Innovation, identity key to Doyle Lawson's decades-long career

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By Molly Haines

Since its inception 92 years ago, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry has inspired untold thousands of singers, songwriters and musicians to pack their bags and head for Music City, USA.


International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson, who will perform at Owen County High School March 18, recalls the first time he heard Bill Monroe over the airwaves of 650 WSM from the Grand Ole Opry almost as if it were yesterday.

Often referred to as the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” Monroe, along with his distinctive tenor vocals and mandolin playing, rose to popularity in the late-1930s, laying the groundwork for countless others to come.

“I got smitten with Bluegrass and bitten by the Bluegrass bug when I was a little fella, about 5 years old or so,” Lawson said in a phone interview Feb. 9. “I heard Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry. I don’t know why, his music was just different from the others in those days. You had Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Red Foley, people like that, but Bill’s music was different. You think a kid that small would not really be able to tell or know that much difference, but I can remember how the music grabbed me. For me, it was more emotional, more soulful.”  

From that day forward, Lawson’s path in life was clear.


Born into a musical family in Ford Town, Tennessee, Lawson expressed an interest in learning to play the mandolin as a pre-teen in Sneedville, Tennessee, where the family moved when Lawson was 10 years old.

His father, a member of a gospel quartet, borrowed a mandolin from one of the members of the ensemble, and Lawson quickly began teaching himself to play by listening to the radio, records and watching the occasional TV show.

At 14, Lawson met Jimmy Martin (nicknamed the “King of Bluegrass” by his peers). Following the meeting, Lawson also taught himself to play banjo and guitar and a short four years later in February 1963, went to Nashville to become the newest addition to Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys.

By the fall of 1963, Lawson decided to pack his bags and head for Louisville, where he played music as often as he could and taught music lessons before meeting J.D. Crowe.

“In those days if you were in east Tennessee and got a job there, it was in a factory or something like that,” he said. “I didn’t wanna do that, and Louisville just seemed like a pretty good place to go . . . That’s where I was living when I met J.D. Crowe. I went to work for him Dec. 1, 1966. In 1969, I had a six-month stay back with (Martin) and then got a call from Crowe, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just come on back home?’ I loved (Martin’s) music, but I missed picking with J.D. We played a lot of music together and were real close, still are.”

He remained with Crowe until August 1971, when he received a call from the Country Gentlemen — often considered one of the first “progressive” bluegrass bands — and moved to Washington, D.C. to join the group.

In addition to recording three albums with the Country Gentlemen throughout the 1970s, his stay with the group also afforded opportunities like assisting with the production of the band’s albums.

“The bass player was Bill Emerson, and it became our responsibility — because we liked doing it — to find the material and arrange it and so forth,” he said. “Bill left at the end of May 1973, after he left the music part was left up to me, and I loved doing it, and they were happy that I would do it.”

But by the spring of 1979, Lawson decided it was time to find a sound all his own, and set out to form Doyle Lawson and Foxfire, which quickly became Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

The group’s initial lineup of Lawson, Terry Baucom, Jimmy Haley and Lou Reid laid the foundation for what would become Lawson’s sound, releasing their self-titled debut in 1980, followed by “Rock My Soul,” a collection of 13 gospel tracks in 1981.

“I wanted to see what I could do from the ground floor up,” Lawson recalled. “I wanted to lay the foundation and go from there, so I’m coming up on 39 years on my own. I didn’t know if it would work out or not, I felt like it would. I knew enough to know that if you don’t work hard, it’s not gonna happen. You can’t just say, ‘OK, I’ve got a band. Book me.’ You’ve got to show people what you’ve got.”

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver now lay claim to nearly 40 albums and countless accolades, including multiple IBMA Vocal Group Of the Year awards, as well as having been nominated for a handful of Grammys.


Despite being known as one of the hardest working bands in bluegrass today, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have also become known as much for their gospel recordings as their straight-ahead bluegrass.

In recent years, nearly every other album recorded is gospel. In addition to the bluegrass-gospel recordings, Lawson draws inspiration from his upbringing, including a number of acapella tracks on each gospel record.

But Lawson is adamant that he loves all kinds of music, giving examples such as early Rock ‘n’ Roll, Big Band, Dixieland Jazz and traditional country.

His varying musical tastes have lent to the material he chooses to record over the years. On the group’s 2015 album, “In Session,” Lawson chose to record “You, You, You,” a song made popular by pop quartet The Ames Brothers in the early 1950s.

“I’ve always been one that believes that it’s not where the song comes from, it’s the interpretation of the song that you give to it that decides whether it would be a pop song such as the Ames Brothers, or a bluegrass song, more on the contemporary side, such as I did,” Lawson explains. “It’s the way you treat the song.”

Today, Lawson said he’s unsure of the treatment some songs are receiving and believes bluegrass music could be experiencing what he described as “growing pains.”

“I think that we’re beginning to feel some outside contributions that do not necessarily make it what I perceive as bluegrass,” he said. “We have all these genres of music: Country, bluegrass, progressive country, outlaw country, contemporary bluegrass and so on. I’m all for growth and innovation, so long as we don’t lose the heart and soul and the boundaries of tradition that we hold onto that make our music different than all the others.
“If you take it past that and you no longer can tell what it is, you’re not playing bluegrass. My fear is that it will get so far away that we lose the respect of tradition that was so important. Our music is all about heart, soul and soulful harmonies. I’ll be honest, there’s some stuff creeping in that I just wish they’d be more attentive to their performance, get in tune and sing on key sometimes.”

At 73 years old with a career that’s spanned over five decades, Lawson may be more entitled than anyone to comment on the state of bluegrass music today.

When speaking of his peers like Del McCoury and the now-retired Crowe, Lawson said the key to their relevance all these years later is innovation and identity.

“We’ve tried to stay relevant and still play and keep the music intact,” Lawson said. “We’ve all been and still are innovative, and we’ve all stepped a little out of the mark, but I’ve never done anything in my music that my peers didn’t do before I started. I can back it up with documentation — they say, ‘Oh well, you use a drum.’ Flatt and Scruggs used a drum, Jimmy Martin used a drum, the Osborne Brothers used a drum.
“Identity creates longevity. If you think about it, if you put a piece of music on by a group that comes on the radio and you have no idea who it is until someone tells you, they’re not likely gonna be around as long as (McCoury) and myself and people like that. We have an identity, and I’ve held onto that.”


Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver will perform at 3 p.m., Sunday, March 18, at the Owen County High School auditorium, with local talent Ashley Renae opening the show. Net profits from the concert will benefit two local organizations, the Owen County Youth Soccer League and Beka’s Toppers.

Ticket prices are $20 until March 11, with free admittance for children under the age of 12. After March 11, ticket prices will raise to $25.

Tickets may be purchased online by visiting the following websites: