David Peterson probably isn't ready to be labeled as "the quiet man" of bluegrass and country roots music. But when performing solo concerts, which comprise roughly one-third of his touring schedule, he can understand how such a reference makes the rounds.
"I heard something about that when I was playing solo recently," said Peterson, who returns to Lexington on Tuesday for a performance at Willie's Locally Known.
"They said what they heard was quiet music. Not that everything in these shows is slow and contemplative, but it is mostly solo guitar. So 'quiet' is a pretty good description. Actually, I think the practice of being quiet is a good thing. We could all use some more of that."
These days, Peterson leads a triple life as an artist. His first and most established persona is as a bluegrass stylist. He leads the bluegrass troupe 1946, which is devoted exclusively to traditional music or works inspired by it. In fact, if you were new to the songs on the band's third and finest album, 2005's In the Mountaintops to Roam, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a Mac Wiseman cover, a Peterson original or a traditional tune.
"I'm from about 30 miles south of Boston, in a little town called Easton," Peterson said. "So I first heard bluegrass from people I went to church with. There was a deacon there who played banjo. His sons were my age, so I found myself over at their house and heard them playing bluegrass in their living room. That was 34 years ago. That's when I decided I wanted to play the banjo. One thing led to another, and I started learning upright bass, mandolin and then guitar. Guitar is what I play mostly these days. I didn't know I would do that for a living, that's for certain. But I was obsessed with the music. Anybody I know will tell you that.
"When it came to bluegrass, I like it traditional. I like Bill Monroe, I like Flatt & Scruggs. I like a lot of the first-generation guys. The other stuff that really inspired me was the old American gospel music. That stuff speaks to me."
Peterson also fronts a band devoted to equally roots-driven country music. That seems perhaps inevitable given that he moved to Nashville at the encouragement of a friend.
"His name was Scott Miller, and he had started playing guitar for Terri Clark, the country artist. He told me, 'You need to check this place out.' I was 28 and single, and didn't have anything tying me down, so I moved there in 1995."
Initial lineups of Peterson's 1946 band (named for the year Monroe cut his first bluegrass records) included future all-stars Mike Compton and Aubrey Haynie. By the time of the band's second album, 2003's The Howling Blue Winds, Peterson and his band had joined forces with the hit country duo Brooks & Dunn for their Neon Circus Tour.
The retro attitude of 1946 was unwavering. It extended to the clothes band members wore onstage and to the performance practice of the ensemble singing around a single microphone.
Peterson's solo concerts began about three years ago as much out of economic necessity as artistic exploration.
"I started doing some things, just branching out and experimenting," he said. "But I also had some shows in Canada. I decided I didn't want to take a band to those just because of the distance and the overhead. One thing led to another, and I found out that I liked doing the solo shows. I was also good at doing them. These days you have to do a lot of different things. The lay of the land is a little different for musicians."
Peterson's solo shows today aren't as roots-based as his concerts with 1946. He might cover contemporary works by James Taylor or pop-turned-country songsmith Dan Seals. There is also a far-reaching collection of original works from his forthcoming solo record, Simplicity, a record equally invested with the "quiet" attitude, from which to draw.
"A lot of the songs on that record were things I found myself up in the middle of the night playing when nobody was around, just stuff that speaks to me and moves me. Of course, when you're a musician, you find yourself up in the middle of the night a lot. You keep strange hours. These are things ranging from bluegrass to country-folk and gospel. It's just stuff that I like, stuff that is an expression of what I do by myself."
IF YOU GO
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 3
Where: Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway
Learn more: (859) 281-1116, Willieslex.com