Bluegrass Guitar – Bryan Sutton
Sugar Hill Records 3975
Over the last few years, Bryan Sutton has risen to the musical ranks of Bela
Fleck, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, and the rest of the newgrass elite.
Sutton's style, a lissome clarion sound, can move between jazz, blues, and
bluegrass (evidenced on his solo debut Ready to Go) yet has the
personal temerity to tackle Paganini's "Perpetual Motion."
Easily obtainable live recordings with Chris Thile only further revealed
Sutton's talents. He acts in subtlety suffused with unrestrained creativity.
He receives a thrill from changing a melody or a rhythm on a whim, hoping
his talented cohorts follow. Like Thile, he can quote Django Reinhardt and
then just as flaccidly perform the melody from the "Super Mario Brothers."
Despite his eclecticism, Sutton performing an album full of bluegrass
standards for his second solo release, as on Bluegrass Guitar, should
come as no surprise. Years as a sideman with Ricky Skaggs has likely only
solidified Sutton's Appalachian perspective. Rising respect for bluegrass
patently doesn't hurt the decision either.
However, a problem exists on Bluegrass Guitar concerning the
dichotomy between Sutton's subtle newgrass approach and the personnel he
selected for this undertaking of traditional material. The quartet of Tim
O'Brien, Dennis Crouch, David Talbot, and Tim Crouch, while highly respected
performers, simply sound like chains upon Sutton. On "Big Sandy River," for
example, Sutton begins his trademark movement and subtle transformation of
the track's familiar lead line. At the conclusion of Sutton's second solo,
the next soloist has a myriad of options to move the song towards more
inventive domains. Instead, Tim O'Brien plays a straight, guttural, directly
from the book solo. Even more problematic, O'Brien's solo shows no serious
differentiation from David Talbot's banjo run, which sounds like a copy of
Tim Crouch's fiddle solo. No apparent listening, no attention to detail
among the instrumentalists, and suddenly Bluegrass Guitar sounds like
a bunch of performers pasted alongside Sutton's fleet fingered filigrees.
As a result, a dreaded sense of repetition ensues. Each track follows the
same tired formula of ennui upon ennui. "Big Sandy River" becomes "Hangman's
Reel," which becomes "The High Road," the songs all run together without any
markers or elements being accentuated. In this redundancy, Sutton stands
out, certainly, but not before the whole album becomes a wash of mere
nostalgia and recreation. The quartet surrounding Sutton have made a living
referencing and re-recording the exact sound captured on Bill Monroe albums
fifty years past. Sutton has never sounded like a historical
reconstructionist working in a war museum. Try as he may, his sound contains
too many modern elements and carries too many melodic ideas to trundle in
In 1970, Dan Crary released Bluegrass Guitar, which showcased what
could be accomplished within the bluegrass framework. Sutton's release,
which he titled after Crary's release, should have been an extension of
these forward-looking notions. And really, with Sutton at the helm and some
different performers, Bluegrass Guitar could have been.