The situation that started four year old Doyle Wayne Lawson on the path to a musical career occurred when he heard a man singing on the radio. He asked his mother who that was singing so high, and she answered, “Why, that’s Bill Monroe.” From that moment on, he knew that he wanted to play music, and that someday he would play like Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. He thought at that time that Bill played the fiddle, as its sound dominated in that band. Some time passed before he learned that Bill played the mandolin.
When Doyle was born on April 20, 1944 to Leonard and Minnie Lawson, much excitement happened in their family, since Leonard’s sister gave birth to Triplets, just a few hours after Doyle arrived. The Lawson Family lived in Fordtown, Sullivan County, Tennessee, but they moved to Kingsport when Doyle was three weeks old. They later lived in Orebank and Highland, Tennessee, and moved to Leatherwood, Leslie County, Kentucky in 1947, where Leonard worked in the coal mines. When the family went “over home” to Tennessee for a visit, Leonard attended a church service with a cousin and rededicated his life to the Lord. In Kentucky he became the lead singer in a new church that held services in a tent. Doyle still remembers the first song his father led in church was, “Jesus, Hold my Hand,” written by the legendary Gospel song writer, Albert E. Brumley.
Leonard would often take Doyle with him when he attended singing conventions and schools in order to sing and learn to read the shaped note hymnals. The Lawson Family moved back to Kingsport, Tennessee in late 1950, and Leonard became active in a singing group with Minnie and Reese Bernard. In October, 1954, they moved to Hancock County, and Leonard started singing lead in what was still a trio, with his daughter. Colleen, or Minnie when her health permitted, singing Alto, with Jess Trent singing bass. Minnie and Jess dropped out of the group for health reasons, and Colleen got married in May, 1955. The group then became The Clinch River Quartet with Leonard, his second cousin Kate Alder, Willis Byrd, and Arley Stapleton. They belonged to a Missionary Baptist church that did not believe in the use of musical instruments, so the singing was all a cappella. This constant exposure to gospel music had a direct impact on Doyle. He learned the singing parts by listening to the group practice, and gospel music has always been a large part of Doyle’s life and career.
The radio was the main source of entertainment in those days. Doyle spent many hours listening to Bill Monroe, Hank Williams Sr., Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, and many others on WSM, Nashville, Tennessee and WCYB in Bristol. The influence of these groups remains noticeable in Doyle’s music, and it seems most appropriate that the first instrument that Doyle tried to play was the mandolin. His father had borrowed the instrument from Willis Byrd, and Doyle sat in the car outside the church House on a very rainy night, picking away on the mandolin. By the time services were over, he had managed to pick out a tune, which was quite an accomplishment, since it was the first time he had ever held one.
With no one to turn to for help, just learning to tune the mandolin proved most frustrating, but Doyle was not to be denied. He played the 78RPM records his father had bought of Flatt & Scruggs, The Chuck Wagon Gang, and others, and by a long process learned to play a few songs. He met Kyle Trent and J. P. Riley, and was awe-stricken to see them play the mandolin and guitar together.
Jimmy Martin returned to his parent’s home that was just across the river from Doyle’s house in Sneedville, Tennessee for a visit in 1958. Jimmy quickly discovered that the reason Doyle could not play fast was that he was trying to play with his entire arm, instead of playing from his wrist to the tips of his fingers. He taught Doyle how to play tremolo and instructed him to “grab a chord,” and just practice that technique until it came naturally. Doyle’s mandolin playing began to improve immediately, but his constant practice sometimes created a problem within the family. He would be banished to the barn, where he would go over and over the tips that he had received from Jimmy Martin. Jimmy’s interest in Doyle, the lessons on the mandolin, and his dynamic drive, still shows in Doyle’s music.
Doyle had acquired a Silvertone mandolin for $10.00, and he formed a band called The Country Cousins with a first cousin, Kermit Lawson and a third cousin, Wiley Joe Sizemore playing guitars.
Doyle left home at seventeen years of age, and moved to Morristown, Tennessee, where the Country Cousins had a radio show and worked at day jobs. One sincere regret that Doyle talks about is that he did not finish high school and go to college. He always advises young musicians to get their education, then try music. If it doesn’t work out, they will have that education as a very valuable asset.
Doyle was infatuated with music, and had set a personal goal to become a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. He purchased a banjo in July, 1962, because he realized that he would have to play more than one instrument in order to realize his dream. The Country Cousins band became four members when Wiley Joe dropped out. Doyle started playing the banjo, and Kermit switched to mandolin, with Norman Jarvis, guitar, and Woodrow Johnson, bass. Doyle sang mostly baritone and occasional lead at the time.
Jimmy Martin called and asked Doyle to come to Nashville and audition for a job. When Doyle arrived in Nashville by bus about 3:00AM, Jimmy and his wife met him at the Bus Station. When Doyle got in the car. Jimmy said, “Get out your banjo and play ‘Cripple Creek.’”
When Doyle finished, Jimmy said, “you’re hired,” and on February 3,1963, he became Jimmy’s banjo player and baritone singer. He was not prepared for the life of a journeyman musician, and left Jimmy in July, 1963, moving to Louisville, Kentucky. He worked in a machine shop, and later was an assistant manager in a Standard Gas station, playing music when the Union would call, usually on the banjo.
A mutual friend encouraged Doyle to get together with J. D. Crowe, because they had both played banjo with Jimmy Martin. Doyle drove to Lexington, Kentucky on Memorial Day Weekend, 1966, to visit J. D. and “set in” with the group playing guitar and singing lead. A short time later J. D. called, and asked Doyle to fill in on guitar, replacing Ed Stacy who was ill. This became Doyle’s job when Ed was not physically able to return. Doyle would drive from Louisville to Lexington three to four nights per week, finally moving there, where he worked a day job as a shipping clerk, in addition to playing in J. D.’s group. Other members of the group were: Bobby Slone, fiddle and bass, and Gordon Scott, mandolin. They were playing at Martin’s Tavern in Lexington, and had given up their day jobs, when they became the first Bluegrass band to play at a Holiday Inn, moving to that job in 1968. The late Red Alien joined the group while they were at the Holiday Inn North in Lexington, with Doyle moving to mandolin. Doyle had been singing some tenor, but he now became the tenor singer with the group. This band recorded two 45RPM records for King Bluegrass, and one album, (Lemco LLP 609) Bluegrass Holiday, released in 1968. Red did all the lead vocals with Doyle, tenor, J. D. baritone on covers of songs previously recorded by major Bluegrass artists. This album has been rereleased on Rebel SLP 1598, King Bluegrass 5CB424, Donerail 202, and on Country 6001 in Canada.
Doyle left the Crowe band in 1969 and returned to Jimmy Martin, once again hired as the banjo player and baritone singer, but he convinced Jimmy to hire Alan Munde to play banjo, with Doyle moving to mandolin. Doyle never recorded while a member of Jimmy’s band, but since he had rehearsed the material, he did return later to record twenty four songs with the group.
When Doyle left Jimmy Martin the second time, J. D. Crowe called and asked him to play guitar, do most of the lead singing and front the band. Doyle was skeptical, as he had never been a lead singer or emcee before, but J. D. insisted, and he agreed to give it a try. When he returned to the group, Larry Rice was playing mandolin, J. D., banjo, and Bobby Slone, fiddle and bass. This combination of musicians became one of the most influential Bluegrass bands of all time. They recorded two albums for Lemco Records that were released in 1971. The Model Church, an all gospel album, was Doyle’s first gospel album, and included songs that he had learned from his father. They continued to play at the Holiday Inn, traveled the new Bluegrass festival circuit when possible, played in New York on the Dick Cavett TV program, and went to Florida, where J. D. Bobby and Doyle, portrayed a Bluegrass band in the movie, “Fury on Wheels.”
On August 30, 1971 three very influential musicians changed bands. Jimmy Gaudreau left the Country Gentlemen to join The Country Store, Doyle replaced him, playing mandolin and singing tenor, and Tony Rice joined J. D. Crowe. Doyle was a natural for the Country Gentlemen, as his voice blended well with Charlie Waller, Bill Emerson, and Bill Yates. The first album that they recorded was (Rebel 1506) The Award Winning Country Gentlemen, and it quickly showed the fans of the Gentlemen that their sound was intact and in very good hands. Doyle stayed with the group for seven and one-half years, becoming a full partner with Charlie Waller and Bill Yates. He had considered joining the Navy with Bill Emerson, but decided that he just couldn’t leave the people who had supported him and his music for so long. The Rebel album SLP 1559, Joe’s Last Train, contained the song; “Lord, Don’t Leave Me Here,” that was Doyle’s first a cappella recording, and the first for the Country Gentlemen. The gospel LP (Rebel SLP 1574) Calling My Children Home showed much of Doyle’s influence in the form of several songs he had learned from his father.
The success that Doyle had with the Country Gentlemen made the thought of leaving and starting his own band terrifying, but he knew that he had to leave in order to do what he wanted to do musically. When Doyle eventually departed, it was on the friendliest of terms. He remains close friends with those men with whom he played as a member of the Country Gentlemen.
The first band that Doyle put together had Lou Reid, electric bass, lead and tenor vocals, Jimmy Haley, guitar, lead, baritone vocals, and Terry Baucom, banjo, bass vocals. Doyle was very flexible in his own vocal assignments, singing whatever part was necessary to produce the best vocal sound. The band first used the name Foxfire, but when Lawson found that this already in use, the change to Quicksilver occurred. The band started on April 2, 1979, and they played their first show on May 11, 1979 at Knoxville, Tennessee’s Down Home. They traveled over the mountain to a festival in South Carolina and then returned to the Down Home for a second night.
Doyle reached a recording agreement with Sugar Hill Records and made the first recordings in August, 1979. Their eponymous first release (SH-3708) took the Bluegrass world by storm, receiving acclaim throughout the industry. The “Doyle Lawson Sound” was established, and though there have been changes in personnel, that sound remains in place today. Lou Reid left, and was replaced by Randy Graham, playing bass, singing tenor and lead. Jimmy, Terry and Randy left in 1985, replaced by Russell Moore, guitar, alternate lead and tenor, Curtis Vestal, bass, bass vocals, and Scott Vestal, banjo, baritone vocals. When Curtis departed, Doyle’s long time friend. Ray Deaton, stepped in playing and singing bass. When Scott decided to leave. Jimmy Mills came on board as the banjo player and baritone singer on October 1, 1988. Doyle hired Mike Hartgrove as his fiddle player in August, 1989.
Mike, Ray and Russell left on April 15, 1990, and replaced by John R. Bowman on guitar, alternate lead and tenor vocals, while Shelton Feazell became the bass player and bass singer. The first record release for Doyle, Shelton, Jimmy and John, was SSK001, Only God, and it showed Doyle still had the touch when it came to selecting personnel for his band. The group also recorded SSK002, Merry Christmas From Our House To Your House, released in late December, 1991. Two Cassette Tapes appeared in July, 1992; (SSK 003) Pressing On regardless (Bluegrass) and (SSK 004) Journey To The Son (Bluegrass Gospel). These four releases were the first for Doyle’s own Record Company, and it is important to note that “SSK” stands for; Suzanne, Suzi and Kristi, his wife and daughters.
Doyle then signed with Brentwood Bluegrass in Nashville, Tennessee, who released SSK 003 and 004, on Compact Discs, in late 1992. The Journey To The Son tape will be retitled Treasures Money Can’t Buy, for a song written by Dee Gaskin of Battle Ground, Indiana.
Doyle Lawson is a very religious person, as is strongly reflected in his daily life and in the many Gospel recordings that he has made. He never fails to thank his Lord and Saviour on each show just for the privilege of being there to play his music. He and his wife Suzanne, who were married on June 24, 1978, and their daughters attend church in their home town of Bristol, Tennessee whenever possible. Suzi and Kristi were featured performers in their church’s Christmas program on December 24, 1991. Doyle has a son, Robby, by a previous marriage, who lives in Morristown, Tennessee, where he is a manager for Domino’s Pizza.
Doyle Lawson has been the most dominant figure in Bluegrass Music during the 1980s, and many of the young, upcoming Bluegrass musicians, credit Doyle with much influence on their music. Through his years as a “Sideman,” he studied the music, learned how to operate a band as a business, and molded his God given talents into the fine, finished product we enjoy today. He has played five instruments on recordings; mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass, in his career that now spans four decades. A very active member of The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), he has served three terms on its Board of Directors, representing Artists and Composers.
Doyle and band have received three “Master’s Gold Awards” from SPBGMA; “Bluegrass mandolin Of The Year” (1986-1990), “Gospel Bluegrass Band Of The Year (Contemporary)” (1986-1990), “Bluegrass Band Of The Year (vocally)” (1984-1988). He received another honor to add to his long list in 1988, when he was installed in SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats.