INTERVIEW: Doyle Lawson

Tennessee native Doyle Lawson and I sat backstage at the infamous Ryman Auditorium before a show for a visit and interview, which turned into a momentous occasion for me. Doyle will be 66 this year and has done more with his life than even he can fathom at times. His eyes light up with each story as he remembers the details so vividly.

Like so many in the music industry, the bug to play bit him early on as he listened to the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman stage on the radio with this family, and he quickly connected to the sound of Bluegrass and yearned to play. Doyle and I covered a lot of ground during our time talking, from his early years to his current tour. It is not every day you get to spend such quality time with a legend in the music industry, I feel blessed for the opportunity and am honored to share some of his memories with you.

Bev: I have seen you perform countless times and every time I walk away with amazement. How do you continue to keep your performances fresh and exciting?

Doyle: I try to do a combination of the old and the new. If I have a relatively new recording that we are introducing we will work that into the mix. The band (Quicksilver) and I will start the show with something the audience is already familiar with and work in the new stuff as we go.

Bev: Tonight you are performing on the legendary stage of the Ryman for bluegrass night, have you participated in this series before?

Doyle: I did the show back when they use to have it on Tuesday night and then they moved it to Thursday night. I have been doing it for years; I don’t t know how many years though. I played here at the Ryman Auditorium for the very first time in 1963; I was playing the banjo.

Bev: How much has changed from 1963 to now? What is the difference between the first time and now?

Doyle: There is not much difference in being nervous; I always get a little nervous here. There is something about the Ryman Auditorium that is special. I can’t describe it; I have heard a lot of people say the same thing. There is an aura here, something about the Ryman itself, the atmosphere. Even though I was really small, I can remember hearing Hank Williams on the Grand Ole Opry. I was only eight years old when he died, that is how long I have been listening to the Grand Ole Opry. You had Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb and all those people. Of course, my hero, Bill Monroe was there and later on, Flatt and Scruggs were here. It was a dream come true the first time I found out we were going to be playing the Opry. I was so nervous; I thought my legs were going to give way. In those days, I weighed about 120 pounds and the banjo was about as big as I was. It was a real treat then and to come back year after year.

In the early 1970s, I was with a group out of Washington DC, The Country Gentlemen, and we worked the Opry here as much as we could living that far away. I have had my own band for thirty years and I have worked it more with my band than I did with anyone else. It is hard to explain the feeling and anticipation I get, it takes me two or three songs to really settle down, relax and work.

Bev: Do you ever think about the eight year olds out there listening to you and how you are their inspiration?

Doyle: I don’t dwell on it but you can’t help think about it. Time passes and brings about changes. There has been several “changing of the guards” so to speak. Everybody has their time. One of these days it will end for me just like it did for my peers, the pioneers. The key is, hopefully you inspire some little kid like I was inspired. In my thirty years as a band leader, there have been several people that left here and have gone on. They have made a difference and added to the world of bluegrass. It is like a giant tree. It started with Mr. Bill Monroe and then Mr. Lester Flatt and Mr. Earl Scruggs, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman and the list keeps going. JD Crowe sprang off of that as I sprang off Jimmy Martin and it keeps growing. Russell Moore with IIIrd Tyme Out, Shawn Lane with Blue Highway, Jamie Dailey with Darrin Vincent, Steve Gulley with Grasstowne, Dale Abernathy with Mountain Heart, the list goes on and on and it is good for the music. People come, they stay and they leave. I don’t have time to think about being bitter, I have to continue. I wish them the best, because it is good for the music when someone fresh comes out. It really gives it a shot in the arm for everybody.

Bev: What is some of the advice you always pass on to some of the newer artists?

Doyle: One of the things that I have quoted more than anything at all is people watch you off stage more than they watch you on stage. They watch how you carry yourself. As far as my music, I watched my peers; I asked questions when I thought it was proper to do so. I watched a lot and I thought, “boy, if I ever do something, I will remember that”. There were also things that I thought that “if I ever had my group, I don’t think I would do that”. It worked both ways but I am sure that the people that have come through here have felt the same way about me and rightly so. Nobody is a carbon copy of anyone. I freely share my experiences and knowledge with the people that come through here.

Bev: Over the years, has there been anyone that you couldn’t wait to play with? Another artist or someone that you were really looking forward to?

Doyle: I always loved pickin’ with JD Crowe. I broke into the profession as a banjo player working for Jimmy Martin. I patterned my banjo style from JD because he set the pattern. That was the kind of banjo playing Jimmy liked. I never dreamed in those days that I would end up working in a band with JD for five years, as a part of his group. After that, over the years, we have recorded a lot with Tony Rice, myself, JD and Bobby Hicks. Paul Williams was playing mandolin with Jimmy when I broke in and to this day, I love singing with Paul. Sometimes JD, Paul and I would do an “old friends” concert. We did a series of recordings and ended up calling the “The Bluegrass Album Band” because we weren’t a band and didn’t have a name. Tony Rice called me; he is a guitar player extraordinaire and pointed out that JD was playing kind of a country/bluegrass style and people in those days considered me contemporary and at that time. He had just left David Grisman, so we got together and we intended to do one recording of traditional music to pay tribute to our pioneering fathers—Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, people like that. We did one and thought that was going to be it but it turned into six. We kept trying to quit and they wouldn’t let us quit. We finally said, “Look we’re not a band”. People would walk up and ask when the next recording was coming out. We just said we don’t know. It was a lot of fun. The good thing about that, and I know I am giving you a really long answer to your question but when those recordings were recorded, we never rehearsed. In the early days, most of them were recorded in California. JD, myself and Bobby Hicks would fly out there. Most of the time JD and I would try to connect in Atlanta if we could and fly out together and sometimes Bobby Hicks would. On the way out there, we would write down a list of songs so when we got there, Tony would throw together something. Our rehearsal was “who knows this one”. On the third recording, Jerry Douglas came in and he did the rest of them with us. It was a lot of fun.

Bev: Tell me about the new project.

Doyle: “Lonely Street” is somewhat different than “More Behind The Picture Than The Wall” in the material itself. Because the songs were what they were, they kind of lean towards a country feel. I added percussion on three or four of them. That is not intrusive but just adds flair to it. Country music is about love, about heartbreak, about joy, it is about anything. It takes in all the elements of our everyday life. Buddy Cannon is an amazing writer here in town, one of my favorite writers and he wrote “My Real World of Make Believe” which was a totally different take on a broken love affair. Carl Jackson, who is another one of my favorite writers and a long time friend, wrote a song called “Oh Heart, Look What You’ve Done” and it is about a fellow talking to his heart. “You told me the last time we would never get into this again and now I’ve fallen for somebody else and look what you’ve done to me”. I thought these are pretty deep approaches to the affairs of the heart. I picked a song called “The Human Race” because it is timely with our world and the shape it’s in. “The Human Race” addresses the fact that we are privileges to be born in such a beautiful country. The United States is so vast and there is so much to see and do and enjoy. I thought how careless we have been with that privilege. This is the land of the free, freedom of speech. It is not a protest song, just a statement. Somebody wrote the way I feel.

Bev: Did you write any of the songs on this one?

Doyle: Oh yes. I co-wrote “Down Around Bear Cove” with Josh Swift. I never know from one recording to the next if I am going to write a song or not for that project, sometimes there may be two or three on there. I am a much better co-writer than I am just a writer. I have never perceived myself to be a real bonafide songwriter. I don’t have the time or I don’t take the time. Usually, when I do write one, the lyrics and the melody come quickly; it is an inspiration and I can put it together. When I co-write, I take a lot more time. Jamie Dailey and I wrote twenty-eight songs together. Jamie was really good with ideas and sometimes we would start writing and go a totally opposite direction from where he started but the idea was the same.

Bev: Are you using the online outlets and social profiles to promote it?

Doyle: Yes, thanks to Lotos Nile, I am getting an education. Sometimes when I look at all this, I just say “hmm, let me scratch my head just a minute”.

Bev: Do you get online and use Facebook yourself?

Doyle: No, I confess I do very little. I will tell you that I have quite a bit on my plate. I can’t do everything and still have time for a round of golf every now and then. I have found that you have to have priorities. We have the You Tube promotion going on and I think the response has been pretty good with it. Again, this is all new to me, a new approach. When I think of where I started 36 years ago and where I am today. I am more in tune with the high-tech recording part of it as far as producing the records and all the things you can do today that we couldn’t do in the early days. We have Facebook and YouTube and all those.

Bev: You mentioned your online promotion with You Tube, I know it is a weekly question and answer “live” so to speak. What has been the most frequently asked question?

Doyle: The most asked question is how many pair of boots do I have.

Bev: You are utilizing your Facebook to gather the questions and then do YouTube video and post that with the answers?

Doyle: Yes. Even some from my family that say “are you sure about that? You really counted all those boots?”

Bev: So how many pair of boots do you have?

Doyle: Thirty? Women don’t have a thing on me about shoes, I go for the bling. When I was wearing suites, I would find the old black and white spectator things and wear those. Then I started looking for different colors. I probably have as many pairs of shoes as I have boots and I don’t wear them anymore. Once in a great while I will wear what I call “street shoes” but I have always worn boots and when I went to a flat shoe, it is not comfortable. I was amazed with the response we got from that.

Bev: What has been one of the most unusual questions, other than the boot question, that you’ve been asked?

Doyle: People ask what type of music I listen to. Anyone that has been in the music business as long as I have should know that you never can figure out what the public is thinking for sure. I just thought they would think he plays bluegrass and he plays gospel so he listens to bluegrass and he listens to gospel. I have a lot of different stuff on my ipod. The real question was “what would people be surprised to know that you are listening to?” I said Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey band and people were “what?” I love it, it was melodic and certainly there were no questions about Frank’s vocal abilities. In his early days, he was a great performer.

This week it has been Clyde McFadder, the original lead singer with the Drifters. After he broke away, he had a series of great records, he is a good vocalist. I decided I wanted to hear some good soul vocalists and that’s what I have been listening to.

Bev: Do you find that when you are listening to a different genre than bluegrass, you are inspired?

Doyle: I do and one reason I started being open to this is to draw ideas and things I could possibly adapt and draw into what I am doing in a way that would make it mine, not be a carbon copy of that. I wanted to do something using the idea and make it work for me. I enjoy it. I am about to freshen up on some Barber Shop. I haven’t listened to it in a while. I don’t know where I will go next.

Bev: When you visit with fans, what is the one song that they request from you the most?

Doyle: On the live performances? There are songs we have to do everywhere we go; “Sadie’s Got A New Dress On” is one of them. “Blue Train of the Heartbreak Line” is the other. On the Gospel side it is “Help Is On The Way”, we always have to do that. Going back to my first gospel recording there was a song called “On the Sea of Life” and even though I have tried to stop doing it, I still have to do it. I don’t do it on every show but here lately, I have been doing a lot of work in Kentucky and that was one of the big areas for it. It varies. I had a lot of people screaming for “More Behind the Picture Than the Wall”. I may go to Summersville from here and it might be “Phone Call” or there is another, “Julie Ann”. In fact we open the show with it. It is one I recorded in 1985 and it has become an immediate staple for Bluegrass. You hear it in the field; the field pickers do it a lot.

Bev: I know you have been over-seas and performed, where all have you been?

Doyle: I have toured 47 foreign countries.

Bev: What has been one of the best memories you had over there?

Doyle: Getting home! I have seen so many interesting places, North Africa, Middle East, Near East, South America and of course a lot of Europe. We were in Bahrain; it was a seven minute flight from Saudi Arabia over to Bahrain. While we were there, they invited us down and they had these pearl divers from the old days, they would go down with just their knives and no equipment at all. They had them come out and they had music and they had fiddles there and their music reminded me a lot of gypsy music, their sound had a kinship to that. They would listen to us play and then they would play, we were all sitting in the floor in the front in a semi-circle and the divers were all around us in a circle and they were going to do the ritual they do the night before they left to go pearl diving. They were doing the chants and all that, all of a sudden there was this clap like a clap of thunder right behind me, scared me to death. This guy clapped his hands and then they all started this synchronized handclap mixed in. He liked to scare me to death. A lot of those guys were really old and I got to looking at them and I was amazed. They would have a finger gone or missing an eye where they had been hurt going down. I thought that must have been a rough way to go.

We were invited over to Amman Jordan to play for the queen; she was American by birth and married the King. She was actually a flight attendant. In 1984, she wanted to have a “worldfest” and invite groups from all over the world to Jordan out at Jaresh. All the tours I did over there were called “good will tours” and they started with the NCTA but the USIA were the ones that sent us over. We were labeled as “good will ambassadors” and sometimes they sent us to pretty rough places. I asked Joe why they didn’t send us someplace where they like us and he said “we don’t need to do that, we are trying to show good relations between our countries and send you where we need your help”. We went to Jordan in 1984 and we were one of three groups from the United States that was invited. We went to Jaresh and played at the old ruins. There were 50,000 plus people. Here is the scary part. Every country that came brought some of their military with them and in addition to that, you had the Jordanian army too.

Bev: Do you have photos?

Doyle: Somewhere I have some photos. I have so much stuff I am beginning to feel like Roy Rogers, have to rent me a warehouse to dump this stuff in.

We did a South American tour that was fun. We flew into La Paz, Bolivia and it was 14,000 feet above sea level at the airport. You drive down to 13, 000 where you are staying. The minute they open the door on that plane, your heart starts pounding trying to adapt. They have oxygen placed all along the way in the airports. I had taken a bass player with me that was a heavy smoker and I have never seen as many different shades of green! The next morning I had to go down to the embassy and I had to climb three flights of stairs, I thought I must be in pretty good shape. They had us drink lots of “Coca tea”. They said that helped to adapt quicker to the atmosphere. Even the natives that live there, if they went down to 5,000 feet and came back, even though they live there, they had to become re-acclimated again. It was rough, I was glad to leave there.

Bev: Do they appreciate the bluegrass music the way we do?

Doyle: They loved it. We had a language barrier but I said, we won’t talk to them, we will just sing to them and we played a lot of instrumentals along with the vocals. In Lapaz, if you didn’t sing, you didn’t use up as much breath. We went to Uruguay and played. The Soviet Union was having an art exhibit upstairs and we were playing in the auditorium downstairs. That show was packed, around the walls, sitting up the steps and along the edge of the stage. Our public affairs officer went upstairs and he said there were about three people wandering around up there.

I recorded a fiddle recording with Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia and at that time, he was the Senate majority leader. This was in 1977-1978. We did it at the Capitol building in the John F. Kennedy room. The engineer and studio brought over their equipment and we did a remote, he was sitting in Senator Byrd’s office and we were out in the other part and that is how we recorded the album. You can’t do that these days.

Bev: Have you ever thought about writing a book?

Doyle: People keep saying I should so I guess I should.

Bev: Doyle, I love you and I could spend all night back here chatting with you and listening to all of your stories, but you have a show to do. Was there anything else, especially about the new album that you want to say?

Doyle: “Longest Street” is a song that has been around forever but never had the treatment that we gave it. We changed the tempo and I wanted to have a trio all the way through, I loved harmonies. Jim Reeves, Andy Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and the list goes on and on of the people that recorded that song. It has been around since the mid 1950s and I decided I wanted to do a trio. First we started the conventional way and I thought “this is really boring” so I decided to do something else so we came up with four four time and we actually sang it about the same tempo if we had slowed the music down, just sped the music up and kept the vocals like they were.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” is a tribute to Mr. Bill Monroe that I wanted to do. It is hard tell what are fans are favoring, the fans will tell us what they like. “Yesterday’s Song” is a song that kind of mirrored my childhood; it brought back so many memories. I grew up in a rural area in East Tennessee on a farm we had a little Missionary Baptist church that we attended and when “Yesterday’s Songs” came on with the first line of “How Sweet the Sound of Amazing Grace” I immediately remembered walking to that church and getting within earshot and hearing that congregation singing. Especially in the summer, the windows would all be open, they had no air. In the winter time, they had a big pot-bellied stove out in the middle of the floor. That song just reminded me so much of my childhood. I think there is something for everybody.

Bev: Thank you so very much for this, and I hope to do it again soon. I really appreciate you sharing so much with me and wish you the very best for this album.

Doyle: I enjoyed it, thanks for being so interested in my music and all you do as well. Let’s get together again real soon.

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