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Bryan Sutton goes "Almost Live"

By John Lupton, July 2009

After first coming to the attention of the bluegrass world with his head-swiveling, jaw-dropping rhythm and lead guitar work in Ricky Skaggs' band a decade and more ago, North Carolina native Bryan Sutton, 35, finds himself among the most in-demand session players in Nashville.

But he also spends time on his own career, having just released his fourth solo Sugar Hill release, "Almost Live," on which he's joined by an ample cast of his peers, billed as "and Friends." The disc is the first since 2006's "Not Too Far from the Tree."

"I'd always wanted to be a session player. I spent a lot of years when I was in high school hanging around recording studios in Asheville and just got the bug to do that kind of work. (I) never had much desire to be on the road a lot, so the move to Nashville was really about pursuing the career of a session musician."

One of the marks of a superior flatpick guitarist is the ability to command as much attention when playing rhythm as playing lead, and Sutton is regularly mentioned in the same breath as icons like Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Norman Blake when it comes to this. In some ways, he suggests, it's more challenging and rewarding to play rhythm.

"Doc was a big influence on that, and my dad (Jerry) – (he's) a great rhythm guitar player and growing up with my grandfather (Grover Sutton) and sister (Leesa) playing fiddle, there was a lot of rhythm guitar around, as much or more than any kind of lead. It's been one of those things where, as I've developed into having a career…I've constantly worked on…different rhythmic styles maybe more than some of the single-note lead kind of stuff."

"But you never can stress enough the importance of good solid rhythm. It's one thing to play a lot of bass runs and things like that, but for me it's important to give them purpose and to propel the sections of a song, just to continually be in the mindset of keeping the momentum of a song going – and rhythm guitar is pretty much what that is in bluegrass and old time music and fiddle tunes, and even in the gypsy jazz, it's rhythm guitar. You're basically the drummer…And even on these sessions too, when I'm outside of such a strong rhythmic sound, I'm still looking for ways to make the guitar sound important and give it a solid role. I really enjoy doing that."

Of course, it's the blistering leads and breaks that leave the audience shaking their heads, but Sutton agrees that playing fast and playing "clean" are not quite the same thing, and if a solo break is little more than a blur of notes, you really haven't accomplished anything.

"The thread of thought that I continually try to hang on to (playing lead) is, am I communicating a precise musical thought? I'm way influenced by guys like Stuart Duncan and Sam Bush and Bela (Fleck), and all these great improvisational players…part of the reason it sounds that way is because the player is able to execute a musical thought. There's melody and groove and rhythm, and within the realm of improvisational playing those are elements, I'm always trying to clue into."

"I may not know exactly what note's gonna come next, but I'm always trying to hear melodies in what I play, so even at a faster tempo, I'm hoping that there's some kind of melodic kind of ‘meat' to it that somebody who's listening to it can get into."

Among the "Friends" on "Almost Live" are the three surviving original members of Hot Rize – Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick and Nick Forster. One of the young bands that spearheaded the revival of bluegrass in the 1980s, they cut a final album in 1992 and dispersed to follow different paths, and the 1999 death from cancer of their sterling guitar player Charles Sawtelle seemingly ended any thoughts of reunion.

When Sutton became friends with all three, though, the juices started flowing again, they invited Sutton to stand in, and he took on the challenge of filling the role of an irreplaceable part of the band.

"I grew up listening to a lot of Hot Rize music, and I think maybe it's been to my advantage because – it's funny, when we were doing some of the first rehearsals, I just sort of knew all the songs, or a good chunk of them, and that band has, to me, a real precise kind of sound. So, that was my goal in trying to fill that spot that. If somebody is out there listening to Hot Rize, they don't just hear Tim, Nick, Pete and me. I want that sound to be as ‘Hot Rize' as possible. So, I just always try to have in the back of my mind and be conscious of what that is, for me at least as a fan of that band all these years, and just try to do something that doesn't get in the way of that. And as I've done it over the last few years, I've figured out different things about Charles' rhythm playing that kind of helps. As far as lead stuff, there's a few things that I've learned."

Among the songs on the new album carrying the "Hot Rize" touch is Norman Blake's Church Street Blues. Though it's well-known as the title track from a Tony Rice release of some 25 years ago, Sutton readily acknowledges that his version echoes Blake's own original from the mid-70s, a tribute to yet another of his mentors and role models. He also sings backup to O'Brien's lead, and while he hasn't done a lot of singing on stage or record during his rise over the last decade, it's not exactly new to him.

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