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PHOTO BY DAN LOFTEN
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PHOTO BY DAN LOFTEN
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PHOTO BY DAN LOFTEN
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PHOTO BY DAN LOFTEN
Today is Thursday, March the 31st as I live and breathe, and one more day to April Fool’s Day. Ironically, that’s a good day because that’s the day I put my band together – tomorrow’ll be 26 years. Hope I’m talkin’ enough…
Now, you play mandolin as well as other instruments…?
Actually, I play mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass and fiddle, but primarily the mandolin and I do vocals, yes.
Where are you from originally?
Just outside ’a Kingsport, Tennessee, April the 20th, 1944. That’s gonna be 61 years. And I grew up here in east Tennessee with a, oh, 50, 60-mile radius, you know, with the exception of about three years over in the coal fields of Kentucky. But for the most part I grew up here in east Tennessee.
Where do you live now?
Bristol, Tennessee, you know, Bristol is a border town, half of it bein’ in Virginia, the other half in Tennessee, but I live over on the Tennessee side.
Why did you not go far from home?
Well, I have. Actually, I’ve lived all over. I left east Tennessee on February the 2nd, 1963, I went to Nashville, Tenn. and I took a job playin’ banjo for the legendary Jimmy Martin and his group, the Sunny Mountain Boys. And from there I went to Louisville, Ky. in the fall of 1963, and I stayed in Louisville until about May of 1967 I moved to Lexington, Ky. where I was workin’ with J.D. Crowe. And it was just too much of a commute back and forth so in 1971 I moved to Washington, D.C., took a job with the Country Gentlemen, and was there for seven and a half years, and in 1978 I moved to south central Virginia. I went to a little place called Keysville, Va. for about a year and my wife did her job at what was then the C&P Telephone Company then, had transferred to Lynchburg, Va. so we moved over in between Appomattox and Lynchburg, a little place called Concord. And both my daughters were born in Lynchburg, 1980 and 1983 respectively.
In ’84 we decided that since I was a road musician I could live in any place I chose, and I really wanted to move back home to east Tennessee. My wife’s mother had passed on in 1984 and she wanted to be closer to her dad, and my folks still lived here, so we made a decision to move back to Tennessee and we’ve been here ever since.
So you’ve jumped around a lot.
You go where the music takes you, you know?
How did you learn music?
Well, as in most families growin’ up in the late ’40s, throughout the ’50s, when television was not such a part of the family household – when I was growin’ up, people with a television was kind of a rarity, and if you knew someone, well, you’d go to their house sometimes or you would watch TV with them, if you had a favorite program.
So radio was our entertainment in the house – radio or the records – and we were like all the other families around east Tennessee, we’d try to listen to the Grand Old Opry if we got a good strong signal, why, we’d listen to the Opry. Also up in Bristol there was a program in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s called “Farm and Fun Time” on WCYB, and it was there that I heard Ralph and Carter Stanley and Mac Wiseman and the Lonesome Parent Fiddlers, although I can’t recall hearin’ them up here when they were here. But Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs came here in 1948.
So in addition to the Opry havin’ people like Bill Monroe on, of course young Roy Acuff and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubbs and Hank Snow, people like that, from early on I just learned I loved the sound of music – and the first time I became aware of who Bill Monroe was, and the Bluegrass Boys, his music just hit me a different way.
I was four or five years old, but I could tell there was a difference in his music and the other music was being played on the opry, so when I found out he played the mandolin I told my mother, I said, “that’s what I wanna do.”
From my childhood on, until I actually went into the professional business, that was what I was gonna do – I never wanted to do anything else, never had any desire at all to do anything other than be a musician. And you take the bad with the good, you know, and there’s been a few rough spots along the way, but I don’t think it would be any different than any other job that you would have or any other profession.
And I’m sure that a lawyer has a bad day or a doctor has bad days, or I’m sure that a pastor of a church has times when it’s rough for him, you know. And so I look at it like there’s no job in the world, or no profession in the world, in this world, that you can pick and not have some kinda ups and downs, so I always took it head on and tried to work past it, and I’ve never had any regrets.
Going back to your listening to Bill Monroe, what was it in his sound, in the bluegrass sound, that drew you?
I think it was his command of attention, even though as I said, it was radio, I never saw Monroe. I happened to see him on television about 1955 or so, on the Kraft Music Hall was the first time I saw Bill, actually to see what he looked like. I mean, I’d seen pictures, but you know, you – but to actually see him sing a song, and he sang – I remember the song – he sang “Close By”… he was just singin’ to the record, but he played his mandolin…
I think with Bill it was the attention that he commanded with his mandolin – it was a force that it absolutely just made you listen to it, and that high voice that he had, and of course their harmonies were pitched higher than say Ernest Tubbs, or even Roy Acuff, who actually sang pretty high in those days.
But Mr. Monroe, his music had more – it was more intense, more drive to it. And of course the sound of the mandolin and the fiddle and the banjo and the guitar and the bass – it’s just magical to me. It just had a, I guess to me a rootsy – you know, it was not amplified, it was real pure, and it just grabbed me, and to tell you the truth, Cara, has just never let me go.
What’s your opinion of New Grass and the other music that’s evolved from traditional bluegrass?
Well, I think, you know, we had to be realistic about music in general. Music changes with growth, changes with time. Because we live in the environment we live in today, it’s not like the environment they lived in when they were in their peak years in the ’40s and the ’50s. Times were different then, but they were in step with the times – with those times.
So you move on, and we’re into the, you know, we’re into the 2000s, and the world is a totally different place than it was when I was growing up, even. And times have changed, and topics about songs have changed to a degree. And you know, it may not be – some of it, I grant you, some things that they call bluegrass I probably wouldn’t agree that it was a real pure bluegrass, I think it would be good, very good music, but good acoustic music.
…The reason they put music in different categories is because of a certain sound that it has, and bluegrass bein’ for the most part acoustic, with the exception of – more and more you’ll see the bass amplified, simply because it’s easier to control the volume and the projection of the bass – but it has traditions and boundaries that were set that makes it bluegrass. And if you step past that, then it becomes somethin’ different. So you have to be careful what you perceive. On the other hand, I firmly believe that a lot of music they call and perceive as country music these days is nowhere close to bein’ country.
But at the same time, we have to go along and we listen and accept the fact that times are different, and things have changed. But sometimes for me, particularly in country music, you know, it was kinda like the early rock and roll, a lot of it. Today it’s somewhat even past that. I enjoy the pure artists, the new artists like George Strait, Josh Turner, Travis Tritt, who has such a broad spectrum that he can still buckle down and sing a pure country song when he wants to do it, you know. But I think overall, you look at it and you do what you do, and you stay the course that was chosen for you. For me, my style has been set and people know what they’re gonna hear when they come to see Doyle Lawson. So what I try to do is just keep my eye on the ball in my ballpark, and with the realization that things are not like they used to be, and you have to accept it, and I’ve often said, and believe, that progress has a price. So the key is, are we willing to pay the price for the progress?
Who else are you listening to, that you like, or even that you don’t like?
Well, I’m not – it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just – I appreciate good music. It may not be my cuppa tea, but if it’s well done, executed, I can appreciate it. I like – I mentioned Josh Turner and Newcomer, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, people like that, as far as country music, they’re still kinda, I think, carrying the torch, doin’ country music today in a modern… you can hear this firm tie that they have to the early country music. I really appreciate that. I think that they’re on – what I perceive is you can be up to date and still maintain a tradition about your music.
When I mentioned times do change, you adjust, but you don’t change what you are. If you’re spending your time year after year tryin’ to adjust your style to what you perceive as bein’ what people wanna hear, then pretty soon you become someone that has no identity, so they don’t know what to try to buy, they don’t know where to find you, ’cause they don’t know who you are and neither do you.
So people that have that distinctive voice or sound like say, Alan Jackson and George Strait, Vince Gill, Josh Turner – these people, these new guys, they have their voices that are something that stick out from everybody else. I think there’s a danger of people wanting to make records where they want everyone to sound alike. You take that individual signature away from the artist, he’s just one of a thousand and you can’t demand a ticket sale because they don’t know who they’re buyin’ because you’ve not done anything to define yourself or make you distinctive apart from somebody else.
In the bluegrass people, you know, I think bluegrass has changed a whole lot – and a whole lot for the better, I might add, particularly in the recordings. Recordings are much more sophisticated, they’re very well produced, unlike some of the other recordings we had of our music. We did what we had to do with, but I think that technology has expanded and we have embraced it and used it for our music also, and I truly don’t listen to as many of the bluegrass artists as I do other stuff, because I play bluegrass, I guess, but I can tell you that there are groups out there that are playing very, very good music.
think Ricky Scaggs still – he came back to bluegrass, he got a wonderful band, and I think he’s been a real good disciple for our music… He took on the country world, and said, “this is bluegrass, and I grew up with it, I love it, I’m gonna play it!”
Vince Gill was another guy that stepped up to the plate, and Dolly Parton. Garth Brooks out in Oklahoma listened to bluegrass and recorded a song called “Don’t Cross the River” that he learned from my earlier records, and he acknowledged that, you know.
So I guess I don’t listen to as much of the new people, ’cause I have so much to do myself and I keep my sights set on what it is I’m about. Some of the up and coming groups like Mountain Heart, ’course the IIIrd Tyme Out’s been around a while, and the Lonesome River Band’s been around a while, and some of the older guys are still going, fortunately. Ralph Stanley’s still goin’ strong, and he’s been in the music since, oh, close to 60 years now he’s been playing professional music.
I’ll be talking with him next week, actually.
Yeah, yeah. Let’s see – we worked with him here recently, and I forget where it was, but – Mississippi, I believe it was, down in Mississippi, did a show with him down there. He’s still goin’ strong.
It’s reassuring to know there are still real voices out there.
He is – that’s what I’m talkin’ about – that recognition, that older style of music that stands out – there’s no mistakin’ who Ralph Stanley is when his voice begins. I have made an effort since day one when I broke away and started my own band, actually be 26 years tomorrow, that I did that, and that I’ve always made an effort that the people don’t have to guess who it is when we come on. We have that identity, and I think that if you have that, that leads to longevity.
Your web site mentions a term you used to describe Bill Monroe – “lonesome high” –
Yeah…I touched on that when you asked about my earlier influence, what made me wanna play music, and that was part of it, it was that high, that lonesome sound that was in his voice. And there came the terminology high lonesome music, because they were doin’ things in a higher key than most everybody else, and more intense and the emotion of their presentation of that song just reached out and grabbed you.
And it still does, when he comes on the radio, or once in a while I have to get my CDs out and have me a good dose of Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and people like that, just to keep my feet on the ground, because they wrote the book, you know. Ralph and Carter Stanley, and Bill, and Bluegrass Boys, and Flatt & Scruggs, the earlier people, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, just to name a few. They laid the foundation and I think that if there’s anything that I would probably encourage the younger folks to do, would be to go back and listen to the very early foundations of the music, and not try to start school in the eighth grade.
’Cause sometimes, you’d be surprised how many people, “Well I never heard of Bill Monroe.” Or, “I’ve never heard Flatt & Scruggs.” And these are the young pickers, and I say well, the best thing you can do is go back and start from the ground up. You don’t have to play it like that, but you absorb what they were doing – you try to capture the intensity and the emotion of the music.
Maybe this ties into the “lonesome” part of “high lonesome,” but what do you think it is about mountains, the mountain geography, that makes mountain music, that makes bluegrass music, what it is?
Well, I think part of it was, and this part – we call it the Appalachian [Apple-atch-ya] region. Folks further north refer to it as “Appa-lay-chia.” You come down here in the mountains and you say “Appa-lay-chia,” they probably won’t know what you’re talkin’ about. But we basically, Scotch–Irish, settled in these mountains. My family, the Lawson side of the family, came from Scotland, in and around Edinborough, I’m told. It was Scotch–Irish, basically, and they came over, they settled, they went to North Carolina first, over in Stokes County, N.C., but they moved west, and of course they stopped here in what became east Tennessee.
But they carried the music from a lot of their home coutries with ’em. They were obviously in some ways missin’ their home, and they had those old ballads and things that they brought with ‘em. And I don’t know if you grew up in the mountains or not, but there’s some things about livin’ in the mountains – sometimes if you step outside on a little, clear, moonlit night, and you can look out and you can see those beautiful, beautiful mountains and the rolling hills, and the treetops…
To me, and I’m 60 years old, but to me, I go out, I still go out sometimes and I look around and I just thank the good Lord that he allowed me to be born in such a beautiful place as we have. And it gives you a feeling like that, also there’s kind of a lonesomeness to it. Way off in the distance you may hear the faint bark of a dog, or you may hear maybe chasin’ a deer, or a fox or somethin’ like that, you can still hear that, and I think that that has created a real loneliness inside ’em – and times were hard.
It was not easy to make a living in these mountains – it was very, very hard, and a pretty depressed live in a lot of cases. So I think all that built into, ironically, this kid from Rosine, Ky., grew up on a farm over in western Kentucky, out on Jerusalem Ridge, or Smith Ridge, I should say, and he had those same feelings, although the mountains are not as rolling over there or as steep, probably.
Monroe – his heritage is Scotch. So I think it all, it all became what came out of Bill as this expression of loneliness. His mother passed on when he was about I think six or seven, and his father passed on when he was 16, and all the brothers had moved away and it was a pretty lonely childhood for him, you know, ’cause he was I think the youngest of the family. And there was this thing inside him that came out and came into being as what we refer to as bluegrass simply because he chose the name the Bluegrass Boys from his home state of Kentucky, and hence the name bluegrass music because he pioneered that sound.
It’s amazing it can all be traced back to one man.
Well, you know, I think Bill was lookin’ for some years. He and his brother Charlie separated and they quit playin’ together, and then Bill moved around and searched around and he had been on the Grand Old Opry in 1939, but in 1945 he hired this young banjo player from over around Shelby, N.C. that was a banjo phenomenon.
He introduced a totally revolutionary style of banjo to the world, and that was Earl Scruggs. And that was I think in 1945 when he added the banjo, played in the style that Earl played it, I think then what we know today as bluegrass music was solidified. I think up until then he was probably lookin’ around – he tried an accordion, he carried a banjo for a while – but it was mostly just a clawhammer, nothing like it became after he added Earl Scruggs. Then their music took on this whole new dimension – the drive was more intense, and it was faster playin’, and so I think that we owe a great deal of thanks to the legendary Earl Scruggs also.
One more question, and then I promise I’ll let you go. It seems to me that in bluegrass, maybe more than in any other music, there’s a strong community of musicians. Is that the case?
Well, it is. You know, as I say, things change over the years. I know in the earlier years, the earlier artists would feud with each other and would be mad at each other.
It really began probably when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs left Monroe and started their own group called the Foggy Mountain Boys, and they were playin’ the same kind of music. Well, I don’t think that Bill had a sense of what he was doing as far as creating this new style of music. I don’t think he was aware of it as much as he became aware of it a little later on, because at that time I think he felt threatened, or maybe felt like he had been wronged by them trying to play the same music he was. He felt like that that was his style and that they should leave it to him and go play some other kinda music. And then I think he became aware just how powerful this music was, and influential, ’cause so many people wantin’ to play in that style that he was playing. So rather than it being an insult to him, it was actually – they were complimenting him, and showing respect in the fact that they wanted to play music like Bill was playin’. And I think he became aware, well, wait a minute, you know, this is somethin’ new, this is a different part of country music or whatever.
When I was a kid they didn’t call it bluegrass then – it never became actually bluegrass ’til sometime in the ’50s, when they’d say, “here’s a bluegrass song by Bill Monroe,” and the term caught on. But by then Bill was aware that he had started somethin’ that looked like it was growin’ by leaps and bounds, because the people up north were startin’ to play it.
A lot of people had migrated north from the south and they remembered Monroe and the Opry, they still listened to it, and they took a lot of that music with them up north where they settled in around Chicago and Detroit, Baltimore, Md. – just to name three cities that I know was influenced heavily by that. And so over a period of time, that sense of jealousy I think to the point of being vindictive kinda faded away.
I never saw any reason not to be friendly with my peers and with my competitors. Like it or not, in some way we’re competitors, but if it is a rivalry, it’s certainly a friendly rivalry. We’re all tryin’ to make a living, and I never personally had any time to devote to bein’ mad at somebody because I thought they might be playin’ a few more dates than I was, or somethin’ of that nature, or they had a number one song and I didn’t. I just thought that was all foolish, and I think pretty much that all the artists pretty much today feel that way, that we’re just not about that. You see people out on the circuit and you’re glad to see ‘em – they’re friends as well as peers, and so I don’t think there’s a sense of any kind of animosity for the most part between the people today. I think in the early years there was, and even that’s been erased, and I’m so glad about that, too.