What does it mean to sound like yourself? It’s not as easy as you might think.
A review of Bryan Sutton’s, Into My Own.
(For HVBA) I was once in the audience at a guitar workshop given by Bryan Sutton and Jack Lawrence, and it was as delightful as it was geeky. Sutton talked about how he, as a tween, would travel to festivals and record all of Jack Lawrence’s sets onto cassette tape. There is a photo of this in the liner notes to Sutton’s “Not Too Far From the Tree” and it’s as geeky as it sounds. He even held up a Radio Shack mic, one of the ones with the little switch on the side. At home he would play the tapes over and over again, learning Lawrence’s solos note for note. Lawrence told a similar story of how his mother says that he went into his bedroom at 13 and didn’t come out until he was 18. Seemingly for the duration he played Doc Watson records, moving the record with his hand over the solos, slowing them down in order to better hear the sequence of notes. “You could hold the records up to a light and see where all the solos were,” he said, the vinyl having been worn down by so many passes of the needle.
It’s true that for so many young musicians the goal is, at least initially, to sound like someone else. There are some players coming up today who are excellent, but who still betray that desire. Zeb Snyder, and excellent young guitar player from the Snyder Family Band and who Adam Steffey featured on his last recording, clearly has spent his time trying to play like Tony Rice—he’s still young, and he’s still doing it.
Sutton’s latest release, “Into My Own,” recognizes the weight of that experience, especially when you grow up and want to make music that is truly your own. Of this recording, he has said that he intended to make an album that only he could make. And while I can understand what he’s saying, I’m also a bit dismayed that he doesn’t see how unique and wonderful some of his earlier recordings have been. They’re aren’t many—and a new solo release from Sutton is an event unto itself—all of which nicely describe the arc of his career. The titles of the albums themselves tell the story. “Ready to Go” is the recording that any guitar debutante might make, at least one who was already of the Nashville A-list, having recorded with Dolly Parton and toured as a member of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. “Bluegrass Guitar” is almost a volume 2 of the first recording. Next was the breathtaking “Not Too Far From the Tree” which is as much a document as it is a wonderful recording; Sutton duets with his heroes, including Doc Watson in what would be Watson’s last studio recording. Sutton is gracious and supportive, as in his duet with the cross-picking legend George Shuffler. To my mind, it’s as important a recorded document as is Rice and Grisman’s “Tone Poems”—delightful to listen to, and it rewards a very close listening, contrasting styles of presentation, solo, and accompaniment. It’s a who’s who of some of the best flat-pickers, well, ever.
This latest record follows the arc in that, here, he’s not supporting others, or stating a claim so much as stepping into a space that, as he says, is more distinctly his own.
And he sings. (If this album were made during the 60s, I imagine it would have been titled “Sutton Sings!”) For Sutton, it’s a big leap. He’s taking risks—well, at least that one—that he hasn’t really taken before. Does it work? For the most part it does, though it’s hard not to feel that it’s a bit of a trial run. “That’s Where I Belong” works very nicely, and perhaps works better than any of the other vocals on the album. It’s a song that lends itself to a straight, uninflected vocal, and the theme is one that Sutton presents easily, and comfortably. The harmony, sung by Luke Bulla, supports Sutton’s voice beautifully, adding a welcome depth to the vocal.
But (yes, I know you’ve been anticipating the “but”) in other instances Sutton’s voice doesn’t match the sophistication of his guitar playing. He’s not able to interpret with his voice as delicately as he can with guitar, and it shows. On “Run Away” he is playing clawhammer banjo, accompanying himself, and it’s too bare a setting to support the limitations of his voice. It’s also too fast. The result is that we’re not convinced that he’s really had the experience that he’s singing about, which is the loss of a partner, and the piece risks parody. So too of “Been All Around This World”—in the best recordings that song is like a sigh, an exhalation, from a person who has suffered and inflicted suffering, and is coming to the end of the line. In the chorus, Sutton accents “been” rather than “all”—an atypical choice—and it’s not as minor a point as you might think. It changes the intent of the lyric. Again, it’s too fast, too chipper, and it sounds less like a reflection on a life lived than it does a travelogue. And he doesn’t sing the lyric about lying the jail, which is the most important one, or at least I think so.
Now here’s another “but”: the instrumental tracks on this release are where the album really shines, and it shines considerably. Each is breathtaking. “Ole Blake” reads as a tribute to Norman Blake—Sutton hasn’t said that, at least that I have seen, but between the title and the style of the piece, it reads that way. The ensemble is impeccable, including Noam Pikelny on banjo taking a few wonderful turns. On “Frisell’s Rag,” a piece by Sutton, he is joined by Bill Frisell, the jazz great of the title, and the result is … I’m running out of superlatives … let’s say, important. You need to hear this. Elsewhere, the players featured in the recording are equally worth our attention, including fiddle by Jason Carter and Stuart Duncan, mandolin by Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury.
And another “but”: the album is called “Into My Own” but it’s as much a tour of the players and the forms of music that Sutton has been seduced by as it is a statement of self. Jazz, bluegrass, old-time; Bill Monroe, Bill Frisell, Norman Blake; a waltz, a folk song, a breakdown—together the material here forms the fingerprint of a musician who is as excited by what he hears as he is about what he plays. This is, in a word, a simply wonderful album. If the singing doesn’t rise to the level of the playing, it’s nevertheless nice to see that Sutton is taking those kinds of risks in order to reveal aspects of his musical personality that we haven’t yet seen. Anyone can be cool, but it takes a bit of courage to be geeky.