By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
In the week before Christmas, the acoustic music community in New England and beyond was reeling from news of the loss of David Surette, a masterful multi-instrumentalist, prolific performer, and beloved teacher. A longtime resident of the seacoast region of New Hampshire and southern Maine, Surette passed away at age 58 after an extended bout with cancer.
In the fingerstyle guitar world, Surette was renowned for his superb solo arrangements of Celtic tunes, as heard on the albums Back Roads and Trip to Kemper and taught in the book Down the Brae: Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar (Mel Bay). On other solo projects, like the 2010 album Sun Dog, he shared original instrumentals that tipped his hat to British guitar legend John Renbourn (“A Lot of Sir John”), ragtime, blues, and slack key.
Surette played Froggy Bottom guitars since the 1980s (and in fact first met Froggy Bottom luthier Michael Millard back in college).
In addition to guitar, Surette was adept on mandolin, cittern, and bouzouki. He spotlighted mandolin in a Celtic setting on his album The Green Mandolin, and as director of folk programs at the Concord Community Music School in New Hampshire, he spearheaded a long-running annual mandolin festival. In 2020, he published the collection French and Italian Tunes for Mandolin and Fiddle.
Beyond his solo work, Surette was a versatile band musician, playing contra dances, accompanying fiddlers, and more. For more than 30 years, he performed with his wife, vocalist Susie Burke, sometimes joined in recent years by their daughters, Juliana and Isa Burke. Isa, a fiddler, is a rising star of the folk scene with the trio Lula Wiles.
I first crossed paths with Surette in the ’90s, when he became a contributor to Acoustic Guitar, writing about traditional Breton music, fingerpicking and flatpicking technique, and more. (See one of his lessons on Carter-style guitar here.)
In recent years, he and I reconnected through our shared love of the Grateful Dead and had a few chances to play together, as part of my acoustic collective Dead to the Core and as fellow instructors at Ashokan Guitar Camp. Surette’s duo with multi-instrumentalist Steve Roy, known as Steve and Dave Play Dead, brilliantly translated the Dead’s music to a guitar/mandolin combo, as thousands of Dead fans around the world discovered through their video of “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,” recorded in 2020.
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“We would end up in a lot of musical situations where we’d both be playing somewhere between lead and rhythm in a conversation of sorts, and it never felt like the train was going off the tracks,” Roy said of their collaborations. “In fact, it felt like an all-terrain vehicle that was completely at home when it was off the tracks.”
Surette had serious instrumental chops, no doubt, but what stood out about him was his humility, kindness, and devotion to the music. He was all about the song and never the spotlight, and in the outpouring of tributes to Surette on social media, scores of musicians and former students recalled how he lifted up the playing of everyone around him.
“He was so generous and giving, and he always did whatever it took to support the other people he was playing with,” Roy reflected. “Even when he was playing solo, his focus was on serving the music rather than showing off.”