Doyle Lawson: R&R and Retirement
by Susan Marquez
feature photo by Eric Frommer Photography
After a decades-long career of performing for tens of thousands of fans, bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson will be retiring from touring at the end of next year, but he certainly won’t be retiring from bluegrass. “I can’t avoid the fact that I’ve been around so long and I’m as old as I am,” he muses from his home in Bristol, Tennessee, about 20 miles away from where he grew up. “There has been a lot of country music in this area, including the first recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. It’s been a springboard for many artists.”
Lawson announced his plans to quit touring now so that his band, Quicksilver, will have time to regroup. “I’m sure they’ll press on, but under a different name. As a matter of fact, I have encouraged them to get a new name for the band so there won’t be any comparisons.”
Born in 1944 in Ford Town, near Kingsport in Sullivan County, Tennessee, Lawson had two brothers and a sister. Lawson’s mother, father, and sister sang gospel music at area churches and revivals. “I listened to the Grand Old Opry on the radio,” he says. “I loved Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. I think his music was more intense.” When he was 12 years old, his father borrowed a mandolin from one of the members of his quartet, Willis Byrd, so that young Lawson could learn to play. Self-taught by listening to records, radio, and television, Lawson went on to become an icon of the industry, playing American traditional bluegrass and Southern Gospel music. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2012 and has won multiple Grammy ® awards, Dove® awards, and other prestigious awards for his music.
Lawson started playing professionally before the big bluegrass festivals came along.
“When I started, radio stations played musical genres in rotation. When it was time for bluegrass, they’d play artists like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Webb Pierce, and Loretta Lynn. I think the bluegrass festivals were a great thing. Bluegrass was always a branch of country music, and the festivals widened the gap between country and bluegrass. The festivals also gave bluegrass artists a lot of work that helped blaze trails to other venues.”
Staying true to the roots of bluegrass music is important to Lawson. “Today’s country music isn’t the same as when I was a young man. I think we must figure out how to present music so people will like it, so they’ll buy tickets, and download our music. It’s important to stay relevant in a changing world.”
When asked what he listens to in his car, Lawson laughs.
“I love Gospel, but I listen to all kinds of music. I also love to listen to some of the old radio shows, like the Jack Benny Radio Show. There is no telling what you’ll hear in my car!”
Looking back on his career, Lawson says that his music has opened many doors and allowed him the opportunity to travel. “I’ve been around the world, to over 40 countries, and all 50 states. I did a South American tour in the late 1980s that was incredible. Everywhere we went, the people loved our music!”
Being a touring musician isn’t all fun, and Lawson says he won’t miss the responsibilities of keeping a bus on the road, and eight people busy. “It is a lot of responsibility to keep people busy, and not poverty-stricken! The truth is, we all play for the love of music, but money is a necessity of life.” Like other musicians, the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge, but Lawson says they played a festival on Mother’s Day weekend to a record crowd. “I expect we’ll have good crowds from now until the tour ends at the end of 2022.”
After his touring days are over, Lawson says he will still have his hand in music to a degree. “I really enjoy producing others. I’m heading into the studio soon with Donna Ulisse. And I’ll be producing a second album for the Malpass Brothers. If you haven’t heard them, you need to. They are a neo-traditional, pure country band. They grew up listening to their grandfather’s records, and that informs their music.”
Whatever he decides to do, Lawson says he’ll be doing it “at his leisure.” He is looking forward to spending more time with family and enjoying life.
“I’ve had a blessed career and life. I look forward to the next chapter!”