When the history of modern bluegrass is written, few figures will loom larger in the telling than Doyle Lawson. Yet though he’s already a legend with an unexcelled claim to a place in the bluegrass Hall of Honor, Lawson’s not the kind to rest on his laurels or enjoy a quiet retirement. Indeed, as he continues to release new music (the latest is He Lives In Me / Horizon) he’s burning up the road as fiercely as ever—and with a band that is arguably the best he’s ever assembled.
Born in 1944 in East Tennessee, where he still makes his home today, Doyle Lawson grew up enthralled by the singing he heard in church, the country, gospel and rhythm and blues he heard on the radio—and, above all, by the emerging bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and other first generation bluegrass artists. Even as a youngster, he knew that he wanted a career in music, and so, although the mandolin was his first love, he became a banjo player because he thought it would be easier to find work—and sure enough, February 3rd 1963, he joined the legendary Jimmy Martin and His Sunny Mountain Boys. Still green, he worked only six months, but the experience was enough to prove that the musical life was in his blood, and when he had the chance a few years later to play guitar with banjo innovator J. D. Crowe —he took it.
Over the next decade and a half, Lawson became one of bluegrass’s preeminent musicians, thanks to long stints as a member of Crowe’s Kentucky Mountain Boys and then the internationally renowned Country Gentlemen, with whom he would take up the mandolin again, this time for good. Noted not just for his immense talents as a lead and harmony singer and instrumentalist, but for his contributions to both groups as song finder, arranger and, with Crowe, as an on-stage spokesman, he was the consummate sideman. Yet Lawson also had a creative vision of his own, and in 1979 he left the Gentlemen to form Quicksilver—and if he was already one of the most important and respected bluegrass musicians of his time, the pursuit of an original sound that was his alone would quickly propel him to the status of one of its ultimate greats.
Even before the release of their epochal self-titled debut, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver had burst onto the scene with remarkable force. Building on Lawson’s deep mastery of the bluegrass tradition and his keen eye for a wide range of songs from both within and beyond the genre, the quartet created a compelling new standard for vocal precision -- delivered with the hard drive of Martin’s classic sound -- to create a new kind of sound that quickly spawned legions of imitators. And when the group released 1981’s all-gospel Rock My Soul, those elements served yet another innovative step—a powerful kind of gospel music that had deep roots not only in bluegrass, but in the southern and African-American gospel quartet sounds that Lawson had followed since childhood.
At the same time, even as he broke new ground with Quicksilver, Lawson contributed to the maintenance of bluegrass’s roots with the Bluegrass Album Band. Drawing almost exclusively from the catalogs of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Martin, Reno & Smiley and other first and second generation greats, the Band—which, among other things, reunited Lawson and Crowe, together with guitar great Tony Rice, who had followed the former into the latter’s band—brought the classics of bluegrass, many of them out of print and forgotten, to a new generation of listeners and musicians.
Still, it was with Quicksilver that Doyle would make his most important mark over the next quarter of a century. The group turned out album after album and show after show filled with brilliant music in what quickly became known as the Quicksilver mold, and whenever a musician would depart to pursue another venture, Lawson would bring in another, no less talented musician and teach him the essentials of the sound and of the business—a process that made the group, as the title of a 2004 collection of rehearsal, show and previously unreleased recordings had it, “a school of bluegrass” unrivaled on the bluegrass scene. Indeed, a look at not only the awards and nominations (including nine International Bluegrass Music Association honors, four Dove Award and three Grammy nominations) that Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have won on their own, but at those won by alumnae of the band in such groups as IIIrd Tyme Out, Mountain Heart, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Lonesome River Band and Blue Highway, proves the point conclusively.
Lawson broke new ground, too, in reaching out to southern gospel audiences, especially in the 1990s, when Quicksilver concentrated almost exclusively on all-gospel recordings. Incorporating an ever-growing measure of southern gospel quartet influence, the group became favorites at the music’s biggest annual gathering, the National Quartet Convention held in Louisville, KY, following up with a steady string of performances at churches around the country that exhibited his commitment both to a bedrock faith and to entertainment.
His preeminence in the bluegrass gospel field assured, Lawson began to reinvigorate his profile in the bluegrass field, too, as the new century dawned. With lead tenor singers Barry Scott and Jamie Dailey on board, Quicksilver captured its first IBMA award in four years when it took home the Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year for Winding Through Life in 2000. The following year, the group won the first of four consecutive awards for Vocal Group of the Year, and when they released their first bluegrass CD in more than half a decade in 2002, the Association responded by handing them Song of the Year and Gospel Recorded Performance for two selections from the album.
Today, with new member Darren Beachley and Dailey, veteran fiddler Mike Hartgrove and banjo man Terry Baucom (he was part of the very first Quicksilver lineup and re-joined in ’04) —Lawson has not only achieved a legendary status of his own, but is fielding a lineup that is, in the words of one critic, fully capable of making his best album ever. Admired, respected and beloved by gospel enthusiasts, long-time bluegrass followers and a growing number of newly-acquired fans from across the musical spectrum, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have truly become a bluegrass band for the ages.