Sugar Hill SUG00003
Twenty years ago, Bryan Sutton made the pilgrimage from being a small-time studio musician working tiny recording studios in The Carolinas and other Southern states to Nashville. All he wanted then was to make a living as a musician, and his quick ear and quicker hands allowed him to do just that as he played electric and acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and other instruments on studio sessions with many country music stars. But a funny thing happened on his way to relative obscurity as a hired hand/sideman. Thanks to a couple of fortunate turns and great opportunities, he became, as Sam Bush once introduced him when he replaced Tony Rice on tour with Bela Fleck, “Your new best buddy, Bryan Sutton!” The rest, as they say, is history.
Sutton landed the stunt guitar position with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder just as Skaggs was returning to bluegrass. Not long after, Sutton had emerged as the bluegrass lead guitarist everyone wanted, getting calls from Bush, Jerry Douglas, and more. He quickly went on to forge an impressive solo career, releasing some of the most dynamic and influential bluegrass guitar records of the 2000s. But something was missing. In his restless musical heart, he knew he had more to give. And so he took a chance.
He began learning to sing lead, write his own songs instead of just guitar instrumentals. He learned from his mentors: Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, and more on how to front a band and entertain a crowd as a showman. He stepped into Charles Sawtelle’s legendary shoes to join Hot Rize. And through it all, he learned and absorbed and grew into his full potential. The result is his latest record.
The More I Learn is a true breakthrough that establishes Bryan Sutton as one of the most well-rounded and complete performers in bluegrass today. His singing has deepened and matured, across raucous tunes like “Backwater Blues” and “Time Has Come” to sonorous ballads such as the title track and his thoughtful cover of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” His guitar range has broadened, becoming both richer and more complex while eschewing technical virtuosity if it conflicts with the heart and soul of the song. Here, he renders John Hartford’s elegiac “Presbyterian Guitar” with respect and soul, while adding a luscious original instrumental called “Virginia Creeper” that will more than justify his guitar hero status.
Recorded mostly live with minimal overdubs, the record resounds with sophisticated harmony playing and focused interplay between players that include Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, Sam Grisman, and Casey Campbell. Intimate and spontaneous, yet balanced (one of Sutton’s favorite words), the CD resounds with brilliant playing and moments of heartrending beauty.
The More I Learn is Bryan Sutton’s breakout album, a modern classic that demonstrates his unrestricted talents as a vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, band leader and producer. If this record is the culmination of all he’s learned since he started playing guitar at age eight, the bluegrass world truly can’t wait to hear all about what he learns next. (Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717, www.sugarhill.com.)DJM