In 2005, acoustic guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton took his 1940 Martin D-28 and a recording rig to visit some friends and play some old favorites. The result is this appropriately-titled Not Too Far from the Tree: A Collection of Guitar Duets with Heroes & Friends. The 33-year-old Sutton wears his influences proudly, and the album is a well-crafted and heartfelt tribute to the 12 best living bluegrass pickers, including Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Earl Scruggs.
Most bluegrass fans will be familiar with the album’s song selections — traditional tunes homespun with a handful of bluegrass standards. This genre’s genteel sensibility is aptly reflected in the duets’ cordial sincerity. Each song displays the rapport of a conversation between friends. One needn’t be a guitar aficionado to appreciate the interaction, and the album’s 50 minutes pass amiably.
An important component of the album is Sutton’s liner notes, which describe the song selection, the recording location, and the guitars played. Sutton also provides a brief history of how he met these heroes and friends, and explains which elements of each player’s style he particularly admires. For Rice, it is his power and tone, and, indeed, Rice’s fluidity is unmistakable. His ringing fret board explorations make “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” and “Dusty Miller” album highlights. It is clear why Sutton chose Rice for two song selections.
Watson’s flatpicking genius is a seminal element of the bluegrass style of guitar, and his rhythmic groove on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” gives the song a tangible air of fun, reinforced by his mid-song vocalizations of “Uh-huh!” and “Yeah!” Though Scruggs is credited with “inventing” the roll of bluegrass banjo, his guitar in “Give Me the Roses” is more delicate than driving, more spacious than speedy. Scruggs and Sutton’s proficiency make it easy to forget that this is a duet by two gentlemen who differ in age by 50 years, playing instruments that are 40 to 60 years old. There’s a lone Dobro within the 12 acoustic guitars played on the album, and Jerry Douglas’ take on “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is expressively lyrical — the resonance of his slide seems to sing the song’s words.
Those accompanists who fall on the more “peer” than “legend” end of the spectrum — say, Russ Barenberg, Jack Lawrence, and Dan Crary — are also showcased with equal reverence. The album even includes a recording of the first song Sutton was taught, “Billy in the Lowground”, captured as a duet with his father in the living room of the house where the younger Sutton grew up and spent many hours practicing.
There’s a very warm sound to these recordings and, under the scrutiny of headphones, the listener can better enjoy the natural blend of the guitars and the delightful tone of some legendary instruments — namely, Rice’s 1935 Martin D-28 and the 1939 Martin D-18 that Norman Blake once immortalized in song. These are live takes with no overdubbing. There is only one slight catch to an otherwise very natural and genuine recording process: Sutton’s liner notes explain that he edited some of the “best” moments together from a few takes of each song.
Sutton has appeared on recordings by Dolly Parton, The Dixie Chicks, Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, and Rhonda Vincent. Not Too Far from the Tree: A Collection of Guitar Duets with Heroes & Friends gives him the justifiable opportunity to step to the forefront of an album, while presenting a tribute to — and celebration of — bluegrass guitars and guitarists.