Casey Phillips of the Times Free Press interviewed Bryan Sutton, the amazing guitarist who will perform at Barking Legs on Monday, Feb. 16. Get a preview here, and come on to the Legs for this can’t-miss show.
For guitarist Bryan Sutton, the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards are a bit like a game of reverse limbo. Every year, he raises the bar just a little bit higher.
In the last 14 years — most recently last October — he’s walked away eight times from the show as the association’s Guitar Player of the Year, far surpassing the likes of David Grier (three times) and Doc Watson (once). He whipped past the next most successful six-string slinger, Tony Rice, two trophies ago.
And yet somehow, the award still means something.
“If I can feel like I’m a consistent part of what’s relevant in bluegrass over the years, that’s really the goal,” he says, during a recent phone interview. “These awards along the way really just cement that for me in a really good way.
“It’s not that I set out to win a bunch of awards, but they’re really lovely affirmations along this path. I’m an emotional lightweight, and it really gets to me every time I see my name as a nominee or win.”
Sutton first made waves on the bluegrass music scene in 1995, when he joined Kentucky Thunder as a pinch-hitting, “utility” player just as its frontman, mandolin and vocal luminary Ricky Skaggs, began a triumphal return to his bluegrass roots. The four years he spent in the band during his early 20s, he says, were among the most educational of his two-decade career.
“For me, it was realizing that step from being a pretty good guitar player to being a pro — learning the ropes, learning what it meant to show up on the stage time after time,” he says. “I feel like some of the most important steps I’ve made as a guitarist were in those years of being out onstage at that level that consistently.”
In 1999, the Asheville, N.C., native left Kentucky Thunder but remained one of the most sought-after session guitarists in Nashville. In addition to his longstanding membership in Tim O’Brien-led Hot Rize, his resume includes credits with a laundry list of musical greats, from Taylor Swift and Dolly Parton to Bela Fleck and The Dixie Chicks.
Now, he says, it’s time to shine on his own terms. Sutton’s fifth studio album, “Into My Own,” was released last fall. Its name speaks to his intentions, and its contents seal the deal, an assemblage of recently written material that he says was designed to fuel a newfound focus on showcasing his own talents instead of supporting others as a sideman.
On Monday, Feb. 16, he’ll return to Chattanooga at the head of his own quartet to perform a set at Barking Legs Theater. Material from “Into My Own,” unrecorded traditional covers, tributes to his love of Doc Watson’s music and new original material all are on the menu, he says.
With an extra award in his back pocket, it’s a lot less intimidating to strike out on this new path, he says.
“It provides me with some of the confidence I need to go out and play more of my own things. I’m trying to find or keep that search on for the best version of me that I can be. It seems to be working.”
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.