Garth Brooks. Taylor Swift. Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood. Eric Church. Bryan Sutton has played for them all. A Grammy Award-winning guitarist and nine-time IBMA Award “Guitarist of the Year” recipient, Sutton has genuinely earned his role as one of the most sought-after session guitarists in the business.
He garnered notice for his playing style in the 1990s when he was brought on as one of the guitarists for Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. He also found time over the years to fit in work as a record producer, music educator, and more.
The roster of well-known names Sutton has played with – or played for – is long. When asked which recordings were most meaningful to him, it must have been difficult to pin it down. How do you rank your projects when you’ve worked year after year with some of the very best names in music?
“I’ve been fortunate for years now, having recorded with folks from all over the musical place,” he said. “I’m working today, as a matter of fact, continuing a project for banjo player Wes Corbett. We’ve got Brittany Haas and Paul Kowert also in the band. It’s so good!”
Sutton said, “I’m also proud of the record that Andy Hall has released. He’s not just a great player but has written some really strong tunes.”
“It’s not out at this point, and I’m not sure when it will be, but I produced some tracks for Dolly Parton last year,” he said. “That was fun to do.” He continued, "I’m very proud of the work I do as more of a Nashville session guitarist. It’s not bluegrass per se, but I really enjoy being able to do that work with some of the finest producers, writers, and musicians in the world.”
Additional stuff he’s done recently is the new Morgan Wallen record, which he called “a blast” to make; a project set for release from the country-pop duo Dan and Shay; and “some really wonderful country music from Hailey Whitters.”
Outside of his work as a performer, Sutton is edified by all types of music.
“If I need to really zone out and just listen and be inspired, I will often put on some solo classical piano,” he said. “I’m a fan of Beethoven, Schumann, Bach and Mozart. It’s just strong music.”
As a complete alternative, he's a fan of heavier rock music. “There are some interesting parallels in the energy in that music and some of the places we go in bluegrass. I’m a fan of a band called Car Bomb. They take the idea of a predictable rhythm and throw it out the window. It’s fun to listen to.”
Sutton said both his family and community of origin were oriented towards music.
“We played all the time, and I literally don’t have a time where going out and jamming…playing with friends…was a negative thing. I’ve always loved playing,” he reminisced. “I remember when more live music was regularly on TV, seeing the Nashville Network and shows like the American Music Shop,” he said. “On MTV, there were more of these Live Aid-type events, and I would see the lead singer surrounded by great musicians. I remember feeling that I would want to be in those bands. I’d also see folks like Jerry Douglas on my favorite bluegrass records – but also on TV, playing with popular country singers – and feeling that there might be a place for me in that world.”
He was right; there was a place for what he brought to the table. A big place where his first thoughts of becoming a musician were realized in a way that might seem like a dream to many aspiring musicians.
He has some pretty good advice for those young people just starting, hoping to “make it” in Nashville. He said he recalls always having wide-ranging interests in different areas of music and thinks it’s an asset.
“I didn’t do just one thing or play one instrument,” he recalled. “I’ve always just wanted to play the best music with the best people. I’ve jumped genres and played several instruments. I think that diversification has helped me. I think the theme there for an aspiring musician is to be adaptable. Don’t come to a place like Nashville and think you’ll immediately find a place for exactly the thing you do. It can happen, but it’s rare.” He further advised, “Come with a good attitude and work to notice where you might fit.”
He said if learning something new will help a budding performer snag a gig, they should learn it.
While not engaged with his studio sessions, Sutton said he enjoys adding more teaching into the current mix.
“I’m in my 12th year with ArtistWorks,” he said. “The last couple of years have had me out with Béla Fleck as part of his Bluegrass Heart project. That’s been so great. We’re not as active this year into next, but will still be out here and there.”
He said the ArtistWorks online learning allows students to interact with Sutton via a “video exchange” process.
“They submit a video to me, and I film a response,” he said of this unique way of learning. “The whole community then gets to view the content. It’s like a 24/7 virtual masterclass. I think the masterclass format is the best for group teaching, and this program nails that in the 21st century.”
Just imagine having access to a teacher as accomplished as Bryan Sutton. That’s indeed some pretty sweet learnin’, where the virtual schoolhouse must certainly rock.