Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
by Richelle Putnam
Once in a while, now and again, a band comes together and there is magic. Meet Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
“To a lot of people’s ear, they probably can’t tell the difference because I’ve never had a bad band,” explained Doyle Lawson. “The special thing about this band is that they want to be the best that they can be. And that’s part of the battle, having people that aren’t just doing it for the paycheck,” said Doyle. “Money is a necessity, but for me it’s always first been about the love for music. And money is second because it’s a necessity.”
Added to the magic is the special cohesion of voices, those brilliant harmonies.
“With the vocal blends, sometimes I really have to listen to who is doing what part because we switch around so much and then we have to remember what we did and who did what.”
Growing up in the quartet in gospel music, hearing his dad sing, and watching him read the old shape note style, Doyle learned a lot about vocal harmonies.
“They were not professional and would not have been if they could have been, but they loved to sing and they believed in what they were singing about,” said Doyle. “Having said that, they were very dedicated to practice, usually once a week. The quartet alternated at different houses and I sat at their feet watching them while the other kids were outside playing.”
In the late 1940s, Doyle was about five-years-old when he heard Bill Monroe playing something that Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Eddie Arnold weren’t playing. Doyle’s mother told him it was Bill Monroe and he was playing mandolin.
“He sang really high, but the music grabbed me. I just remember him singing with such command and he played robustly.”
Bluegrass is always about more than one person. Yes, it’s Doyle Lawson’s band, but he doesn’t do it all and doesn’t want to do it all.
“I’ve always thought a smart man in any kind of position or situation knows how to delegate responsibility. That does two things: creates loyalty and gives them a chance to express themselves.”
Music is like any other business, explained Doyle, “but some people think music is picking and having a good time and it is. It’s enjoyable, but at the end of the day, it's a business. If you’re going to stay around as long as I have, you better treat it like a business.”
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver work much harder than it looks like they’re working. Doyle has done it so long that the pre-show butterflies are gone, unlike the early days, when, in Doyle’s words, he was a basket case.
“I had to learn how to get past that. When I started playing professional, I played banjo. I’d always dreamed about going to the Grand Old Opry and seeing everybody on stage. The first time I got to go the Grand Old Opry, I was on stage and I was near about scared to death. I looked down and I could see my pant leg shaking.”
Then, they started a 33-day tour with the first date in Baltimore, Maryland, where 14,500 people crowded in to see them.
“The whole county I live in only has 5,500 people. I was really scared,” said Doyle. “I’ve been known to eat six packs of Rolaids between shows from being so nervous. But when you come off the stage and you feel that you’ve done good, it’s a great feeling. It takes about three hours to get the adrenalin down.”
Doyle has seen Bluegrass change over the years, because you can’t stop change, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes, you aren’t even aware of it.
“You go back to Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie when they split. Around 1944, Bill found Lester Flat who was the perfect lead singer for Bill. In 1945, Bill found a fiddle player named Jimmy Shumate. Then Earl Scruggs came on board. To me, that’s when Bluegrass was born. There’s never been anything like it, not before and not since.“
Today’s Bluegrass grew from this root. Doyle believes Bill Monroe was probably upset when people started copying his music because he didn’t realize what was happening. As time passed, he did.
“It all started with him being a star on the Grand Old Opry and having the good fortune or foresight or both in hiring Lester and Earl,” said Doyle. “I think Earl’s banjo was the missing instrument. And it all moved and it all began to grow and every time it grows it changes a little bit.”
Everybody has their own interpretation of the music because it’s not where the song comes from, it’s the way you, as a musician and performer, treat the song. The kids playing bluegrass today are great pickers, but they can’t really relate to the little cabin home on the hill. Subject matters, explained Doyle, have changed in Bluegrass music.
Having played professional music for 54 years and having his own group for 38, Doyle Lawson doesn’t want to change.
“I’m old school. When I got to see the entertainers, they just knocked me dead with the way they were dressed. You knew that you had bought a ticket and seen something special. I don’t tell other entertainers how they should or shouldn’t dress or what they should or shouldn’t do. Still, I felt that people were getting away from the visual aspect of entertainment. I told my manager at the time. I want to go see Manuel and I told Manuel I wanted to look like an entertainer.”
Manuel grew up on the west coast and started as a kid sewing under the famous designer Nudie. Then, Manuel married Nudie’s daughter and they moved to Nashville. Manuel will not create duplicates for anyone. Everything he does in an original. And that’s what Doyle wanted… and original Doyle Lawson jacket by Manuel. Nobody in bluegrass had ever stepped this far. This was Doyle’s evolution and it has served him well.
“For me it’s the visual aspect and I hope the people know that I care enough about them coming and spending their hard-earned money to come see us. There is a visual importance to entertainment. I want people to feel like they’ve seen something worthwhile.”
Doyle Lawson never walked onto a stage that he didn’t give his best. A lot of kids are stepping up now that play awesome, but they’re sidestepping the vocals, said Doyle. And vocals are very important.
“I have more than one person who can take the lead vocals because I’ve always loved singing harmonies,” said Doyle. “I’d rather sing harmony than a solo. I’d rather sing harmony than anything. When I mix up the vocals, people don’t get tired of hearing one voice all the time.”
In his lifetime, Doyle has been fortunate enough to see a lot of the world, all the United States and has even been to the white house. His top goal, however, is to always maintain his standards.
“I don’t lower my standards and if you have a problem with that you need to raise yours. I’ve lived by that.”
Doyle is an entertainer, so when he walks on to that stage he doesn’t see Republicans, Independents, or Democrats. He sees people who bought tickets to see him pick and sing, not to talk politics. That’s not his job.
“Everybody has a right to their own belief and I do mine, and I’m going to vote according to my heart. I don’t think people should get on a pedestal in our business because people who didn’t agree with you still bought a ticket. I don’t think we need to get out in the public and bash somebody. The Bible tells us to do good, but it also tells us that when we good, do it in secret.”
Without his faith, Doyle could not have made it through the hard times when you feel like you’re going to have to quit because you’re so discouraged.
“Be still and wait upon the Lord. He said He will provide our every need, not everything we want, but everything we need, and He has, even when it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Patience for most people is a hard thing to come by, but my faith has carried me through my darkest and my brightest times.”