The wooded hills of Appalachia hide a music all their own. The wiry tinkle of fiddles resides in the gurgle of running creeks; roaring winds soar down the mountain slopes, grazing against the pine trees like guitar strings; the gentle tap of deer hooves and miner’s hammers peck out a delicate beat against the rocky ground. Music lives here; it has done so for a long time, and it will for ages to come. But sometimes, out of that clatter of instruments and soulful tune of nature, a master is born.
In Asheville—a verified mecca of Southern music and art where the streets themselves seem to whistle along to the tunes of the mountains—one such master was born in 1973. Those families lucky enough to grow generations in the laurel thickets and pine forests of western North Carolina seem to soak up the rhythmic soul of the mountains; musical inclinations seem to come as naturally to their progeny as walking itself. So when Bryan Sutton first saw the light of an Appalachian day decades ago, he was destined for a life of music. His grandfather, Grover Sutton, was a lauded fiddler, his name hollered and hooted across the hills surrounding Asheville, and Bryan’s father carried on the tradition, quickly establishing himself as a regionally acclaimed musician and mastering several instruments in addition to the familial fiddle.
It is no surprise then that when the youngest Sutton first picked up a guitar at eight years old it was with an aura of expectation and inevitable talent. And Bryan Sutton did not disappoint. In addition to mastering the acoustic guitar, Sutton easily added a variety of instruments to his musical vocabulary, including the mandolin, banjo, and electric guitar. Incorporating himself into the family band, the Pisgah Pickers, Sutton explored the lands of Appalachia for miles, guitar in tow. With unprecedented experience and skill, a natural path as a studio musician began to unveil itself when Sutton was still enrolled in high school, and at nineteen he left the comforting hills of home for Nashville.
After honing his talents and contacts for a few years, the glowing light of success began to shine on Sutton in 1995 when he joined Ricky Scaggs’s bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder. Sutton toured with the talented troupe for a few years, contributing to two award-winning albums, before once again striking out on his own. Sutton’s innate gift earned him a coveted place on tours and albums across the country-western spectrum. Over the years, he’s toured with such icons as the Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush, and recorded on albums for musicians like Keith Urban, Dolly Parton, and Taylor Swift. His signature, natural guitar picking can be heard on hundreds of albums. And since 2002, when he joined the groundbreaking bluegrass foursome Hot Rize, Sutton has balanced touring with the band, recording with prominent artists, and even hosting online guitar workshops through ArtistWorks.
But the apex of Sutton’s success came in 2007. That year Sutton, picking alongside bluegrass master Doc Watson, took home a Grammy for their rendition of the classic song “Whiskey Be-fore Breakfast.” The archetypal tune’s disputed origins provide a compelling backdrop for listening. According to many, the ditty sailed across the sea a century ago with Irish immigrants. Others trace its roots north, to Canada and the native Metis culture, where it’s also known as “Spirits of the Morning.” Still others argue that the song rose from the bluffs of Appalachia herself. Regardless of the location of its inception, “Whiskey Before Breakfast” settled firmly into the instruments of Doc Watson and Bryan Sutton almost a decade ago; their rendering of the melody seems to seep into their very strings.
Bryan Sutton’s instruments may have tasted the salty air of foreign shores and their cases may be stained with the dust of strange lands, but the soul of his music still hearkens back to his home. Appalachia and her inherent harmonies are ingrained in his calluses and entrenched in his chords. Though his feet may be elsewhere, his soul is here, in the mountains.
HEAR BRYAN SUTTON PERFORM “LOG JAM”
SEE ALL BRYAN SUTTON PHOTOS HERE