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Doyle Lawson’s Swan Song After 60 Years In Bluegrass

Kim Brantley

When Doyle Lawson won a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, he told an interviewer:“I believe in what I'm singing. It's a spiritual thing with me as well as a career. I don't do it just for monetary gain. I love the message.”

That sounds like a mission statement from a committed gospel artist, and Lawson is certainly that, but he’s also been on the forefront of traditional secular bluegrass since the 1970s, fusing the holy and the down home in every set and on every album. Now that career is winding down. Lawson, one of the giants of the genre, has announced that at the end of December, he’ll retire from the road after almost 60 years of touring. His 2021 album Roundtable, released in June, will be the last secular album of his career, with (he anticipates) a final gospel album to come next year.

“I thought it would be a good time, since the guys I know intend to go on as a band,” Lawson told me in a segment of our lengthy September interview that did not make it into Episode 188 of The String. The ensemble, currently Jerry Cole, Eli Johnston, Ben James, Matt Flake and Stephen Burwell, will not keep the name Quicksilver, which Lawson carried from 1979 through an illustrious career that included at least 17 IBMA Awards and induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2012. “I don't think too much about titles or anything like that,” he said. “But I've never and I won't lower my standards. I want to do it the very best I can do it until I walk off the stage for the last time.”

Lawson was raised in rural East Tennessee idolizing Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry. He picked up mandolin, guitar and banjo as a youth, and by age 18 he was ready for the call when country/bluegrass star Jimmy Martin recruited him into his very hot band. The first time Lawson lived his dream of attending the Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, it was from the stage.

Martin was a mercurial hot head who was never easy to work for, but Lawson did take away some lessons in the value of strong leadership. His next stints, with banjo legend J.D. Crowe and then the innovative Country Gentlemen through the 1970s with leader Charlie Waller further set him up to run a tight ship with exacting musical standards. And from the first iteration of Quicksilver, launched in 1979, his bands were famous for refined, precise vocal harmonies. (Most of Lawson’s IBMA Awards were for Vocal Group of the Year.) He cultivated younger talent and let his musicians move on when they were ready to become leaders or step to another gig. Distinguished Quicksilver alumni include bluegrass stars Russell Moore, Jamie Dailey, Scott Vestal, and most of the guys who became Mountain Heart. Unlike Jimmy Martin, Lawson’s alumni speak highly of his demeanor and stewardship. Some have likened him to a professor of bluegrass and its stagecraft.

In this career-spanning conversation, Lawson recalls his time with Crowe, with the Country Gentlemen and with the side project supergroup The Bluegrass Album Band. We get into the challenges of selecting songs for a swan song album and his take, as a conservative Christian, on efforts to diversify bluegrass.

Lawson says he’s not retiring from music, just the road and album cycle. He’s been a producer before and it’s likely we’ll see him supporting projects by others. Because for all his flashy stage wear, Lawson’s been more of a behind the scenes influence on bluegrass than some of his songwriting, lead-singing peers. Says he, “I've always wanted to be more of a good leader of a group rather than the star of the show.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org