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Bluegrass and Gospel Mandolin Great Doyle Lawson To Be Honored With National Heritage Fellowship

By Mandolin Cafe
June 17, 2006 - 8:18 am

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Doyle Lawson

Doyle Lawson

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced the 2006 recipients of the NEA National Heritage Fellowships, the country's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Awardees were chosen for their artistic excellence in cultural authenticity and contributions to their field and represent a cross section of ethnicity.

Bluegrass and gospel master Doyle Lawson will add the latest—and highest—accolade to the long list of honors he's achieved on September 14, 2006, when the veteran performer will be presented with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship at a ceremony in Washington, DC. In earning the award, the highest conferred by the NEA upon folk and traditional artists "whose contributions, primarily through teaching, advocacy, organizing, and preserving important repertoires, have greatly benefited their artistic tradition," Lawson joins a select group of bluegrass artists who have received Fellowships, including the genre's founder, Bill Monroe; banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs; legendary guitarist Doc Watson; mountain stylist Ralph Stanley and dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas.

For Lawson, the news—delivered via phone by Barry Bergey, the NEA's Director of Folk and Traditional Arts—came both as an honor and a surprise. "My wife, Suzanne, and I were out in California on vacation," he recalls. "She knew all about this, but I didn't have a clue. I had just stepped out of the shower when we got the call, so I told her, ‘get a number and I'll call them back.' Then, when I looked at the message, I saw Barry's name, and I said, ‘I know this guy.' He had an official, behind-the-scenes role in the first tour I did for the National Council for the Traditional Arts some years ago. So I called him, and we caught up on old times, and then he said, ‘the reason I'm calling is that you've been selected as one of the recipients of the National Heritage award.' I knew what it was, of course, and it just floored me. Honestly, it still hasn't really dug into me."

"I didn't have a blueprint of where I was going when I started out. I played music—and I still play music—first and foremost because I love the music. That has always been first; everything else has come second. I followed my heart, and went where it took me. And by doing that, I guess I introduced some music to people who otherwise had not or maybe would not have been introduced to it—particularly in the gospel music I've done. And I feel sure that in being chosen as one of the recipients, that must have been a part of what swayed them to consider me. This is by far the highest honor that I've ever had bestowed on me, and I don't think there are adequate words to express my true feelings."

Born near Kingsport, Tennessee in 1944, Lawson began his career as a bluegrass musician in 1963 with International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor member Jimmy Martin. Over the next 15 years, he became increasingly prominent as a powerful, expressive singer and distinctive mandolin stylist while working as a sideman with the Kentucky Mountain Boys and the Country Gentlemen.

Lawson established his own group, Quicksilver, in 1979, and quickly moved to the forefront of the bluegrass scene, releasing a series of acclaimed albums—including the pioneering all-gospel Rock My Soul in 1980—and influencing generations of younger musicians with a sound that blended traditional bluegrass and gospel elements with progressive material and superb execution.

Drawing on the bottomless well of material contained within his father's shape-note hymnbook collection and on the sounds of African-American gospel quartets and southern gospel groups he heard as a youngster, he made a particularly powerful impression with more than 15 all-gospel bluegrass albums that featured a wide range of styles, including influential a capella quartets. At the same time, as a member of the Bluegrass Album Band, he helped to bring the repertoire and musical approaches of the music's early giants to new generations of musicians and fans in a series of acclaimed albums made between 1980 and 1996.

In recent years, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have earned numerous honors, including five consecutive Vocal Group of the Year and four Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association as well as multiple Grammy and Dove award nominations, while pursuing a busy performance schedule that has included appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage and the Grand Ole Opry.

In receiving the National Heritage Fellowship, Lawson will travel to Washington, DC for a September 13 banquet honoring Fellowship recipients, a September 14 presentation ceremony and conclude with an appearance with his band at a September 15 recipient concert.

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