After 25 years of fronting his own band, Doyle Lawson is trying something new.
No, he's not giving up bluegrass. He'd be crazy to do that because he's winning more awards and making more money than ever before.
Instead, Lawson has decided that it's time to catch up with the top stars in the bluegrass world. He has parted ways with longtime label Sugar Hill, hired an agent after 24 years of booking shows himself and enlisted a Nashville publicist to get the word out.
"The secret to this -- and it's no secret -- is just hard work and persistence," Lawson says. "You don't stray away and you don't give up when you hit a few pot holes. You just take a deep breath, hitch your britches and keep on after it. That's the key."
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver -- which currently includes banjo player Terry Baucom (a founding member who recently rejoined), guitarist Jamie Daily, bassist Barry Scott and fiddler J.W. Stockman -- are at work on the follow-up to last year's Thank God. Although Lawson and the band are equally known for gospel, the new project will spotlight secular bluegrass, along the lines of 2002's Grammy-nominated The Hard Game of Love.
That album's first track, "Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line)," pulls together all the elements of a successful bluegrass song -- speed, melody and killer harmonies. After that, it tells of departing lovers, broken-hearted misery and working the soles right off your shoes. It also contains "My Trust in You," perhaps the first bluegrass song about a booty call.
Lawson and Quicksilver have always stretched the boundaries of what is considered appropriate material for bluegrass music. Lawson was among the first to dip into alt-country pioneer Gram Parson's catalog, including "God's Own Singer" and "Sin City." At the time, Lawson was in the Kentucky Mountain Boys with J.D. Crowe. (Both men are known for teaching the ropes to future generations of pickers. Lawson's alumni include members of IIIrd Tyme Out, Mountain Heart, Continental Divide and Ricky Skaggs' band, Kentucky Thunder.)
Lawson started his professional career as a Sunny Mountain Boy for Jimmy Martin in 1963, followed by lengthy tenures with Crowe, as well as the Country Gentlemen. He founded Quicksilver in 1979 but still recorded with the highly regarded Bluegrass Album Band starting in 1981. That same year, Lawson and Quicksilver released the landmark gospel bluegrass album Rock My Soul. Band member Daily says, "Doyle brought a lot of the quartet singing to the forefront of bluegrass."
"In 1979, I wanted the group to be real versatile, that we wouldn't paint ourselves into one particular corner," Lawson says. "For the first several years, they considered Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver more contemporary. Now they consider me more traditional. The music has stayed pretty much the same, as far as my approach to it. It's only changed as much as I want it to change."
Quadruple-bypass surgery in 2001 threatened to end more than his career, but he quickly bounced back. To celebrate his longevity, he's planning a 25th anniversary show in Nashville on April 1 with members from almost every Quicksilver lineup already booked.
Yet, from here on out, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver want the same notoriety of their contemporaries, such as the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Alison Krauss & Union Station or Rhonda Vincent & the Rage.
At last year's International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards -- the bluegrass equivalent of the CMA Awards -- those five acts were nominated for entertainer of the year. Though Lawson and Quicksilver lost that one to McCoury, they managed to pick up three others, including song of the year for "Blue Train (of the Heartbreak Line)." They also accepted the invitation to perform on Bill Gaither's Gaither Gospel Bluegrass Homecoming CDs and videos, raising their profile in both genres of music.
Lawson and his bandmates know they don't have the profile of Krauss, McCoury, Skaggs or Vincent, all of whom were booked, at some point, on the Down From the Mountain tour. Lawson didn't have the pull to get on the bill. He and Daily agree that timing (and industry politics) worked against them, but neither appears to hold a grudge.
Daily says of Lawson, "I don't care how big those [other] guys are, this guy here has a style of his own music that's just as good as their music is. Now we might not have been out there in front of TV cameras where people can really see what this style is, but it's just as good if not better. Bluegrass people that come through Quicksilver still use their schooling that they got from Doyle. It's worked very well for them to stay here and listen to him."
While some purists would decry the recent commercial success of bluegrass music, especially on a tour such as Down From the Mountain, Lawson is more concerned with the fear of bluegrass becoming formulaic.
"I think we're closer to that now than we've ever been," he says, "but I still think today the artists are independent and firm enough in their belief that they won't allow it to happen. I think the recording executives involved in our music … have a belief and have a love for the music we're playing. So as long as you've got that, your odds are pretty good that you'll still have the freedom of self-expression."
"We're not all backwoods-sounding music," Daily says of the group's musical style. "We can do traditional bluegrass, but we can break off and do some contemporary bluegrass. We can break off and do piano because Barry's a great piano player. We can do Southern gospel quartet songs. We can do your hard-driving bluegrass, ballads, whatever you want. I'm not boasting, but we're equipped right now to basically do anything vocally that we need to get done, and for the most part, musically as well, and we want people to know that."