By Tom Netherland, Special to the Bristol Herald-Courier
BRISTOL, TENNESSEE (September 23, 2012) –
“Doyle, I’m making the phone call I’ve wanted to make for many years,” came the voice of Eddie Stubbs, Grand Ole Opry and WSM radio announcer. Stubbs also serves as the chairperson of the IBMA Hall of Fame nominating committee.
Please make welcome, Doyle Lawson, newest member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
“What?” said Lawson, in disbelief. “I couldn’t say anything.”
The Bristol, Tenn., resident will have to think of something to say and soon. Official induction comes Thursday, Sept. 27, at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. Lawson will join the hallowed ranks of bluegrass greatness. For all of time the name of the son of Leonard and Minnie Lawson will rest alongside the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe and fellow architects of bluegrass Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
There’s Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Mac Wiseman, the Carter Family, Jim & Jesse and on and on.
Right on to four days from now to include the name Doyle Lawson.
“I’m gonna be in there with my heroes,” Lawson said. “It’s hard for me to fathom. It’s always been about the music.”
Lawson’s earned fans beyond count in his nearly 50 years of making music. He’s made them from playing in bars in the old days to schools and churches, theaters and arenas and anywhere else that wanted a band with a brand of excellence.
That’s the music of Doyle Lawson, silver slugging bluegrass excellence.
And that’s precisely what his biggest fan heard, too. Her name, Minnie Lawson, Doyle’s beloved mother.
“My mother thought there was no one better than I,” he said. “She would even sign autographs. She would always put, ‘Doyle’s Mom.’”
She was there before the crowds grew large, always in the corner for her son.
“In the early days when I started my band, in the early ’80s, people would get these windbreaker jackets with the band name on them,” Lawson said. “Mine were silver. It had the name of my band, Quicksilver, on the back. I gave her one with her name on the front.”
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver records played on her record player. CDs from her son played in her CD player. If he played a show nearby, she was there, too, in line and excited to hear him play.
“My mom and dad, you know what?” Lawson said. “They always bought a ticket. I tried to give them tickets, but they insisted on paying for their tickets.”
Leonard Lloyd Lawson, “L.L.” to his friends, died in 1994 at age 81.
“He read his Bible, newspaper and songbooks every day,” Lawson said. “He could read shape note music very well. A month or so before he died, he said, ‘I’m not long for this world. I’m tired and ready to go home.’”
L.L. Lawson lived long enough to know that his music-making son was a bluegrass star.
Minnie Lawson lived to see him become a legend. Alas, she will miss her loving son’s Hall of Fame induction by five months and six days. She died but hours after Doyle’s 68th birthday, in the wee hours of April 21, 2012 at age 96.
Her prized jacket?
“It was in her closet when she died,” Lawson said.
Man of music
He sat on a brown leather couch in his wife’s sister’s home. Rain pelted the windows. A homemade patchwork quilt hung on the wall just behind him. His cowboy hat rested on a stand near a silent television.
A coiled mandolin strap lay beside him on the couch. Across the room and in its black case, Lawson’s $25,000 Gibson F4 mandolin awaited a song from Lawson’s deft hands.
Meanwhile, his phone rang.
“Right or wrong, I’ll always love you, though you’re gone, I can’t forget,” came the lyrics as sung by Merle Haggard via the ringtone on Lawson’s phone. His wife was calling.
“Ray Price, George Jones, Merle Haggard, pound for pound do the greatest country songs of all time,” Lawson said moments later. “When I first heard ‘Sing a Sad Song,’ I knew Merle had something.”
That was in 1964. By then, Lawson had been in Jimmy Martin’s heralded Sunny Mountain Boys band for a year, playing banjo. Two years later, Lawson joined fellow Sunny Mountain Boys alum J.D. Crowe, first on guitar and then mandolin.
One might look back on those years and assume them to be lean for Lawson. They were. Yet nowhere near as barren as the years of his childhood, back when he struggled to simply buy a cheap mandolin.
“I can remember when I had to borrow a mandolin to play,” Lawson said. “I remember not having the money to buy strings. I’d break one, tie it back together with the tie up at the fretboard, and then try to not slice my finger on the end of it when I played. I’d make picks out of combs. Sometimes I’d make a strap out of twine or string.”
Music was in him and so whatever it took songs were going to come out of him.
“Whatever it took.” Lawson said.
That mentality remained when as a teenager he joined Martin’s band in 1963.
“When I worked for Jimmy, I was young and green but I paid attention,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “With J.D., I felt the same way. I would ask questions. As the years went by, five years or so, I went on to join the Country Gentlemen.”
Lawson joined the fabled newgrass band on Sept. 1, 1971. He stayed until March 1979. While there, he gradually assumed such leadership roles as learning how to engineer and produce an album.
“Even though I didn’t get the credit,” Lawson said, “I produced most of the Country Gentlemen stuff after Bill Emerson left.”
That includes such classic albums as “Joe’s Last Train” in 1976.
Lawson struck out on his own in April 1979 when he formed Doyle Lawson & Foxfire, soon thereafter changed to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. He’s since won nearly 20 IBMA awards and recorded with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Paul Simon. Nearly three dozen albums later including their latest, “Sing Me a Song About Jesus,” Lawson’s a slam dunk legend.
“My ideal bluegrasser growing up was Doyle Lawson,” said David Mayfield, who made a point to catch Lawson last weekend at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. “Not to take anything away from the other greats of his generation, but I think with the harmonies and gospel quartets, he was a trendsetter.”
Multitudes of future bluegrass stars came through Quicksilver. They include Lou Reid, Russell Moore, Steve Gulley, Barry Scott and Jamie Dailey. Lawson’s band has long been referred to as a school of bluegrass.
“The school, the bands that came out of Quicksilver, it’s like, wow!” Mayfield said. “They went on to be IIIrd Tyme Out, Blue Highway. It’s like a bluegrass boot camp. He’s a force.”
Highlights in a highlight filled life
That force grew up loving the gospel of the Chuck Wagon Gang. Country music as heard on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry from Kitty Wells to Carl Smith, and of course bluegrass of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers found a receptive and rapt lad in Lawson.
He heard them all on a little radio while growing up.
“I would play it way late into the night,” Lawson said. “I’d get real close to hear it. Over on WSM 650, I heard my heroes, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow. I remember hearing Hank Williams on the Grand Ole Opry.”
Like many a boy of his generation, the singing cowboys of the silver screen stood out as favorites, too. Riding high in the saddle among them for Lawson was the king of the cowboys, Roy Rogers.
Lawson’s travels took him to Victorville, Calif., some years ago. He couldn’t resist a visit to the now defunct Roy Rogers Museum. As luck would have it, Rogers was there. As back luck would have it, Rogers’ health wasn’t well and attendees were asked to not bother him.
However, Rogers was a Mason. An associate of Lawson’s on hand was a Mason. They met, talked and soon enough Lawson and Rogers were posing for photos with Rogers’ arm draped around Lawson’s neck.
“I felt like a kid again,” Lawson said, cowboy boot resting atop a leg. “Somebody said, ‘sing one, Roy!’ He said, ‘well, I don’t sing anymore.’ But he yodeled. Right beside me, Roy Rogers yodeled.”
Bars of gold won’t buy that memory.
On the road
Nowadays it seems as if bars of gold are needed to buy gas and diesel. Lawson’s sure bought many a gallon of diesel for the buses he’s owned. Those rolling wheels of home double as vessels of mystery for most fans.
They rarely see inside them. So, let’s have a peek inside his red Prevost at some of the things he prefers to bring along when away from home in Bristol.
“I like peanut butter crackers on the bus all the time cheese peanut butter crackers,” Lawson said. “My drink of choice on the road, Diet Dr. Enuf. That’s the most refreshing drink I know.”
As more lines on the highway than any person could count pass by, Lawson likes to stay connected. Cell phone? Of course. Satellite television? Oh yes.
“I bring my PC, iPad and iPod with me,” he said. “We write a lot of songs in the bus on the road, too. We wrote a tune last week at Rhythm & Roots, ‘It’s Hard to be Forgotten by the One You Can’t Forget.’ There’s a lot of activity on the bus going down the road.”
Time was when Lawson brought his Bible along, as well. Not anymore. Well, not one with a physical cover and pages that turn.
“When I got an iPad, I got an app that sends me a Bible reading from the Bible every day,” he said. “I’m a creature of habit, and so I read that every day.”
However, there’s one thing beyond the man’s love of music that’s traveled with the white bearded man of bluegrass for nearly every mile that he’s traveled. It’s not one mandolin in particular. He owns more than a dozen. It’s not a lucky charm.
“I don’t believe in them,” he said.
It’s not peanut butter crackers, Diet Dr. Enuf, computers or strings or boots and ties and such.
“I’m a stickler about bringing wire cutters,” Lawson said.
But not just any pair of wire cutters.
“I’ve had these since 1967,” he said. “They’ve been all over the world with me.”
Lawson uses them to cut strings on his mandolin when he changes strings. Wire cutters are a needed tool for any musician. And he’s grown remarkably fond of his.
“They never leave my case,” he said. “Forty-nine countries, all 50 states, those cutters have been with me every step of the way.”
Lawson’s travels have circuited the globe. He’s played in Japan, seen the Swiss Alps, visited Africa, played bluegrass for folks who didn’t know a word of English.
New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo, too. London and Paris, Chicago and Miami and so on and on his travels have gone.
“I enjoy visiting the big cities, but I’m a small town guy,” Lawson said. “Here in the Tri-Cities, we have all we need. I like downtown Bristol. I love it. It’s a good place to live.”
Lawson’s lived in Northern Virginia, Lynchburg, Va., Kentucky and Tennessee, too. But he and wife Suzanne moved to Bristol in 1984. He had never lived in Bristol, but her family was from here.
They joined Cold Springs Presbyterian Church. Their kids grew up in Bristol.
“This is home,” Lawson said. “I was born in Ford Town, grew up in Kingsport. My roots are here.”
Hall of Fame
And in four days his name will forever reside alongside those of his heroes.
“After Eddie Stubbs hung up I thought, ‘wow,’” Lawson said. “I started thinking back to when I listened to the Opry as a kid. I dreamed about going to see the Grand Ole Opry. The first time I went to the Opry, I played it with Jimmy Martin. My knees buckled. I kept thinking, ‘this is where Hank Williams played.’”
Lawson paused in thought. Perhaps he thought back to when he was that wide-eyed little fella with an ear glued to the voices of his heroes that came out of his radio well into the night.
They’re echoes now, voices of legends left to the mists of time and memory.
Hank Williams stood on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, bent over the microphone, heart open wide and wailing “Lovesick Blues” on the Opry. Ernest Tubb grinned wide to “Walking the Floor Over You.” Minnie Pearl made ’em smile with a bellowed “How-deee!” Hank Snow lit a fire with his coal-burning hot “I’m Movin’ On.”
“And now,” Lawson said in whispered awe, “they’re gonna put me in the Hall of Fame right there at the Ryman Auditorium.”
Photo by Tom Netherland.
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer, who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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