The Doyle Lawson Interview

By Mandolin Cafe
May 16, 2010 - 7:45 am

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Rounder recording artist Doyle Lawson Rounder recording artist Doyle Lawson

In the 1970s, the concept of including the study of bluegrass music in college curricula would have been incomprehensible. But today the world of bluegrass music has grown far beyond the dreams and expectations of the first generation musicians, songwriters and promoters - so much so that today there are indeed several college and university bluegrass music courses offered in several schools around the country, including a complete degree program offered at East Tennessee State University.

But the 1970s did perhaps experience the beginning of "bluegrass college" with the formation of the Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver band in 1979. So many prominent and successful bluegrass musicians have passed through this band that Doyle is often informally referred to as the "Dean of Bluegrass College."

Doyle Lawson first played professionally with Jimmy Martin in 1963, then J.D. Crowe in 1966, back to Jimmy Martin in 1969 and back with Crowe in 1971. He joined the Country Gentleman in 1971 and remained with that band until forming his own band in 1979, first called Doyle Lawson & Foxfire and then Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver from later 1979 to the present. Doyle played mandolin, banjo and guitar throughout his career with these various bands but has been the only mandolin player with the Quicksilver band since its formation. His mandolin style has been copied and emulated by many of the front-line professional players of today and he created the "Doyle sound" with the intricate vocal harmony structures for which he is so well known.

Doyle is the consummate professional. His stage show has always included the complete package of stellar vocal and instrumental performance, engaging stage banter and colorful stage dress. His influence on the world of bluegrass music is evidenced today by the inclusion of many of these "signature" traits in the presentations of many popular bluegrass bands, especially those that include musicians who have played with Doyle in his band.

It is thus no wonder that Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver has received numerous accolades, recognitions and awards from the professional bluegrass community. IBMA awards include IBMA Song of the Year 1990; IBMA Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year 1996, 2000, 2005, 2006 and IBMA Vocal Group of the Year 2001-2007.

It seems essential course work for all serious players of the mandolin to go see and hear Doyle Lawson, one of the true masters of the bluegrass mandolin and the "Dean of Bluegrass College."

— Greg Cahill
    Leader/Banjo Player of The Special Consensus
    IBMA President/Board Chair

Listen while you read

Doyle Lawson playing Five Miles to Winchester from his 1977 solo mandolin project Tennessee Dream.

Question from Rex Hart: Who was your biggest influence on mandolin?

Doyle Lawson: Bill Monroe is the reason I play mandolin and bluegrass music. I was impressed and influenced to some degree by Bill Monroe, Paul Williams, Bobby Osborne, Red Rector, Jethro Burns and Frank Wakefield, just to name a few.

Question from Grassrootphilosopher: As you started out on a regraduated Gibson A 50 (Country Gentlemen f.ex. "The Award Winning Country Gentlemen"), moved to a Paganoni, played John Paganoni's Fern (Loar ?) for a while, went through a couple of other builders (I have a fond remembrance of you playing in Germany in about '97 on a blonde Gilchrist A5 style mandolin), what are you looking for in a mandolin as far as sound qualities, expression, carrying power, playability and aesthetic features go? What's the current mandolin you play most?

A young Doyle Lawson was a part of the J.D. Crowe recording Bluegrass Holiday, released on Lemco Records in 1969 with J.D. Crowe, Red Allen and Bobby Slone. Artwork represents the re-issued version. A young Doyle Lawson was a part of the J.D. Crowe recording Bluegrass Holiday, released on Lemco Records in 1969 with J.D. Crowe, Red Allen and Bobby Slone. Artwork represents the re-issued version.

Doyle Lawson: Actually when I played mandolin with J.D. Crowe in the 60's, I had a custom F-5 built by the late Homer Ledford from Winchester, KY. That mandolin was the one I used on the LP "Bluegrass Holiday" with J.D. Crowe, Red Allen & Bobby Slone. When I became a "Country Gentleman" in 1971, I bought a Gibson A-50 conversion that was done by C.E. Ward. I met John Paganoni in the fall of 1972. I was so impressed by his mandolins and asked him to build me one. He brought it to me in January 1973. I still have it. I did use John's 1923 Loar for about 3 years and it is an excellent mandolin. John is one of my dearest friends and I felt that as much as I traveled, it was a liability to carry that mandolin with me. I acquired a Loar of my own 10 or 12 years ago. It's a 1923 also. About 8 years ago Gibson Company and I entered into a relationship and they began the Lawson Model F-5. I am very proud of the mandolins and how consistent the tone and volume is on each one of them.

I did play an A-5 style mandolin while on tour in Europe, but it wasn't blonde nor was it a Gilchrist. It was the prototype A-5 built by Melvin Tucker from Washington, Georgia.

I look for tone and volume as well as playability in mandolins. I don't care much for x-bracing. They tend to be loud but I have found that they don't carry as well as standard bracing. This is just my feeling. I think over-all the evaluation is in the ear of the picker. What pleases me may not be to your liking.

For the past couple of years I have played a Gibson "Victorian" F-5. I love the warmth of tone and it projects so good. It's a limited model and they only made 15 to sell. If you can find one, I highly recommend them. My Lawson models are production mandolins so they are fairly easy to find. My model and the "Victorian" have a lot in common as far as tone and volume.

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, circa 2010. Click to enlarge. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, circa 2010. Click to enlarge.

Question from Chris "Bucket" Thomas: What are three pieces of advice you would offer for running a successful band?

Doyle Lawson: 1) Music is a business. Approach it as such. 2) If you're going to head up a band, step up and be a leader. 3) Stay in touch with what's going on in the world of music you're involved in.

Question from Grassrootphilosopher: What is the most important asset a musician must have if he should play with you, and what else do you look for in a musician when they audition?

Doyle Lawson: He must have character, dependability, must be willing to do things my way. I expect them to represent me and the music I play in a professional manner at all times. The fans watch you off-stage just like they do when you're performing.

Question from RE Simmers: The tenor you sang with the Country Gents was very high. In Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver you always have one excellent tenor singer and most of the time you have two. What was the reason that you switched from tenor to baritone?

Doyle Lawson: I started out singing baritone and playing banjo for Jimmy Martin. When I went to work with J.D. Crowe, I was mostly singing lead. I started singing tenor because we had no one to do it. Gordon Scott had been working with us while he was a student at U.K. When he graduated he moved on to make his degree worth all the time he took to get it. Anyway, my range was pretty good and I just started to get stronger and sing higher with it. Playing mandolin and singing tenor was what I became known for. In 1979 I formed Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and I wanted to break the ties that connected me to the Country Gentlemen. I had been with Crowe a little over 5 years and the Country Gentlemen 7 1/2 years. These were all great years for me but I wanted to sound different than what I had been doing. So, with that in mind, I began experimenting with different vocal arrangements. Sometimes I would sing lead, sometimes baritone and sometimes tenor.

Lou Reid, Jimmy Haley and Terry Baucom are all excellent vocalists and all could sing multiple harmony parts. That made it even easier to make the transition.

Doyle Lawson and Tony Rice, 1981. Photo credit: from Click to enlarge. Doyle Lawson and Tony Rice, 1981. Photo credit: from Click to enlarge.

Question from Doc Holiday: Your recordings with the Bluegrass Album Band continue to be some of my favorites. I never tire of hearing them. "Misty Morning" is also one fine instrumental. Could you make some comments about the project and recording and touring with J.D., Tony and Bobby Hicks?

Doyle Lawson: When we got together for the first recording, we only meant to do one. That was to pay homage to the pioneers of this music who made it possible for us to perform. Well, you know we ended up doing six recordings. We thought that each one we did would be the last.

Recording and touring with those fellows was a blast. We seldom worked out any of the material until we got to the studio. The thing is, everyone was at the top of their game and you never had to worry about anyone not knowing what to do. In the studio or on stage, it didn't matter. I knew they would be there with their part and I had better be there with mine.

Question from MarthaWhitePicker: Will you ever do a reunion show of The Bluegrass Album Band?

Doyle Lawson: I really don't know if we'll ever do a reunion show. We felt like we had fulfilled our mission to honor our peers. But, I never say never.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Julianne

Question from Lpenning: Given all that you have seen and experienced in your musical life, what thoughts or feelings do you have about the future of bluegrass music?

Doyle Lawson: I think the future looks very good for our music. I have really seen a lot of things change over the years. Everything changes with the passing of time. The young folks today don't view things the way it was in the 40s, 50s and 60s. I doubt many kids have ever seen a cabin home on the hill so they can't relate to that as I can, because I have seen a cabin home on the hill. Things must and will change, but we can keep the values and honest heart-felt emotions of the music. There are a lot of good song writers writing bluegrass songs today.

The key is to interpret it as such.

Tennessee Dream, Doyle Lawson's instrumental recording, circa 1977. Tennessee Dream, Doyle Lawson's instrumental recording, circa 1977.

Question from Mandolirius: Tennessee Dream is a classic mandolin record. Any plans to do another instrumental album? What are the hallmarks of good bluegrass mandolin in your opinion and how would you describe your own sound and style?

Doyle Lawson: I can't tell you how many instrumentals I've written over the years. But it's more than enough to do at least a couple of CDs if I ever decide to do it.

I listen for tone, note clarity and expression or note selection. I think the above describe my style. I am very melody conscious.

Question from Don Stiernberg: Thanks again for your contributions to the music. Without your influence I might not be trying to play the mandolin or have the love of bluegrass that started for me back in the time of J.D. Crowe and The Kentucky Mountain Boys. I can even remember as a teenager putting a capo on the mandolin (gasp!) to try to cop your break on "Little Bessie" from the Award Winning Country Gentlemen album. I wanted to ask about your multi-instrumentalism. I've seen you play guitar with J.D., banjo with The Country Gentlemen, and of course mandolin. Which one did you start on? Are there other instruments you also play?

Also, do you also have a method for creating the complex vocal arrangements that are a hallmark of your sound? As you find the parts for each singer, do you refer to the mandolin? guitar? Piano? Written music?

Light On My Feet, Ready to Fly - latest recording from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on Rounder. Click to purchase from Light On My Feet, Ready to Fly - latest recording from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on Rounder. Click to purchase from

Doyle Lawson: I started to play mandolin when I was about eleven years old. As the years passed I began to learn to play guitar as well. When I was around 17, I decided that my chances of getting a job with one of the professional bands would be better if I could play banjo. I had my heart set on going to Nashville and working for either Jimmy Martin or Bill Monroe. I had been introduced to Jimmy when I was 14 and he took an interest in me and really got me on the right track in how to play mandolin. He showed me how to use my wrist properly and how to use tremolo effectively. I remember him telling me that Bill showed him how to use the wrist and he would show me. I went to work for Jimmy on February 3, 1963 not as a mandolin player, but on the banjo.

Over the years, I learned to play bass and fiddle. I used to play quite a bit of fiddle. Even as far back as with the Country Gentlemen. Terry Baucom, Lou Reid and I played triple fiddles some and Terry and I did some twin fiddling. But the mandolin has always been my first love.

As for vocals, I grew up around quartet singing with my Dad singing in an acappella quartet most all of my childhood. They sang shape-note music. Dad taught me some basic methods of shape notes and I can read enough to find a good song. I'm not too fast with it but it serves my purpose. The arrangements come from a combination of things, but I always try to leave me some room for creativity, but not to the point of change beyond recognition.

Listen while you read

Doyle Lawson playing Monroe Medley from his 1977 solo mandolin recording Tennessee Dream.

Questions from Patrick Market: Who are you listening to these days? Who do you consider (say, the top three people/groups) to be on the next wave of up and coming bluegrass talent?

Doyle Lawson: To tell you the truth, I listen to a lot of different types of music and I can draw inspiration from that. There are several young groups coming on these days. The Infamous Stringdusters, The Gibson Brothers, Dale Ann Bradley, Alecia Nugent, Donna Ulisse are a few who are fairly new in the world of bluegrass.

Doyle Lawson and friends at the 2006 Doyle Lawson Golf Scramble. Doyle Lawson and friends at the 2006 Doyle Lawson Golf Scramble.

Question from Kip Welty: What is your golf handicap?

Doyle Lawson: My golf handicap is, "I just can't play worth a darn!!!" Seriously I enjoy golf as a hobby. I always keep in mind that I'm a professional musician and an amateur golfer.

Question from Chasray: Do you have any Jimmy Martin stories you could share with us?

Doyle Lawson: I don't have the time nor room to tell you all off my Jimmy Martin stories, but here's one.

In early spring of 1963 we were on tour out in western Canada. We left Calgary Alberta on our way back to North Battleford, Saskatewan. It started snowing and it snowed harder and harder until finally the car were in started riding up on top of the snow and losing traction. In addition to that, the windshield wipers quit, and the right one fell off.

Paul Williams, who was driving that night, would have to stick his arm out the window and work the left wiper by hand. I saw a little pull-off place on the left and Paul backed into the spot and we decided we would try and wait for daylight. By the way, we were almost out of gas. At the show that night someone had tried to break into our car while we were on stage. It was a 1959 Caddy and they had broken the wing glass out on the passenger side. Well, that's where I was sitting and it wasn't so bad with the motor running and the heater on. Not so good with it off to save gas.

I believe there was a lot of praying going on that night. I was sitting there freezing while the others are pretending to sleep (they all admitted it afterward) and I see a set of headlights coming. I told Paul that whatever that was going by us to take off after it. It was a little VW and it was throwing snow like a snow plow. We were able to make it to a little store with one gas pump. It was just getting daylight and Jimmy took off his shoes and socks, rolled his pants legs as high as he could and waded snow almost up to his waist to a house on a hill. Luckily it was the station owner's house and he came down and built a big fire and we ate peanut butter crackers, candy bars, etc. as though it was a full course meal. Well, we were warm, well fed with a full tank of gas with still a good ways to go to North Battleford. Jimmy said that he would drive on in as he knew it had been a rough night for everyone. We load up and he takes out across the lot toward the road and proceeded to run into a ditch that was about 5 feet deep. The snow was so deep you couldn't see anything like that nor where the road was.

I wish you could have seen the look on Jimmy's face as we all had to crawl out on the passenger side of the car. You probably wouldn't want to hear the few choice words he said about the whole trip, but we did finally made it back to North Battleford. It was -16 below zero when we got there. Needless to say, our show for that night was cancelled.

Question from Roberto: No mandolin content but, I heard you once speak about the "shape" for each note when singing. Is there a right rule for this or just depend of each voice? It's a matter of self-learning?

Doyle Lawson: Shape note is just what it says. Each note, Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Ti has it's own shape to identify it. The vocal range one has will determine what part you sing.

As a final parting note, I'd like to say a big thank you to all for your questions and for sharing this opportunity with me. I hope to see you somewhere down the road at a show in the future!

Yours truly,
Doyle Lawson

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver at 2010 Joe Val Festival

Gear Facts:

Current Instrument: Gibson "Victorian" Mandolin

Strings: D'Addario EXP 74

Picks: Blue Chip 45

Microphone preferences (live and studio): Shure, Audio Technica, Neuman, Shure's and Audio Tech's live. Neumans in the studio.

A Doyle Lawson Discography

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, circa 2009. Click to enlarge. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, circa 2009. Click to enlarge.

NOTE: all recordings available for purchase from Doyle Lawson's web site.

Light On My Feet, Ready to Fly - 2010
Lonely Street - 2009
Help Is On The Way - 2008
Bill Gaither's How Great Thou Art - 2007
More Behind The Picture Than The Wall - 2007
He Lives In Me - 2006
DL&Q 25th Anniversary DVD - 2005
You Gotta Dig A Little Deeper - 2005
Christmas Grass Vol. 2 - 2004
A School Of Bluegrass - 2004
Thank God - 2003
A Gospel Bluegrass Homecoming - Vol. 1 - 2003
A Gospel Bluegrass Homecoming - Vol. 2 - 2003
Doyle Lawson Treasures - 30 Years Of Music & Memories DVD - 2003
Hard Game Of Love - 2002
Gospel Parade - 2001
Just Over In Heaven - 2000
Winding Through Life - 1999
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Quicksilver Rides Again - 1999
Once And For Always / The News Is Out - 1999
Gospel Radio Gems - 1998
Kept And Protected - 1997
There's A Light Guiding Me - 1997
Never Walk Away - 1995
Hallelujah In My Heart - 1994
Pressing On Regardless - 1993
Treasures Money Can't Buy - 1993
Merry Christmas From Our House To Your House - 1991
Only God - 1991
The Gospel Collection, Vol. 1 - 1990
My Heart Is Yours - 1990
I Heard The Angels Singing - 1989
I'll Wonder Back Someday - 1988
Hymn Time In The Country - 1988
The News Is Out - 1987
Heaven's Joy Awaits - 1987
Beyond The Shadows - 1986
Once And For Always - 1985
Heavenly Treasures - 1983
Quicksilver Rides Again - 1982
Rock My Soul - 1980
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - 1979
Tennessee Dream - 1977

Additional information
Doyle Lawson on Facebook
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on MySpace

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Reader Comments

Nelson Peddycoart
May 17, 2010 07:04 AM
Thanks for the interview. The opportunity to hear from the "big dogs on our porch" is a special thing.
Mike Romkey
May 17, 2010 01:18 PM
Very practical, down-to-earth, and informative. Thanks.
May 17, 2010 02:44 PM
Thank you, Mr. Lawson
for your great interview. It sums up what a working musician ought to be like:
stellar work ethics
focus on musicianship
profesionalism (to the max)
willingness to learn

It's allmost like "how to become a world class performer in just one lesson". (if you could follow the rules and only had talent and were willing to put up with the hardships [see the Jimmy Martin story]).

I highly appreciate your insightful responses. And if ever it may be possible to see you in Europe I will be more than pleased to attend. (I sat on the floor in front of the first row to gather your mandolin picking - apart from the overall musicianship - and mistook your mandolin for a Gil. Whatsoever, I thought it was sort of blonde/cream colored like the Gil A-5 style on the Tone Poems II CD). It sounded good. I enjoyed jamming with Barry Abernathy after the show.

I wish you the best.
May 17, 2010 04:54 PM
Mr. Lawson:

Your insights on character, music and life made for a great read. I appreciate the contribution you have made and are making to the bluegrass industry.

I really enjoyed the Jimmy Martin story. If only video cameras and camera phones had been around in 1963!
Denny Gies
May 17, 2010 05:10 PM
Another great job by the staff and members of the Cafe. I have loved Doyle and his bands for years. Thanks.
re simmers
May 17, 2010 07:32 PM
Another great interview.

doc holiday
May 17, 2010 08:28 PM
Great job on the Doyle Lawson interview. What a great and often under-appreciated mandolin player
Thank You!
May 18, 2010 12:28 PM
Can anyone elaborate on the "note shape" discussion? I'm afraid that was the one part of the interview where I couldn't make hide nor hair of the answer.
May 18, 2010 04:21 PM
Shaped note singing is sometimes called Sacred Harp or Fa-so-la singing. Most popular among church groups, the singing is acapella, not rehearsed, and uses note heads in four "shapes" to aid in sight-reading. It's one of the most powerful and moving things I've ever heard.

A pretty good explanation website:
doc holiday
May 18, 2010 04:22 PM
If you google "shape note singing" or "sacred harp singing" you'll get some descriptions of a system of notation for singing that dates back to the 1700s. There's more there than I can describe clearly in a few sentences..
May 18, 2010 04:37 PM
Meant to include this link showing a great example of shaped note singing.
May 18, 2010 04:44 PM
Thanks for the links! I really had assumed it was some kind of tonal description of each note. I think I had "Sacred Harp" knocking around somewhere in my brain, but I've never seen the shape note notation before. Powerful stuff and "real" folk music to be sure.