Robbie Fulks Talks Bryan Sutton’s Into My Own

Bryan Sutton’s new record Into My Own compresses about all you need to know about why he's the hottest name in contemporary bluegrass guitar...

Bryan Sutton’s new record Into My Own compresses about all you need to know about why he’s the hottest name in contemporary bluegrass guitar into its first two minutes and 52 seconds. “Cricket on the Hearth” is the fiddle tune brought into the repertoire by Kenny Baker and recorded seldom since. (Norman Blake and Red Rector revived it memorably on their 1976 self-titled album.) This fresh take is a mind-blowing expression of group discipline, on-the-spot fraternal inspiration, love of melody and the sly substitution, and groove. It’s required listening for anyone who cares to hear men working at the top of their game.

The easeful ferocity of “Cricket on the Hearth” recalls Sutton’s emergence on the scene, 17 years ago, tearing out of the gate as Ricky Skaggs’ lead guitarist. Back then, you might have wondered where such a player might proceed. What does Evel Knievel do after jumping the Grand Canyon? It wasn’t so much that his soloing on Skaggs’ Bluegrass Rules broke new grammatical ground; he owed as much to Tony Rice as other post-’70s flatpickers did. But his emotional tone — cool, metrically exact, preternaturally poised — was arresting, and his speed was record-breaking. If he couldn’t conceivably gain much in velocity or dexterity or precision, and those were the chief values, then where was he headed? And if those weren’t the chief values, could he remain chiefly a bluegrass man? Conscientious musicians work daily on pushing themselves deeper and outward; in bluegrass, a form dominated by singers and clearly branded acts, and influenced by a small, opinionated audience, the way isn’t laid.

Since leaving Skaggs, Sutton has served alongside Béla Fleck and Chris Thile (flexing out), worked extensively with Hot Rize and Tim O’Brien (diving deep), and toured with the Dixie Chicks (cashing in). He’s done a project honoring his fellow North Carolinian and the grandfather of all of us who pick mountain music on the flattop guitar, Doc Watson. Then there are his own records, which have surely been crucial to his growth, as they’ve been to his fans’ growing appreciation of all he can do: sing, frail the banjo, and compose evocatively, among other things. His sensibility is wide enough to accommodate the time signatures and dissonances of jazz one moment and to play a 4/4 fiddle tune head with nearly no frills the next. He indulged an inclination against showing off, against overshadowing melodies with licks, on 2003’s Bluegrass Guitar. To a degree, relative to other acoustic hotshots, he holds to an ideal of resisting splashy algebra, wading instead into older, profounder simplicities. Still, he hasn’t forsaken the crazy-fast and complex, and he has added some tricks to his bag over the years. I think I hear more Irish snaps and ornaments in his soloing than before, more muscling of monsters from the guitar’s fat bottom four notes, more dramatic downward swoops. (It’s easier playing lines upward in pitch than downward on a fretboard, as you can easily feel by alternating your fingers fast while bending your arm toward your body then away.)

On his latest, he works fancy to austere, performs solo to quintet and in between, brings out the banjo, goes toe to toe with a jazz master, ups his vocal prominence, and even tries his hand as a lyricist. In short, Into My Own is Sutton’s richest self-portrait yet. The cast is banjoist Noam Pikelny, bassist Greg Garrison, Sam Bush on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan fiddling, with a couple appearances by Del McCoury’s band, and cameos by Bill Frisell, the distinguished bass fiddler Dennis Crouch, and master fiddler Luke Bulla. The eye glazes reading over these names (“Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman…”), but the collective’s range in ages and sensibilities sparks unusually captivating interplay.

Bryan and Noam stand at either end of the core quintet’s personality color field, with the guitarist offering a relaxed Dean Martin suavity against Mr. Pikelny’s uncaged, room-destroying Jerry Lewis. Sutton’s attraction to restraint, and deference to other instrumentalists’ personalities on his own records, is striking. On his cover of the Notting Hillbillies’ “That’s Where I Belong,” he plays the verse as Norman Blake would, frills-free, while banjo and fiddle pirouette athletically. In fact, Blake’s spirit surfaces continually — on “Been All Around This World,” with its solo setting, elegant crosspicking, and carefree hammer-on from the open A to the root C on the fifth string; and on the original tune “Ole Blake,” where the straight-faced chordal signposts grounding the guitar work are offset by Stuart Duncan’s sky-reaching, Vassar Clements-worthy solo.

Sutton tends as a composer of heads to simple phrases, around two bars in length, that expand in meaning as they repeat and vary across changes, and he keeps the resulting symmetries from getting too neat with the occasional half-bar or group accent. “Log Jam” is his most impressive piece yet, reminding me of Mingus in the way it hiply conjoins two independently strong melodies, one full of motion and story and one functionally a bassline, over a single 18-bar blues form. (Six bars on I and three bars apiece on the chords following, very cool.)

On “Run Away” he tries his hand at lyric-writing, and doesn’t embarrass himself at it, but the clear star of the track is his brilliant frailing in C on a fretless banjo. This is some modern-day clawhammer that has everything conceivable going for it — the exact qualities, unsurprisingly, that elevate his guitar style: clarity, finesse, pulse-quickening syncopation, old-time drive.

For “Frisell’s Rag,” the eponym shows up, along with Dennis Crouch, and just guess how good that sounds. Dennis sits like a cat waiting to pounce, sneaking in a note or two at first, then padding around gently, then walking a bit, then not… Sutton again takes the Dean Martin path, leaving the high setting of the flair bar to Frisell. But Frisell is no Jerry Lewis; his instincts are sly, defensive, equally deferential, and the result is a bit of a contest in mutual reactiveness. Sly, spacey, and lush, it’s a long way from “Rawhide”!

The satisfactions of this album make a strong case for live recording. The real-time communication between players, absolutely unsimulatable by pairing humans and pre-recorded performance, is again and again the breather of life and excitement. By the same token, Ronnie McCoury’s louchely fluttering, flagging tremolo on Bill Monroe’s “Watson’s Blues” is some beautiful music that doesn’t reduce to an idea or process; it can’t be written down on paper and recreated later by someone else. Into My Own does show some signs of premeditated thought — the well-programmed track-to-track pace and variety owe, I think, a debt to Sam Bush’s conception of whole-album roundedness; and Sutton’s singing is cautious of pitch and melismatic accuracy. The deliberative part of what Sutton does he’ll no doubt continue to refine (and as far as the singing, he should, since it’s slightly too self-conscious and O’Brien-modeled for the listener to float altogether free of its mechanics). What’s more fundamental to his music — his clear-eyed intelligence and phenomenal brain-to-hand gifts — doesn’t seem subject to improvement. But we’ll see.

Robbie Fulks is a musician — country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics — living near Chicago. He has made a dozen solo records, the latest of which, Gone Away Backward, came out in 2013 and features small acoustic string groups playing sad songs about modern American life.  His website is here.