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Bryan Sutton
Not Too Far From The Tree

Review By Steven Stone
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CD Number: Sugar Hill Records 


  Imagine creating an album where you have the opportunity to play duets with all of your favorite 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 since it would be quite obvious we were musically outclassed.  But Bryan Sutton just happens to be one of the best acoustic guitarists in Nashville, and judging by Not Too Far From The Tree he has no trouble keeping up with the best of the best.

This project began late in 2004. Bryan put together a list of guitarists who influenced his playing the most and began to make recordings with them. In every case he had already played with them during his time in Nashville and counted them as friends, so arranging the sessions wasn't that difficult. But instead of booking a studio Bryan decided to record 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 recorder. All the sessions were done with no overdubbing, but with some editing from multiple takes. Brian's goal "was to capture as much interplay between the guitars as possible." Unlike studio recordings, which are mixed so the solo is in the foreground and the rhythm 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. The list of instruments played on Not Too Far From The Tree is equally impressive. You'll hear Bryan's 1940 Martin D-28 as well as a 1935 D-28, 1940 D-28, 1939 Martin D-18, 1954 D-18, 1956 D-18, and 1945 Gibson J-45. Naturally Doc Watson plays his signature Gallagher guitar. Most of the material on Not Too Far From The Tree 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 wood-shedding for a couple of years. Every time I play this CD for a guitarist, after a few minutes all they can do is shake his head.

Each of the guest players on Not Too Far From The Tree has a unique musical style and sound. Bryan Sutton's style is harder to pin down. His technique allows him to alter his playing style chameleon-like to fit with his duet partners. When Bryan plays with David Grier or Tony Rice, determining who is who can be very difficult. Often I could tell only by the sound of each guitar, not by the notes each musician chose to play. Just to make it more difficult Bryan 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 is playing his 1940 Martin D-28 and Bryan is playing his 1940 D-28, the two guitars sound sufficiently distinct so that on a high-end stereo you can tell them apart.

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 and less academic feeling. I suspect that recording in the guest artists' own environments as well as Bryan's personal relationships with each artist has a lot to do with the album's looser and more musically intimate perspective. It's a simple concept - two players sitting together playing old standards they have done thousands of times before during their careers. But when the players are as good as this, the result is an album as essential as Will the Circle be Unbroken. Do you need this album? You bet your life you do.




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