“The goal,” Bryan Sutton says with admirable economy, “was to try to make a record that only I could make.” And, indeed, even a cursory listen is enough to establish that Into My Own, his fourth album for Sugar Hill Records, fulfills that goal—and does it in a way that reflects not just the instrumental virtuosity that his admirers have come to expect, but also the spirit and sensibilities of a musician intent on challenging himself to grow in every way. For those who think of him as “just” one of the best acoustic guitarists around, Into My Own will come as an unexpected revelation, while for those who’ve been following his evolution at least since 2009’s Almost Live, it deserves welcome as the culmination of a remarkable musical growth spurt—rich, varied, and, just as he says, a record that only he could make.
Yet if Into My Own distills the essence of Sutton’s recent work, which has included producing bluegrass quintet Della Mae’s Grammy-nominated This World Oft Can Be; performing with long-time Doc Watson associates David Holt and T. Michael Coleman; touring with iconic bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, appearances on recordings by artists as varied as Peter Rowan, Dailey & Vincent, Irene Kelley, Kellie Pickler, Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw—and more—it does so in a particularly pointed way. For what Into My Own does for the first time is present Bryan Sutton, not so much on his own (though there’s a bit of that, too), but as an artist who’s worked his way into a musical place that’s his own, not just as a phenomenal guitarist, but as a songwriter, and as a singer, too.
“I actually cut a lot of the instrumentals almost two and a half years ago,” Sutton confesses. “But I was looking for songs. I had the Guy Clark tune (“Anyhow I Love You”) and “That’s Where I Belong,” but I didn’t feel that was enough. So I got serious in digging around, and in trying to write some of my own. It took that long to feel that I had songs that were unique for me—and for me to feel like I had my voice to where I could put it on a record.”
“Part of it was that I thought I had really done a lot with the session and sideman kinds of things; so I felt, there’s more out there, what is that? And the ‘that’ was, let’s start singing, start trying to get a little more original, and find the music I really can make unto myself. And honestly, I struggled with it some as far as confidence goes. But the idea of it wouldn’t go away, to the point where I thought, I’m going to regret it if I don’t pursue this to some degree. Not that I’m going to jump in a car and start driving around playing coffeehouses, but it was a solid shift from one idea to the next. And as I moved forward, I felt like I was singing better, and the songs were better, and it felt like I had stuff I could bring in that would really complete a legitimate solo record.”
Still, though he focused on more creative dimensions than in the past, Sutton was intent on locating them within a familiar framework. “We work in a music that’s real traditional; it’s based on your study of people that have come before you,” he notes. “And I think there’s a way to recognize that and have that always show up in your music even while you’re putting your own stuff in there. I don’t ever want to get away from playing a fiddle tune in Doc Watson’s style, or even playing pretty much what he played. I just love that, and I want to hear it, and hopefully people who would come to hear me play would want to hear it too. But then there’s the other end, where people want to do it just like Flatt & Scruggs did, and nothing else. As far as originality goes, where I try to find myself is somewhere in the middle of all that—not just in playing, but in writing, too.”
The result is a rounded portrait of a musician who is, indeed, “in the middle of all that,” whether he’s taking the traditional tune shapes woven into original ensemble instrumentals like “Cumberland Reel” or “Log Jam” and giving them an unexpected modern twist or two, assembling a customized solo version of “Been All Around This World” with a story arc that suits his own sensibilities, dishing up a uniquely whimsical arrangement of the old standby, “Cricket On The Hearth” or delivering a spellbinding version of “Watson’s Blues,” a Bill Monroe tip-of-the-hat to Doc written when the father of Sutton’s mandolin-playing partner, Ronnie McCoury, was working for Monroe in the early 1960s.
And indeed, while the solo numbers here—“I like the purity of that, me with one instrument in front of one microphone,” he says—make the case that Sutton’s perfectly capable of assuming that kind of role, part of the delight in listening to Into My Own comes from hearing the proof of his producer’s savvy in picking the right musical partners for each aspect of the album. From the core ensemble of long-time friends and colleagues that plays on half the album to the hard-core bluegrass of the Travelin’ McCourys (with whom Bryan’s done the occasional gig), to the delicious interchange with fellow guitar legend Bill Frisell and acclaimed bassist Dennis Crouch on “Frisell’s Rag” (“that was the one wild card on the record that I was really proud of,” he says with a grin), these are pairings in which mutual respect—and mutual inspiration—can be felt in every note.
“I have to sort of pinch myself sometimes, when I’m in situations with people I’ve listened to on records or on the radio—to be just as intimate and face-to-face as you can be with sounds from people like Doc Watson, who you’ve listened to since you were a kid,” Sutton muses. “I’m surprised, and I try never to take it for granted. I try to be thankful that I’ve made good decisions, that I’ve been blessed to have good parenting, that I’ve been given the lesson that it’s not getting the call to play that counts, it’s getting called back—I try to feel like there’s a certain amount of reasoning behind what I’ve been able to do, without feeling over-confident.”
“That’s one of the lessons of bluegrass,” he concludes. “Nobody gets here by accident. You’ve got to prove yourself, and you’ve got to continue to prove yourself. I’ve absorbed that, and I want to be that way.” And if there’s any doubt that it’s so, Into My Own should resolve it once and for all.