Tradition and Progress. A review of Bryan Sutton’s The More I Learn

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A few months ago I pitched a story about Bluegrass Musician Bryan Sutton. The pitch was accepted, but then the magazine was sold, and I think the editor was sent elsewhere. This all happened after I had been in contact with Bryan’s representation and received an advanced download of the album. I wanted to get this review out last week, on the day the album came out, but couldn’t quite get it together. Maybe I’ll still get to write that story, but this review will hopefully tide me over till then. — Robert

 

There are a few problem unique to the practice of American Roots Music that must be navigated by modern practitioner. There is the chance that the tidy boxes we use to classify our music can keep people from taking a risk. Seeing a label such as Bluegrass can bring a specific image of country bumpkins and acoustic instruments to one’s mind. Just as seeing a label like “rap” or “electronica” brings its own set of images, regardless of their truth. A second problem is one of commercial concerns. Fans of a genre also have an aural image for what the music they love should sound like. That creates pressure on the artists to come out with a set of songs that fit that sound. It could mean the constant retreading of standards, giving the listeners something tangible to hold on to, something they know they’ll like, which feeds another problem, that of pantomime. Commercial pressure, or blind love can lead to making the music stale, as artist attempt to bottle the core of the music, making it a museum piece. Jazz, and an adherence to the swing era in particular, is where I first encountered this insidious problem where the emphasis on keeping the music “authentic” was so strong that it could almost be confused for fundamentalism. There is a middle ground however, where an artist builds upon what came before with reverence for the form but with an eye to the future, progressing the music. At once it requires a knowledge of the form—a love of the form—but with an ear open to other music, pulling in those influences without blowing up the genre they work in. The bullshit of “genre” aside (remember the quip about there being two types of music: good music and bad music) it is possible to create music that does this, paying homage to form while growing it, and Bluegrass guitar master Bryan Sutton continues to manage this balance with his new Rounder Records release The More I Learn.

Sutton is a bluegrass veteran, whose nimble playing at fast tempos has placed him in the pantheon of bluegrass guitar gods (or more simply guitar gods in general), but The More I Learn finds Sutton slowing down, relying more on the sound of his voice as well as songs penned by his own hand and to great effect. On past release Bryan Sutton has stuck—for the most part—to Bluegrass standards. Fiddle tunes often served as the basis for Sutton’s take on modern bluegrass guitar. The song book paid homage to his heroes, Doc Watson being chief among them, while also providing a frame work for a more modern approach to bluegrass improvisation, with whiffs of chromaticism and tricky phrases to keep things fresh (this version of Whiskey Before Breakfast is a fine example of this).

It wasn’t until his last release, 2014’s Into My Own that Sutton pushed his own voice to the fore. On past releases he relied on collaborators to sing the traditional tunes, and let his guitar do the work of carrying his musical identity. With this new release, Bryan Sutton is not only finding confidence as vocalist, but as a songwriter as well. The More I Learn has nine originals, a majority of which carry the theme of home and settling down. That’s not to say that Sutton has a reputation as a hard partying road warrior, but listening through the songs on this album you get the sense that Sutton’s main concerns are home and family; there is music of course, but one must always come back after a long summer of festivals.

Back to this idea of tradition. The more I Learn features a couple of the traditional fiddle tunes: Virginia Creeper, and a solo guitar version of Arkansas Traveler. The songs sound fresh despite their advanced age. Being able to do that is important to Sutton. In past interviews he has expressed the importance of tradition, something that isn’t quite adherence, more of a reference point. Sutton has held up the songs of John Hartford, the banjo, fiddle, and songwriting master (Hartford passed away in 2001) as someone who added to the repertoire, held a reverence for the older sound of his youth, but wasn’t afraid to push the limits of genre as well, putting his own strange bend on the music. To honor that ideal The More I learn features a somewhat slowed down, and beautiful version of Hartford’s Presbyterian Guitar. Sutton imagines the song as duet between guitar and bass, and does a wonderful job making the song is own.

One of the strongest tracks on the album comes near the end, Hills for the Head starts with Sutton strumming an intro before delivering an opening line whose rhythm and pacing is near perfect, weaving it’s self through the rhythm and chords that accompany it while laying out the things in this life that are important to Sutton.

Traveling east on 40, I’ve got my girls and a herringbone…

The “herringbone” is the nick name for Martin’s pre-war D-28s, Sutton’s preferred instrument, and it serves as a stand in for any guitar, the thing that takes second place to his family. The song weaves scenes from Sutton’s visits to North Carolina, where he grew up and began to cut his teeth as it were, all while acknowledging the importance to time alone in the places that are important to us.

Forward progress is always the goal, and with The More I Learn Bryan Sutton continues to move the art of Bluegrass forward, with songs that walk that treacherous boarder between the lands tradition and progress. He’s written a set of songs to keep this important American music vital.

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