Imagine creating an album where you play duets with all of your guitar heroes. On Not Too Far From The Tree, Bryan Sutton does exactly that. Now, if you or I tried this we probably wouldn’t get much further than the first measure before it became quite obvious that we were musically outclassed. But Sutton happens to be one of the best acoustic guitarists in Nashville and, judging by this effort, he has no trouble keeping up with the best of the best.
This project began late in 2004, when Sutton compiled a list of guitarists who most influenced his playing, and began to make recordings with them. In every case, he counted them as friends and professional cohorts, so arranging the sessions wasn’t all that difficult. But instead of booking a studio, Sutton recorded them on location, in their own environments. He put together a high-end (but minimalist) portable recording rig that used only three channels with three microphones recorded directly onto an Alesis ADAT-XT. All sessions were done with no overdubbing, but with some editing from multiple takes. Sutton’s goal was “to capture as much interplay between the guitars as possible,” he told VG. And unlike studio recordings, which are mixed so the solo is in the foreground and rhythm is in the background, on Not Too Far From The Tree, both instruments were given equal sonic weight.
The list of Bryan’s duet partners on Not Too Far From The Tree reads like a who’s who of contemporary bluegrass, including Dan Crary, Norman Blake, George Shuffler, Tony Rice, Jerry Sutton (Bryan’s father), Jack Lawrence, David Grier, Russ Barenburg, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Earl Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs. And the list of instruments is equally impressive; you’ll hear Bryan’s 1940 Martin D-28 as well as a 1935 D-28, ’40 D-28, ’39 Martin D-18, ’54 D-18, ’56 D-18, and ’45 Gibson J-45. Naturally, Doc Watson plays his signature Gallagher.
Most of the material consists of bluegrass and fiddle-tune standards. All pop up regularly in jams, but as you might guess, seldom do they sound like this. From the first few measures of “Forked Deer” to the final chord in “Ragtime Annie” you’ll hear enough variations to keep you woodshedding for a couple of years. Every time I play this disc for a guitarist, after a few minutes all they can do is shake their head.
Each of the guest players has a unique style and sound. Sutton’s is harder to pin down; his technique allows him to alter his style to fit with his partner. When he plays with David Grier or Tony Rice, it can be very difficult to determine who exactly it is you’re hearing in a particular channel or on a particular lead. Often, I could tell only by the sound of each guitar, not by the notes each musician chose. And just to make it more difficult, Sutton isn’t always on the left side, nor is he always the second solo. Fortunately, the sonics on Not Too Far From The Tree are so good that in all cases each guitar does sound different. Even when Jack Lawrence and Sutton both play their 1940 Martin D-28s, the two sound sufficiently distinct.
Compared with other acoustic duet projects such as David Grisman’s Tone Poems or Tone Poets, Not Too Far From The Tree has a more relaxed, less academic feel. Recording in the artists’ environments, combined with the personal relationships, likely has much to do with the album’s musically intimate perspective. It’s a simple concept – two players playing old standards they’ve done thousands of times. But when the players are this good, the result is an album as essential as Will The Circle Be Unbroken. As a guitarist or fan of guitar music, do you need this album? You bet your axe.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.