Over his 40-year career in music, Doyle Lawson—singer, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader—has become one of the most respected names in bluegrass gospel. From his work with bluegrass innovators like Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe in the 1960s to the formation of his band Quicksilver in 1979, his name has been synonymous with high-octane acoustic music. Equally comfortable with both the progressive and traditional strains of bluegrass, Lawson's one unifying element has been quality. "Lawson is considered one of the most influential forces in modern bluegrass," wrote Randy Pitts in Music Hound Folk. "His bands are marked by their extremely well-honed vocal harmonies and bright, powerful renditions, especially of gospel material."
Born in Ford Town, Tennessee, on April 20, 1944, to Leonard and Minnie Lawson, Doyle Lawson seemed slated for a career in music from an early age. He gathered around the radio with his family to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and emulated bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe by teaching himself to play the mandolin. "Though I listened to all the stars on the Opry," Lawson recalled on his website, "the group that impressed me most was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. His music was different, more intense." The young Lawson also learned to play the banjo and guitar, and at age eleven, joined his father's gospel quartet. He experienced another life-changing event when he met bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin in 1958. "It was indescribable how it felt," Lawson told Wayne Bledsoe in the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "He sat down and picked with me for about three hours. He showed me how to correct my picking hand."
In 1963, at the age of 17, Lawson moved to Nashville and started playing banjo for Jimmy Martin. In 1966 he joined J.D. Crowe in Lexington, Kentucky, and then returned once again to Martin for a six-month stretch in 1969. Next, he re-joined Crowe, and remained with him until August of 1971. During these formative years, Lawson switched between guitar, mandolin, and banjo, and cut his first studio recordings.
In 1971 Lawson joined the Country Gentleman and became an integral part of the group for the next eight years. Interestingly, the Country Gentlemen had been considered major innovators within the bluegrass field since 1957, and had lost many of its original players before Lawson's arrival. Lawson, however, along with Charlie Waller, Bill Emerson, and Bill Yeats, reinvented the band, releasing albums like Award-Winning Country Gentlemen (1971), an album some critics considered the band's best. While Lawson would eventually win a reputation for his work within the confines of gospel music, his work with the Country Gentlemen put him at the forefront of the progressive bluegrass movement in the 1970s. While many bands continued to cling to the past, the Country Gentlemen offered bluegrass versions of Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot songs. Near the end of his tenure with the band, however, the group recorded Calling My Children Home (1977), an album consisting of gospel songs.
By 1979 Lawson had played top-notch music in a variety of bands, but there was a creative element that he had neglected to explore. "By this time, I had played in bands for more than 10 years, that had their 'sound' before I joined them," he noted on his website. "I wanted to put together a group that would have 'my sound.'" At first he called the band Doyle Lawson and Foxfire, but then changed it to Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Together with Terry Baucom, Jimmy Haley, and Lou Reid, Lawson honed his own recognizable sound within the quartet format.
Close harmony would become one of the hallmarks of the group. His new recruits, however, found Lawson's methods to be a bit strange at first. After the quartet began a song during practice, Lawson instructed each member to go to a separate room in the house and continue singing. If the individual members were no longer in pitch when they rejoined their leader, they'd start over again. "Of course, they thought I was crazy," he told John Wooley in Tulsa World, "but I told 'em that if it'd work for the banjo, it'd work for vocals. What it does is, it gets you to do things without being conscious of it, because we all were being programmed the same way." Lawson also took other steps to create a distinctive style for the group. As new technology allowed many bluegrass groups the luxury of using separate microphones during the 1970s and 1980s, Quicksilver returned to using one microphone positioned in the center of the stage, as had early bluegrass practitioners like Bill Monroe.
Between 1989 and 2005, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver released over 15 gospel albums for Sugar Hill Records, including Heavenly Treasures (1981), Heaven's Joy Awaits (1988), and There's a Light Guiding Me (1996). Lawson also continued to issue secular releases including Never Walk Away in 1995 and The Hard Game of Love in 2002. Either way, Quicksilver always excelled at vocal work and instrumental dexterity, and maintained a strong respect for tradition. "After hearing this special set of gospel," noted Joe Ross of Thank God at Country Review, "we understand why this band is part of the bluegrass elite. Their vocal blend is excellent, and their playing is impeccable."
Although gospel music emphasizes fundamental Christianity, Lawson believes his music's appeal reaches beyond churchgoers. "The emotions are heartfelt," he told Daniel Gewertz in the Boston Herald, "so it transcends, it becomes universal." Perhaps this accounts for the warm welcome his Southern gospel receives in regions like New England.
In 2004 Lawson and Quicksilver celebrated 25 years together, and in 2005 they released You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper for Rounder Records. While membership within Quicksilver has changed frequently, the group maintains the same high artistic standards as the first unit formed in 1979. "I've had people come up to me and ask, 'What would you like for people to say about you after it's all over?'," he told Wooly. "And I tell 'em, 'I hope people would say I was a great leader.' I'd rather have been a great leader than a big star."
For the Record …
Born on April 20, 1944, in Ford Town, TN; son of Leonard and Minnie Lawson.
Joined Jimmy Martin's bluegrass band, 1963; worked with J.D. Crowe, 1966; worked for Martin again in 1969, then re-joined Crowe, 1969-71; joined the Country Gentleman, 1971-79; formed Quicksilver, 1979; released over 25 albums with Quicksilver between 1980 and 2005, including Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver in 1980, My Heart Is Yours in 1990, and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper in 2005.
Awards: International Bluegrass Music Association, Song of the Year, 1990; Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year, 1996, 2000; Vocal Group of the Year, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, website: http://www.rounder.com.
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Sugar Hill, 1980.
Heavenly Treasures, Sugar Hill, 1981.
Quicksilver Rides Again, Sugar Hill, 1981.
Rock My Soul, Sugar Hill, 1981.
Once and For Always, Sugar Hill, 1985.
Beyond the Shadows, Sugar Hill, 1986.
The News Is Out, Sugar Hill, 1987.
Heaven's Joy Awaits, Sugar Hill, 1988.
Hymn Time in the Country, Sugar Hill, 1988.
I'll Wander Back Someday, Sugar Hill, 1988.
I Heard the Angels Singing, Sugar Hill, 1989.
My Heart Is Yours, Sugar Hill, 1990.
Never Walk Away, Sugar Hill, 1995.
There's a Light Guiding Me, Sugar Hill, 1996.
Kept and Protected, Sugar Hill, 1997.
Gospel Radio Gems, Sugar Hill, 1998.
Winding Through Life, Sugar Hill, 1999.
Just Over in Heaven, Sugar Hill, 2000.
Gospel Parade, Sugar Hill, 2001.
The Hard Game of Love, Sugar Hill, 2002.
You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper, Rounder, 2005.
Waters, Neil, editor, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink, 1998.
Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 28, 2004. p. 5.
Tulsa World, September 10, 2004, p. S16.
"Doyle Lawson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (May 10, 2005).
"Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver: Thank God," Country Review, http://www.countryreview.com/ (May 10, 2005).
Doyle Lawson Official Website, http://www.doylelawson.com/ (May 10, 2005).