Doyle Lawson grew up in Ford Town, a rural community near Kingsport, Tennessee. His mother, father, and sister all sang gospel music and the family listened faithfully to the radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. Inspired by the radio performances of Bill Monroe, Doyle took up the mandolin at the age of 11. By the time he was 19, Lawson began playing with the incomparable Jimmy Martin, launching a career that included performing with J.D. Crowe and the Country Gentlemen.
In 1979 he decided that he wanted to develop his own sound, so he formed Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Although the band has numerous recordings of the classic bluegrass repertoire, the group is best known for Lawson's stunning gospel vocal arrangements. In fact, it might be said that Doyle Lawson's efforts resulted in a renaissance of tight harmony bluegrass singing. For the past five years, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have received annually the International Bluegrass Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year award.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. How did you feel when you heard the news?
MR. DOYLE: When [NEA Director of Folk & Traditional Arts] Barry Bergey called and told me, I was pretty near speechless. It was awfully quiet there for just a minute or two. I'm very much aware of what the award means to people in the arts, so it's pretty overwhelming. I'm truly honored to receive the award.
NEA: Why were you attracted to gospel music?
MR. DOYLE: I've always loved music in general. I grew up here in East Tennessee in a Christian home and my parents sang together for a while. They first started as a little a cappella trio performing in church. Then my mother stepped back to take care of me and my little brother and the household while Dad continued on with it.
The group later evolved into a quartet. As a small child -- and as a young teenager -- I would go to their weekly practices and listen as they put together a song. They all could read the old shape-note style music, and each would sing the individual notes of the song a couple of times before they'd sing the words. I don't know if they did that to make themselves more relaxed or to get more familiar with the melody, but I always found it really odd to hear them singing four individual parts in shape notes. But then they would start singing the words. It was wonderful! You know, the harmony structures were part of the content of the song -- that's the way songwriters wrote the songs back then. I liked the moving parts, and it was something that I've never lost my love for. I was always around gospel music and not only for the spiritual benefit -- I loved the sound of the harmonies.
I started out playing bluegrass just like all the rest of us. When Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver came into being the one thing I stressed was that I wanted a quartet like my Dad had. It's what I grew up with and it just seemed like a natural thing for me to take the original a cappella and incorporate guitar and banjo and bass and fiddle.
As I got older and got further along in my career, I began to think about the songs I heard growing up. I was surprised at how many of them I'd committed to memory. I wanted to introduce those kinds of songs to the public. Most folks had not heard any of those songs. I didn't have a blueprint -- all I wanted to do was introduce this most wonderful music I remembered from when I was a kid. At first I recorded some of them just from memory. For the ones I couldn't remember, I went to my father. He liked what I was doing and became a real source of material. He taught me to read shape-note music. I'm not well versed in it, but I can read well enough that I can get the song. If I see a song that it has good words and good melody, then I can go to work on it.
NEA: What is it about gospel music that compels you so much?
MR. DOYLE: First and foremost, I believe in what I'm singing. It's a spiritual thing with me as well as a career. I'm a professional musician, but that doesn't mean I have to disassociate myself from any kind of spiritual connection. I'm serious about my gospel music -- I don't do it just for monetary gain. I love the message. If you look at the songs I've recorded, they all have an inspiring story. I'm not trying to get the people into fever or frenzy or anything like that. It's just what I believe in and the way I feel about gospel music.
NEA: What role does gospel music play in the community where you are in Tennessee?
MR. DOYLE: When I was growing up it was a very prominent part of the church service. Many if not all of the churches had a quartet or a trio or somebody that would play music. Sometimes you'd have more than one group during a service. Sometimes even an individual. If anybody in the congregation felt spiritually inspired to stand up to sing a song, they could. It was not a real structured service. If you felt spiritually led to give testimony about your faith, there were no restrictions about that. The singing was the same way.
But the type of music I grew up with, and the way the services were held -- they're no longer as dominant as back then.
NEA: What are some of the essential qualities of a good gospel singer?
MR. DOYLE: The first thing you look for is the heartfelt emotion and belief in what you're singing about, its very essence. You can feel the real deal. That pretty much sums it up.
Gospel music has to be from the heart, more than just words on a piece of paper with a melody to it. For me gospel music has always been about the song itself and what have you to say. You do it the best you can and then let the people decide. I always did. I let them decide just how much they liked it and I always hoped that they would like it as much as I did.
NEA: You play both religious and secular music, correct?
MR. DOYLE: I started off playing just bluegrass music. But gospel music has always been an integral part of bluegrass as far back as the man we call the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. He had the Bluegrass Boys and the Bluegrass Quartet and they always played a fair amount of gospel. And that carried right on down through the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, all the early bluegrass pioneers. Gospel music was still a part of that. Gospel was not only a part of bluegrass, but part of the country world, too. When I came along, I introduced a lot of different songs new to the world of bluegrass.
NEA: Do you have any advice for young gospel or bluegrass musicians?
MR. DOYLE: I don't think there's any one for-sure answer. Sometimes some things work out and sometimes they don't. The one thing I can say is that if you truly believe that your mission in life is to play this music, then stay the course. You'll have to endure the hardships along with the good times, and there will be hard times. Music is an ever-changing thing, and establishing a fan base and then keeping it growing is a constant struggle. If you truly believe that's what you want to do, stay the course. But it's not easy. I would be the first to tell anybody that.
NEA: What has kept you performing through the years?
MR. DOYLE: I love the sound of music and I love to sing harmony. That's my thing, putting four or five voices together. To me there's nothing any sweeter to hear than a church choir singing or a church congregation with everybody lifting their voice up in song and praise. There's a beauty to that and a feeling like no other.
I'm a lucky guy. I'm blessed that I've been able to play music professionally for almost 44 years. I don't dread getting up and going to work. I look forward to it. I still enjoy the travel and I love meeting people. I love being on the stage and looking out at the audience and seeing the smiles we're putting on their faces. Life is kind of tough these days. There's so much unrest in the world -- you never turn on the television or radio that you're not hearing about it. If by giving a concert we can help people just kind of lose themselves for a while and enjoy the music and have joy in their hearts when they go away, then we've made a difference with our music.
I love music and I count myself very, very blessed.