“The More I Learn” by Bryan Sutton

Bryan Sutton
The More I Learn
Sugar Hill Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Hands down, Bryan Sutton is the preeminent contemporary bluegrass guitar player. With clarity, precision, and enthusiasm born of ingenuity and good-taste, he is the ‘go-to’ player within both the bluegrass and Nashville-country studio recording worlds.

Sutton has been named International Bluegrass Music Association Guitarist of the Year nine times including four of the past five years, received a Grammy Award with Doc Watson, and enriched Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder and Hot Rize with his guitar mastery while contributing to albums and/or tours with Dolly Parton, Béla Fleck, Dierks Bentley, Chris Thile, the Dixie Chicks, and many others.

All the while, Sutton has maintained a recording presence, and The More I Learn his sixth project for Sugar Hill Records. While early recordings focused primarily (although not exclusively) on impressive interpretations of familiar instrumentals and fiddle tunes, Sutton has pushed himself on latter albums to develop his songwriting while also presenting himself as a singer. This progression continues with The More I Learn, with seven originals and co-writes and nine songs featuring Sutton in the lead position.

The More I Learn is a very satisfying recording that will appeal to those who have come to appreciate Sutton’s tasteful approach to bluegrass and acoustic music.

“Virginia Creeper,” an original instrumental composition, features some of the most compelling and tasteful flat-picking I’ve encountered of late. Collaborating here with frequent 5-string foil Noam Pikelny as well as Bryan Sutton Band members Casey Campbell (mandolin) and Mike Barnett (fiddle), Sutton takes us on an engaging journey exploring mountain music traditions within modern, acoustic Americana phraseology.

Sutton has chosen to include three solo guitar pieces, a lively take of “Arkansas Traveller” and a thoughtful meditation on “The Secesh,” very different here than in John Hartford’s interpretation. The final solo piece is “Hills For the Head,” a well-constructed song of the necessaries of life, co-written with Jon Randall. Hartford is revisited on the very lovely bass-guitar duo “Presbyterian Guitar.”

Several guests appear throughout the recording. Chris Eldridge accompanies Sutton on five songs, while Pikelny appears on three numbers. Tim O’Brien provides vocal harmony on three songs including on their co-write (with fellow Hot Rize member Nick Forster) “Walkin’ Across the Land.” However, the vast majority of songs feature one or more members of Sutton’s current band, including bassist Sam Grisman.

Of the remaining songs, “Backwater Blues” (from Uncle Dave Macon and Sam McGee) may well be my favourite, although the invigorating “Chase the Moon” (another Randall co-write) featuring Pikelny and O’Brien is also mighty appealing. “Play Me A Record” is a tad sentimental for my liking, but one can’t ignore its significant appeal. The album’s title track features my new mantra: “The more I learn, the more I learn, that I sure got a lot more to learn.” If only more of us remembered that.

Without doubt, Bryan Sutton is an incredible acoustic guitar player, and his talents are on display throughout The More I Learn. What is less well-acknowledged are his abilities as  vocalist, bandleader, and songwriter. With this album and it thirteen gripping pieces, these qualities are markedly apparent.