Sensible, John Wetton (UK, Asia, King Crimson), Felix Cavaliere (Rascals), Akron/Family, Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Moody Blues, Gary Wright, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus), Bootsy Collins, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan (The Small Faces), Ann Wilson (Heart), Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Henry Rollins, Yoko Ono, Van Dyke Parks, Richard Barone, Jason Falkner, Rose Windows, Tony Levin, Mitch Ryder, Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs), Crowded House, Camper Van Beethoven, Project/Object, The Church, Bill Spooner (The Tubes), Jack Casady, Trey Gunn, Porcupine Tree, The Turtles, Howard Jones, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, The Fleshtones, KT Tunstall, Andy Partridge, Max Bloom (Yuck), Terry Adams (NRBQ), Carmine Appice, The Black Angels, Robyn Hitchcock, Roky Erickson, Gentle Giant, Richard Barone, Adrian Belew, The Polyphonic Spree, Shoes, Zoé, Thrice, Pat Mastelotto, Steve Wynn, Nik Turner, Fall Out Boy, Dungen, Richie Havens, Sean Lennon, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies, Bigelf, Pete Yorn, The Residents, Los Straitjackets, RPWL, Radio Birdman, Veruca Salt, Richard X Heyman, Tommy Keene, Black Mountain, Marshall Crenshaw, Keith Allison, Bob Moog, The Veronicas, The New York Dolls, Johnny Winter, Thijs van Leer (Focus), Roger Manning (Jellyfish), The Waterboys’ Mike Scott, Jeremy Spencer (Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac), John McLaughlin, The Fuzztones, George Thorogood, Randall Bramblett, Rose Windows, Opeth, Bobby Rush, Thijs van Leer (Focus), Doug “Cosmo” Clifford (CCR), Southern Culture on the Skids, The Orange Peels, and many others. He’s reported on the Bonnaroo, Moogfest, Hopscotch, YepRoc 15, Dig!, Ponderosa Stomp, Americana Music Association, Mountain Oasis and Echo Project festivals, and written about consumer products including the Microsoft Zune, Rock Band: The Game and many others.
He’s currently working on a couple of book proposals (music-related, of course). He lives in a nearly century-old house in Asheville, NC with his wife, two cats, a vintage motorcycle and way, way, way too many synthesizers.