Steve Sutton: A master of mountain musicWhitewater Bluegrass Co. to play this Saturday
When it comes to music, humor and pleasing a crowd, it’s hard to beat Whitewater Bluegrass Company. Now in its 30th year, WBC is one of the most popular regional bluegrass bands around.
WBC founder Ted White was a Buncombe County boy with ties to Haywood who listened to Grammy-award winner David Holt’s advice while a student at Warren Wilson College. Holt headed up the school’s Appalachian Studies program.
“David told me to spend more time with my grandfather — to get him to tell me about square dancing and square dance calling,” White said.
A few years later WBC was born, and “Uncle Ted” White’s bluegrass baby grew into one of the most successful bands in the area. The third-generation square dance caller accepted an invitation last year to call dances at the 25th anniversary of the prestigious MerleFest, begun by the legendary guitar flat-picker Doc Watson in memory of his son Merle who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985. Watson died last week.
“I’m so glad I had that opportunity,” White said the day after Watson’s death. “Next year the whole band is going to MerleFest.”
WBC has had a slew of good banjo players through the years, including Anita Pruett before she was Anita Pruett, and then her husband, Grammy award-winner Marc Pruett of Haywood County.
But there is none better anywhere than the one WBC has now — Waynesville native Steve Sutton. His lightning-fast licks drive the versatile band’s tempos and his smile lights up a stage.
Sutton has played banjo with everybody from bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs to Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Entwistle of The Who. An exciting and innovative guitar player, one of Sutton’s European tours had him demonstrating guitars he helped design.
Sutton’s musical chops stood out even when he was teenager. After graduating from Tuscola High School in 1974, he traded cap and gown for the limelight of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and planned to stay there. His mother, Bonnie, had other ideas.
In a recent interview at the comfortable Waynesville home Sutton and his mother share, he settled into his big leather chair and explained: “I had a full scholarship to any college in North Carolina that my SATs qualified me for, and she called me in Nashville and said I needed to come home to decide where I was going to school. I told her I didn’t want to go to college — I was playing on the Grand Ole Opry!”
His mother sitting nearby shook her head as Sutton laughed heartily and then continued: “She said, ‘Well, if you’re thinking that way, you’re coming home.’’’
Western Carolina University was his choice primarily because of its proximity to Nashville. He kept his Grand Ole Opry job and managed to find time to march with WCU’s Pride of the Mountains marching band. He was a music major. The trumpet was his instrument.
Retired WCU music professor R. R. “Dick” Trevarthen of Waynesville remembers him.
“He was a wonderful musician,” Trevarthen said.
Sutton changed his major from music to marketing and business late in the game, and Trevarthen said he knew instinctively that Sutton was going to succeed.
“He was already performing successfully,” said the professor. “He didn’t need a degree in music.”
Trevarthen said he has followed Sutton’s career through the years.
Sutton’s mother, a spry 84, spoke of some of her own special memories.
“Steven played the banjo with the Tuscola marching band,” she said.
Sutton picked up the story: “Jim Crocker (long-time Tuscola band director) said, ‘Let’s put you in a band uniform and we’ll blow them away in St. Petersburg (site of that year’s national competition).’’’
Crocker commissioned Trevarthen and Waynesville native Bob Buckner to design a show around Sutton and his bluegrass buddies. The Tuscola Marching Band took it and them to Florida and won every trophy on the field.
A child prodigy, Sutton started with his father’s autoharp while recuperating from rheumatic fever.
“It just came easy to me,” he said. “When I watched Raymond Fairchild play banjo, I told Mother and Daddy that I thought I could do that.”
Taylor and Bonnie Sutton bought him a banjo in the winter and by summer he was playing with Fairchild for tourists on the side of the road in Maggie Valley.
That led to a show in Gatlinburg with Earl Scruggs and a television appearance in Knoxville. Sutton was then a seventh-grader at Waynesville Jr. High School. Later, when his 17-year-old pals were worrying about whether or not they could have the car on Saturday night, Sutton was deciding between a summer job with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe or signing on with the “King of Bluegrass” Jimmy Martin.
“Bill Monroe was appearing in Hiwassee so I told Daddy that I was going down there and ask him for a job,” Sutton said, explaining that he thought his father would take him to Georgia. “But Daddy said, ‘If you’re man enough to ask Bill Monroe for a job, you’re man enough to read a road map.’ So I drove down there and Bill made me an offer.”
When Jimmy Martin trumped it, Sutton went for the bigger paycheck. He was off and running with “Mr. Good ‘N Country.”
Sutton’s mother enjoys sharing memories. Her house is a real home, filled chock-a-block with framed photographs, each with a story.
“Doesn’t he look good in this one?” she asked, holding up a picture of a younger Steve Sutton with Roy Clark of “Hee Haw” fame. Sutton appeared often on the popular TV show which starred Clark and Buck Owens.
Steve Sutton is the well-known half of the Sutton-Sutton team, but his mother has her own fan club.
White put it this way: “There were a lot of us who would have starved to death if it hadn’t been for Bonnie Sutton.”
“She’s fed everybody from Bill Monroe to Ronnie Milsap,” her son said. “She likes to cook.”
Sutton enjoyed being on the road. He toured the world with Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Vincent, dubbed the “Queen of Bluegrass” by the Wall Street Journal in an article that also singled out Sutton for his performance, was IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year six years in a row. Those in the know credit Sutton with putting her on the charts.
“Steve created Rhonda Vincent’s sound with the Rage,” said one. “She wouldn’t have achieved what she did if it hadn’t been for Steve Sutton helping her early on.”
Sutton is also an IBMA winner for his work on albums benefiting St. Jude’s Hospital.
His extended bluegrass family thinks he is something special.
“He’s the most versatile banjo player on the planet,” said Darren Nicholson, mandolin player with today’s super-hot band Balsam Range. “I never knew a better band player, entertainer, teammate or one to back up a singer. He can make a singer shine. And he’s a barrel of fun. I got to travel all over with him and he’s very proud of Western North Carolina and his musical roots.”
Nicholson features Sutton in his own group, the Darren Nicholson Band.
Sutton’s an extraordinary talent with an entertainer’s personality. And he’s savvy.
“If Steve lived in Nashville, he could be playing day and night with anybody he wanted to,” said White.
But for now Sutton is content being back home in Waynesville where it all started, so he can make sure his widowed mother is living a good life. Their love and respect for each other is inspiring to watch.
Whether playing music in the capitals of Europe or planting flowers in his mother’s flower beds, the affable Sutton is comfortable with who he is. His spotlight smile lets his audience know that he’s in a good place in his life. “The highest compliment I can have is when somebody tells me I look like I’m having fun,” he said. “Because I am.”
Whitewater Bluegrass Company will appear in Waynesville this Saturday night at the Shelton House Barn and grounds on Pigeon Street, beginning at 7 p.m. Bass player“Uncle Ted” White will be calling square dances, with Bill Byerly on guitar, Gary Mackey on fiddle, Dave Pendley on mandolin, and Steve Sutton on banjo. The Shelton House evening is free and family-friendly. For more information, call 452-1551 or visit www.sheltonhouse.org for more information.