Bryan Sutton is the most accomplished and awarded acoustic guitarist of his generation, an innovator who bridges the bluegrass flatpicking traditions of the 20th century with the dynamic roots music scene of the 21st. His rise from buzzed-about young sideman to first-call Nashville session musician to membership in one of history’s greatest bluegrass bands has been grounded in quiet professionalism and ever-expanding musicianship.
Sutton is a Grammy Award winner and a nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year. But these are only the most visible signs of Sutton’s accomplishments. He inherited and internalized a technically demanding instrumental style and become for young musicians of today the same kind of model and hero that Tony Rice and Clarence White were for him. And supplementing his instrumental work, he’s now a band leader, record producer, mentor, educator and leader in online music instruction.
Sutton was born in 1973 in Asheville, NC, an area rich in bluegrass and mountain music that he’s called an ideal environment to develop as a musician. His grandfather and father played together in a band, modeling a life in music for Bryan, who picked up the guitar at age eight. He participated in community and family jams and was encouraged but never pressured to practice. He just did. His self motivation helped him get familiar with a range of styles, and he studied some jazz guitar in North Carolina. His plans to attend the Berklee College of Music were however set aside by invitations to record as a sideman.
Sutton relocated to Nashville in 1994 to play sessions and over a year and a half built his resume and relationships. Then a studio-born friendship with bass player Mark Fain led to the job that would thrust him to prominence – playing guitar for star artist and musician Ricky Skaggs just as he reconfigured his band and his musical orientation from country to bluegrass. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder was one of the very top bands of the 1990s resurgence of bluegrass music, and even in a large, loud band with three guitarists, Sutton’s punctuated, dynamic and whip-fast lead playing stood out. He was called a phenomenon and a virtuoso and the future of bluegrass guitar, something Sutton took in quiet stride.
After about three years with Skaggs, Sutton started a family and refocused on Nashville’s studios, where he rather quickly became the most called-upon acoustic guitarist in town. Today his discography reads like a roll call of Nashville’s last two decades, with credits on albums by Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and many more. Major commercial country sessions can leave a virtuoso in the background, but Sutton was also called on to play a prominent role in some of the most significant recording projects in modern day bluegrass and acoustic music, including Dolly Parton’s Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue, Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge, Charlie Haden’s Rambling Boy and The Dixie Chicks’ groundbreaking Home album. During these years, he also supported numerous recordings by leading traditional and Americana artists, including The Chieftains, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent, Mindy Smith, Jim Lauderdale, Adam Steffey and Dailey & Vincent.
Sutton took selective advantage of invitations to play live in the 2000s, the most meaningful being a tour supporting banjo player Béla Fleck’s Tales From The Acoustic Planet album. It was a last minute call to replace an injured Tony Rice - a chance to perform with the most elite group of progressive bluegrass musicians in the world, instrumentalists whom Sutton had idolized for years: mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas and fiddler Stuart Duncan. That group has solidified over the years into a glorified “house band” and arguably the biggest annual draw at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Starting just before 2000, Sutton kicked off his career as a solo recording artist, assembling a star-studded band for his debut Ready To Go on Sugar Hill Records. Besides some original bluegrass instrumentals and some guest vocal tunes by the likes of Rhonda Vincent, the album featured two hot swing numbers, some lyrical pieces and even a U2 cover, showing sides of his playing and personality that were in the background during his tenure with Ricky Skaggs. On his second solo disc, Sutton turned back to his upbringing and his heart’s core for Bluegrass Guitar, featuring nine traditional standards, one original and an instrumental take on a Tim O’Brien song. Here, Sutton’s debts to his idols – Rice, Watson, White - were clear, but his own voice and style was fully realized. And then in 2006, he took his admiration for his fellow pickers to its logical conclusion, arranging duo sessions with favorites and friends for Not Too Far From The Tree. He was joined on a range of styles and tunes by David Grier, Norman Blake, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Earl Scruggs, Dan Crary and Doc Watson.
The latter’s track, a take on the venerable “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” won the Grammy Award of 2007 for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Every bluegrass guitarist reveres Doc Watson, but for Sutton, their shared North Carolina roots made the validation that much deeper. Even coming amid a string of nine IBMA awards, this was a career highlight that cemented Sutton’s name next to Doc’s, and in his field there’s no higher honor.
The most recent major chapter of Sutton’s career had its seeds planted more than a decade ago when a call came from banjo star Peter Wernick. The legendary Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize was taking on infrequent reunion shows. Wernick, Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster asked Sutton to fill the guitar chair of the late Charles Sawtelle. Then about 2012 they decided to release a new album, tour harder and make Sutton a formal member of the group. In 2015 Hot Rize was nominated for two IBMA Awards including album and entertainers of the year. Fans from coast to coast and especially Colorado were thrilled to have this favorite 1980s era band back with the best guitarist in the business tossing out well wrought solos, as well as playing the deadpan role of Slade in Hot Rize’s alter ego band, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
In recent years, Sutton has broadened his musical and professional reach. He has at last formed his own Bryan Sutton Band with wider ambitions to tour and record albums with live performance more centrally in mind. He’s produced several artists, notably the upstart all-female bluegrass band from Boston Della Mae. And he’s become the guitar instructor at the innovative ArtistWorks.com video exchange learning site. Here Sutton is not only recording lessons for one-way instruction; he receives and critiques videos from students, engaging them individually from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Accepting his most recent IBMA Award in 2015, Sutton focused his speech not on the people who’d helped him along the way (he’d done so amply in prior years) but rather on alerting the audience to a dozen or more young and emerging bluegrass guitar players who were worthy of attention. It was a gesture of magnanimity and humility that only bolstered the central role Sutton has secured in the history of the bluegrass guitar.