Doyle Lawson has been one of the most celebrated and acclaimed bandleaders and instrumentalists in bluegrass for almost a half century. He’s had his own band for more than 30 years, and is a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Award for his prowess in teaching and performing mountain music and bluegrass.
But Lawson cites appearing at the Ryman Auditorium, where he’ll return Thursday night with Quicksilver as part of the Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman series, as one of his professional highlights.
“Whenever you come to the Ryman it’s something unique and a privilege,” Lawson said. “The first time I ever appeared on the Grand Ole Opry they were still at the Ryman and it was a night I’ll never forget. I can even remember as a very small boy hearing Hank Williams on the Opry at the Ryman. Every time we fired up that radio back home (in Sneedville, Tenn.) and the signal came in I was glued to it listening. They’ve got that wonderful Opry House now, but it’s still always an honor to play at the Ryman.”
Lawson and Quicksilver’s latest release Lonely Street (Rounder), his 34th as a leader, marks something of a change in approach for the mandolin wizard and his ensemble.
“We did it a little more rhythmically this time, putting in some new percussive aspects,” Lawson said. “I wanted to mix up the music, put some older songs on there along with our newer original material and kind of weave them together in a unified manner. I think it worked out well from what the people have been telling us so far.”
The disc’s thematic range extends into stunning gospel pieces (“When the Last of Our Days Shall Come”), powerful social commentary (“The Human Race”) and some topical romance and relationship material (“Ain’t a Woman Somebody When She’s Gone,” “Oh Heart, Look What You’ve Done.”)
“Lonely Street” and “Big Wind” are other standouts for the band whose current lineup includes fiddler Jason Barie, Joey Cox on banjo, guitarist Darren McGuire, Josh Swift on dobro and bassist Carl White.
Since his days with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys as a banjo soloist in 1963, Lawson has exemplified virtuoso playing and singing ability. He’s also been part of other vital bands like JD Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys (later the New South) and the Country Gentleman, the last group he played with before forming his own unit in 1970.
These days he’s become somewhat of a YouTube sensation, with the four-part “Ask Doyle” series having received thousands of hits.
“When the people at Lotus Nile (the agency handling their publicity) told me about their plans regarding online and heightened publicity I told them that about 85 percent of what they were saying was going right over my head,” Lawson said with a laugh. “But the young guys in the band are all tech savvy, so if I have any questions I can usually ask them. I’m getting into YouTube a lot myself. I use it to look up things for people whose music I admire like Sam Cooke, Marty Robbins and Bill Monroe.”
He’s appeared in 47 countries and all 50 states, and there aren’t many things professionally Lawson hasn’t accomplished. But he does have one unrealized dream, though Lawson says it won’t leave him unfulfilled if it doesn’t happen.
“I’ve always wanted to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry,” Lawson said. “If that happens, it will be the culmination of many wonderful things in this business. But if it doesn’t, I’ve still had a phenomenal career and been really blessed by God.”
What: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver as part of Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman along with Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Ave. N.
Info: 889-3060, ryman.com