The dream came to Doyle Lawson as a child.
As it unfolded, he was on a bandstand playing and singing bluegrass. The details weren't always apparent. But then, they didn't need to be. The crystal clear intent of his dream compensated.
"I remember when my head would hit the pillow, I would imagine I was on stage with a band, a bluegrass band," said the veteran singer, mandolinist and, yes, bandleader, who returns to Lexington as one of this weekend's featured performers at The Festival of the Bluegrass. "Of course, the players I was with were faceless and nameless, but I was in a band. That's what mattered."
In a career that has spanned nearly half a century, Lawson has played with some of the forefathers of bluegrass, including Jimmy Martin and the early lineups of The Country Gentlemen. Since forming the first version of his Quicksilver band in 1978, he defined his music with unwavering gospel inspiration and ensemble harmonies as well as band personnel who have graduated to usher in a succeeding bluegrass generation.
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Among the names that passed through the Quicksilver ranks: Jamie Dailey (from current International Bluegrass Music Association entertainer and vocal group of the year Dailey & Vincent), Steve Gulley (longtime Renfro Valley and Mountain Heart artist, now with Grasstowne), Russell Moore (founding member of IIIrd Tyme Out), Lou Reid (currently of Seldom Scene) and many others.
"I've had my own group now for 30 years," Lawson said. "All the guys that have come through and gone on fill me with a great sense of pride. I know they're not trying to play my music. But there's a certain discipline about what they do. There is no mistaking where that came from just as I came out of the Jimmy Martin school and learned from that.
"All of this is good for the music. It's necessary to keep bluegrass going."
During the early '60s, Lawson went in search of string sounds in Louisville but was surprised by the lack of bluegrass in that corner of the Bluegrass. By 1966, he took a look around Lexington and met another Martin alumnus starting a band called the Kentucky Mountain Boys. At its helm was a banjo-playing phenomenon named J.D. Crowe (who also will be featured at The Festival of the Bluegrass). During their collaborative years, Lawson and Crowe discovered the joys of a steady bluegrass gig — namely, residency at a North Limestone haunt called Martin's Tavern.
"Up there at Seventh and Limestone with J.D. I had more fun playing bluegrass than at any other place or in any other situation," Lawson says.
"In those days, we had to work day jobs and play music as much as we could. Most every bluegrass musician did. But when we played Martin's, the UK kids would just pack in like sardines. And we played whatever we wanted to play — Flatt & Scruggs and (Bill) Monroe, especially. We didn't have to worry at that point about being an artist or a stylist in our own right. We were just there doing the music that we loved. There was no pressure.
"Later on, when we decided to take the music on the road, we realized we couldn't go out on the circuit and play Flatt & Scruggs and Monroe songs. They were still out there. J.D. knew you can't beat a man at his own game. So we began working on our own styles."
Today, after more than 40 years and 14 IBMA awards — half of which were for vocal group of the year — Lawson leads a confident string band sound that continues to evolve.
On his newly released album Lonely Street (his 34th Quicksilver recording), Lawson takes a detour into Western swing on the instrumental Down Around Bear Cove, while his band's familiar vocal harmonies soar on Call Me Up and I'll Come Callin' on You, a 1954 hit by the late country songsmith Marty Robbins.
"I heard Chet Atkins say one time that he hoped he would never wake up someday and say, 'Well, I've learned everything I can learn about a guitar,'" Lawson says. "In the same way, I always want to be doing something new and creative. Mr. Monroe was a testament to that. He always loved his craft. He cared about it. It was a comfort to him.
"That's my approach to the music, too. I don't ever want to stop being creative or productive. When that happens, you will see Mr. Lawson getting off the road."