NEA Arts Magazine

Doyle Lawson

Gospel and bluegrass singer, arranger, bandleader, Bristol, Tennessee

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Doyle Lawson and his band harmonize

Doyle Lawson (left) and his band harmonize during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich

Raised in a musical household -- his parents were part of an a cappella trio and later his father formed a quartet -- Doyle Lawson decided to be a professional musician as a teenager, becoming proficient on the mandolin, banjo, and guitar. Before forming his own group -- Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver -- in 1979, Lawson played with bluegrass legends Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe, and the Country Gentlemen. He has appeared on nearly 40 albums, many of them with his own band.

Although Lawson's band has numerous recordings of the classic bluegrass repertoire, the group is best known for his stunning gospel vocal arrangements, which resulted in a renaissance of tight harmony bluegrass singing. For several years, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver have received the International Bluegrass Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year Award.

In a conversation with the NEA, Lawson talked about his music, shared some advice for young musicians, and revealed why he's kept singing for more than 40 years.

NEA: You play both religious and secular music, correct?

DOYLE LAWSON: 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?

LAWSON: 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.

NEA: What has kept you performing through the years?

LAWSON: 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.