Bryan Sutton doesn’t understand the concept of resting on one’s laurels. In 25 years as one of the premier flatpickers in bluegrass, Sutton has earned nine Guitar Player of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association. He’s recorded a Grammy-winning duet with Doc Watson, played sessions for some of the biggest names in Nashville, and become the newest member of Hot Rize, the progressive bluegrass band that brought the music into the ’80s and ’90s and got a second wind with its 2014 reunion album, When I’m Free. Now, with a new solo album, The More I Learn (Sugar Hill), Sutton has taken another leap forward, tackling standards such as “Arkansas Traveler,” performing new instrumentals with Infamous Stringdusters guitarist Chris Eldridge and banjo wiz Noam Pikelny, and recasting himself as a singer-songwriter who has “come and gone and rambled far / still finding notes on this guitar.”
How do you keep finding new notes on your guitar?
For me, it’s all about improvisation, digging deeper into where my ideas come from. A few years ago, I was reading Tina Fey’s book [2011’s Bossypants] and I came across this concept called “Yes, and.” She was talking about improvisational acting, and the point is when you’re creating a scene, there is nothing wrong. There’s no “no.” Everything that’s happened is “yes,” and the question is: What comes next? As musicians, that’s true for us, too. We’re trying to keep listening to what’s happening, to be in the moment, but also be heading to the next moment. When you’re improvising, you’re trying to create a thread. There’s a lot about the way I play guitar, but it’s all about flow and movement, and moving forward through something. If I get bogged down, it usually means I’m inside myself or I’m processing too much. I’m overthinking, basically. With this process of “Yes, and,” I can allow myself to agree with whatever happens. I’ve learned to create a habit of not judging, just thinking, “OK, this happened. What’s next?”
How do you turn off your judgment?
Practice. Avoiding any kind of negative processing, and using all that same energy to answer the musical question that is being posed. It’s a process of learning to trust more and more, and being OK with trial and error. The fact is, I’m going to make mistakes, I’m not going to hit a home run every time I try. With improvisation, you really experience highs and lows as they come. If you’re choosing this route, you’re influenced by whatever is going on in your environment. For me, it’s who else might be on stage, how well I can hear myself, what instrument I’m playing. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of hours, a lot of trial and error to build that trust.
What’s the best way to practice practicing?
Be deliberate about it: What are you going to work on today? It could be a specific technique, a specific song you’re trying to work out. If you’re practicing improvisation over a fiddle tune, come up with a theme and see how far you can go as you’re rolling through this song. It can be a simple rhythmic variation or a simple note variation. We’re not looking for major things, we’re looking for how far you can take this simple theme and what decisions you make as you navigate these uncharted waters. Practice should remind you of the fundamentals. In my own playing, that’s where things get out of whack, when I’m out of shape or I’ve lost touch with certain fundamental things. Any time I can pick up a guitar and be reminded of what kind of sound I’m trying to make, what a good groove feels like while I’m playing it, I’m going to get some traction.
“Flatpicking guitar is a craft, a physical way of approaching the guitar. It’s not easy. To achieve a consistent quality of sound takes a lot of effort on mechanics and techniques.”
How do you take a tune like “Arkansas Traveler” and make it your own?
It’s tricky. At some point in my life, I wanted to sound like Doc Watson, I wanted to sound like Tony Rice, I wanted to sound like Norman Blake. It’s still fun to hear them coming out of me occasionally, but my process is about continuing to dig deeper into what is an original voice for me. If I’m playing a song like “Arkansas Traveler,” I want it to still sound like “Arkansas Traveler,” but somewhere in there, I’m hoping some kind of original sound will come out. Ultimately, what helps is just to be playful. John Hartford had this great concept of “playing with the music.” Lots of times, it comes down to being playful. Light on your feet. Having fun with the tune. Basically, trying not to force it, and through that filter, seeing what comes out.
Up to this point, you’ve primarily been a player. How do you make the transition to being a singer-songwriter?
I’m figuring that out right now, because I’ve been around a lot of great writers and singers over the last 25 years. It’s like what I was just saying: How can I make “Arkansas Traveler” sound like something new? How can I write a song that hasn’t been written? Twenty years into my career, I’m publicly trying to do some new things, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world. My strategy is to become more comfortable singing, with the goal of figuring out how to make a sound that feels unique to me. Through practice, it feels more natural. When it feels more natural, it feels better, and when it feels better, it’s more enjoyable. So far, so good.
Writing is a habit, like doing puzzles or playing scrabble, so I’m trying to be a little more consistent, just keep the wheels spinning. The more you do it, the more you see, the more your ideas reveal themselves, and the more you start seeing a path where those ideas can develop. Part of being on the road with [mandolinist] Tim O’Brien is that I can show him songs I’m working on—just for the exercise of playing a new song for Tim O’Brien—because I’m such a fan. That helps.
What’s the best songwriting advice he’s given you?
It’s that tricky relax thing: Don’t try so hard, just settle in with it. Repetition in any kind of practice is always good, so practice as a songwriter, keep a continual stream of stuff happening. Darrell Scott, too—I was talking to him about a new song, asking, “Does this sound too much like a greeting card? Is it trite?” And he encouraged me not to let that thought get into my head in the first place. If it’s a strong, honest song, it will be received as a strong, honest song. If you overthink it, over-process it, and try to out-write what is honest and natural, it will come across as forced. And sometimes, what was there in the first place is actually better because it’s more honest.
With Hot Rize, you’re joining musicians who’ve been playing together for decades. How do you approach being the new guy in the band?
As a session player, I’m used to being the new guy in the band. You learn to be a quick study. The best advice I’ve gotten has been, “Get to the root of your part in the band. Whatever you can do to make the song better will make your part more important.” A lot about being the young guy has to do with attitude and your ability to hang when you’re not playing music. Are you the kind of person people want to be around or not? It’s not just getting the call, it’s getting called back.
When I’m Free was the band’s first album since the death of Charles Sawtelle. To prepare, did you study Charles’ playing? Or did you do everything but study Charles’ playing?
As a kid, I had all Hot Rize’s records and listened to everything over and over and over again. That music, that repertoire, and that sound were in my head early on. There wasn’t a conscious effort to be like Charles, but there were Sawtelle-esque things that came out in my effort to sound like Hot Rize. I wanted people coming to our shows to feel like they’re hearing Hot Rize—not Tim [O’Brien], Nick [Forster], Pete [Wernick] and this new guy, but Hot Rize. I still want that band to be the best Hot Rize it can be.
Now that we have this record, with material I wrote, I’m more of an individual within that band. But there are times when whatever Charles would have done is still the right thing, and that’s what I try to do.
Who inspires you?
Today? Julian Lage, who’s one of the most exciting guitar players I’ve ever heard. Beyond that, I love Bill Frisell’s sensibilities. Coming a little closer to my scene, I’m one of thousands of people who hold Doc Watson in high regard—not just for flatpicking, but for song delivery and singing and just being Doc Watson. There are lots of others, so I tend to compartmentalize different heroes and describe them in one or two words. Julian Lage is “possibility.” Everything that could be, I hear in his playing. Doc Watson I define as “clarity.” Everything he does is so clear. There’s a fluid clarity to every note he plays, and when he sings, you understand everything he’s saying and everything he means. The way the notes roll, that waterfall character of phrasing.
Flatpicking guitar is a craft, a physical way of approaching the guitar. It’s not easy. To achieve a consistent quality of sound takes a lot of effort on mechanics and techniques. That’s the craft part of it. But through that work, all that focus on the fundamentals reveals the artistry.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.