SULLIVAN, Ind.—Solly Burton first entered the National Mandolin Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., in 2007. He was just 16 years old and had no intention of leaving the competition with bragging rights and an $8,000 prize instrument. He just went “for fun, to meet new people and get ideas.”
Burton didn’t even put a set list together. He just picked a couple of songs he enjoyed playing and asked another friend at the festival to accompany him on guitar. Burton played like he always does—off the cuff, no sheet music, improvising and having fun. Even in the midst of a huge music festival, in a competition open to any age, local amateur or international professional, Burton said he wasn’t nervous. He was playing mandolin for the same reason he does anything else—because it’s a gift from God he enjoys.
But when the microphones picked up the music Burton’s hands effortlessly wove together and sent the sound anonymously to judges listening through headphones in a trailer across the festival grounds, it was obvious Burton wasn’t just enjoying a gift from God—he was living it out.
To Burton’s disbelief, the judges moved him to the final round with four others, eventually crowning him the best mandolin player in the nation. He entered the contest again in 2011 and successfully defended his title as national champion.
“To win it again, it was just unbelievable,” Burton said. “It’s an honor just to be at the contest.”
Judges and spectators might not have expected a country boy who spends as much time hunting and fishing as he does playing—Burton said he never “practices”—to compete at such a high level. But the talented young musician homeschooled from middle school through high school is full of surprises. He’s never heard of the group Mumford and Sons, even if it plays folk and bluegrass, two of his favorite genres of music. When asked what he thought of news that Chris Tomlin’s latest album topped the pop music charts in January, the music business student at Indiana State University (ISU) looked puzzled and asked, “Who’s Chris Tomlin?”
But Burton, 21, said he does like popular music—but from the 1930s—mostly jazz and swing standards. He plays what he listens to and picks out classics every Sunday at Graysville United Methodist Church, at the intersection of Indiana state roads 63 and 154 near Sullivan, Ind., across from Fast Jack’s Marathon gas station.
“If you blink, you’ll miss it,” Burton said when giving directions to Graysville.
The same could almost be said about the talented musician himself. Every Sunday morning, clad in flannel shirt, jeans, and boots, Burton sits between his father, Barney, who plucks a double bass, and Scott Snyder, who fingerpicks a guitar and sings along. The trio doesn’t have a song board. Burton just reads the number off a sticky note. While the congregation turns to the appropriate page in the hymnal, Burton plays through the melody, adding trills and embellishments when it’s necessary, strumming chords when it’s not.
The church is clean and bright, but in following what seems to be a trend in country churches across the fruited plain, attendance is down. Burton’s father is discouraged and worried, but he and his son still enjoy playing classics like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Standing on the Promises.” The congregation is nowhere near the size of the crowds Burton often plays for, but that doesn’t matter. He’s playing for his Creator, not the people in front of him.
The little white church in the tiny country town is a good setting for Burton, who seems to somehow find an advantage in every situation. He never advertises for the gigs he plays or for the lessons he teaches. “These things have always fallen into Solly’s lap,” his father pointed out.
While the world calls it luck and coincidence, Burton and his father know the blessings are answers to prayer and providence.
In 2011, on a whim, Burton and two friends entered the Indiana State Picking and Fiddling Contest in Princeton, Ind. They ended up taking home the $1,000 first prize. A Chicago bluegrass group that shelled out money for gas and hotel rooms and showed up dressed in suits wasn’t too happy when it lost to a group of teenage country boys, but Burton was able to find the humor in the outcome. “Three of us, $330 a piece, that was hilarious,” said Burton with a smile, knowing that he would have had fun, regardless of who won the money.
Although Burton, who is now a senior at ISU, spent most of his homeschooled adolescence on the farm, raising chickens and shooting glass bottles in the lane, he started his college career with 25 credit hours. He also tested out of the first three semesters of music theory, two years of what any music student will attest to being very grueling and demanding instruction.
To bring in a little extra cash, Burton plays gigs three or four times a month. While he could advertise and work with an agent to travel the country and bring in a lot more money, Burton doesn’t want to turn his hobby into work. He limits his gigs to local venues and often plays with Brent McPike, an ISU professor who serves not only as his mentor on the mandolin, but also as his fishing and other outdoor activity buddy.
Burton also earns extra money passing his talent and love for the mandolin on to the next generation. He has four students, three who come to his house and one in Ohio who takes lessons via Skype. Unlike his own teacher, Burton doesn’t force his students to read music. Instead, he uses methods like “listen and learn” and “point and play,” where he encourages them to translate what they hear between their ears to the neck of the mandolin.
“If I can hum it, I can play it,” Burton said, and his goal is for his students to do the same.
As one of the best mandolin players in the country, Burton could follow in the footsteps of other musical prodigies like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and become a star, especially since Bluegrass has broken into the mainstream. But Burton isn’t interested in fame.
When he’s 25, Burton will be eligible for a third straight title at the National Mandolin Championship. By then, bluegrass and some of its stars may have faded off the pop charts, but Burton will still be finding more joy than most in music, no matter who’s listening.