Are Country Bassists Worth Listening To?

I recently came across a question on the r/Bass subreddit asking simply, “Any [country] bassists worth listening to?”

There were a few responses disparaging bass playing within the genre, and there certainly weren’t a lot of people coming forward with names of players. I wanted to chime in and defend a genre I have come to like (from an initial position of complete disdain), but I didn’t have many examples of bass playing that I felt would impress folks into Vulfpeck and Jaco.

My best response was, “Edgar Meyer” because he is a beastly double bassist, but he’s not typical of country players (he’s not typical of anything). This got me thinking about how musicianship works in genres that aren’t idiomatically complex and what it means to be an impressive musician within a less flashy genre.

Relative complexity

The common denigration of country bass playing is that it’s just lots of 1 – 5, everything is harmonically simple and there are few complex rhythms. There is an interesting question here of how we perceive musical complexity and virtuosity. There are two important things to consider here,

  • In most popular music the bass plays a supporting role
  • Complexity is very much relative

There is very little virtuosity in bass playing for popular music when you compare it to what is demanded of players in much classical music and some non-Western popular forms. This is not just limited to bass, it applies equally to guitar, drums, keyboards and brass too.

There are a few genres where virtuosic playing is important to the idiom, fusion/contemporary jazz would be a prominent example. It is interesting to look at the career arc of the amazing Anthony Jackson in terms of developing virtuosity. Early in his career, he created a classic baseline for the O’Jays For The Love Of Money. It’s a great hook for the song, so good in fact that he was given a songwriting credit for the track.

He went on to work on some great albums for the likes of Chaka Khan and Steely Dan. He ended up playing jazz in small bands with players like Michel Petrucciani and Hiromi playing beautifully complex lines that are undeniably virtuosic. It is hard for me to say if he has ever done anything more exciting than what he played for the O’Jays in 1973.

There is always something more complex to compare to. Even extended harmonic language and shifting polyrhythmic textures can be made ever more challenging and there are always more extended techniques to employ. Berio’s ‪Sequenza XIVb for Double Bass tries to explore the edges of what you can do with a double bass but there is always more out there.

Examples of good bassists

So back in the relatively simple style of country music are there any good players? Very much so. Lots of players who have at least dabbled in country have been lauded in lists of influential players in bass magazines: Bob Moore, Junior Huskey, Billy Linneman, Roy Huskey Jr., Edgar Meyer, Glenn Worf, David Hungate, Michael Rhodes, Dave Pomeroy, Mike Brignardello, Larry Paxton, Gary Lunn, Tommy Sims, Craig Nelson, Gary Tallent, Mike Bub, Mike Chapman.

These people played well within the genre they were working in. It is part of why they played well that they served the songs they were working on. The usual role of the bass is to support and even players who create a more prominent voice successfully still serve the song within the genre. For me, examples of this would be John Entwistle in The Who and Jaco Pastorius (most of the time). Entwistle’s playing filled a lot of sonic space giving the band a power they wouldn’t have otherwise had as a trio and Jaco’s playing was (almost always) so tight and rhythmically precise that he drove songs forward and created freedom for those working with him. Both still served the song along with all the bells and whistles they brought to the table.

Feel and pocket

Country bass developed (at least in part) from bluegrass where most bands played without a drummer. The double bass filled the bass drum role with the mandolin playing chop chords where the snare would be. The genre has developed a lot from the days of Flatt and Scruggs but the roots are still there.

Country, seems to me, to be a very story driven genre. Many songs have a strong narrative that develops through the piece. This requires the vocal to lead and importantly to be heard. This is not unique to country, but in other popular genres a linear narrative seems less ubiquitous. In this context simpler arrangements work better than more complex ones.

If what you are doing is simple you need to do it very well to be effective. Most good players within genres like country live in the pocket and lock tight with the drummer. This is one of those things that gets mentioned a lot as something bassists should do. Everyone nods their head and agrees but then so many players struggle with it and carry on turning up the tempo on their metronomes.

This is by no means unique to country, but because the genre tends to be fairly simple harmonically (diatonic chords or simple modulations) and rhythmically (4/4, 3/4 or 6/8 with few meter changes and simple rhythms) there is room to hear the subtleties. There is a kind of nakedness in the style that makes a player with poor feel stand out more than if everyone is blazing away playing quintuplets and septuplets over shifting meters and changing mode every half bar.

If it’s easy why aren’t you doing it?

This brings me back to a common disparagement of the genre; the bass playing is so simple anyone could do it. Country music is very popular. In terms of album sales, it is more popular than pop in the US and only behind rock and R&B. If you feel this lucrative genre is so easy to play why aren’t you in Nashville making a fortune?

I know that’s not an entirely fair question. There are things that go in to making a successful session player beyond facility on the instrument, but Nashville is a business town. The producers who work there are always looking for the best players they can get for any session. The people who work regularly in that town are all very good players indeed. They may also be persistent, amenable, hard working and even lucky, but before anything else, they can flat-out play.

So, to answer the question: Yes, there are lots of country bass players worth listening to, but what you listen for might be different than in genres that are a bit more explicitly virtuosic.

Featured image: It’s a Stetson! by davidd is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Making Music With Depression

I started seriously pursuing music in my mid-teens. I was lucky to find myself in an environment where I had support and guidance to do this. I have not ended up quite where I expected to. There are lots of reasons for this. In my case one of those reasons is my mental health and how long it has taken me to begin to understand the role that has played (and is playing) in my life. In the 2013 UK Wellbeing Survey, nearly 1 in 5 people in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. Its impact can vary greatly and it is a daily struggle for all sorts of people. I have found that there are some elements of living with depression that make working as a musician particularly complicated.

I went from working very intensively on music in high school to an undergraduate composition program. I only completed two years of the course. There were lots of good things about being there and I learned a great deal from many of the teachers and my fellow students. In the end I felt I was in the wrong place and following the wrong path. I saw no future for me in studying classical composition.

After leaving I worked in technical theatre as a rigger and sound operator. Music followed me around and eventually that lead to work producing music and sound design for plays. Again, this was not a comfortable fit for me. I worked at this sporadically but without conviction before drifting away and ending up working as a web designer, back before that endeavour required a formal set of skills.

After a few years of this I took, what at the time felt like, a last throw of the musical dice by enrolling in a music for film and TV graduate course. This seemed promising at the time, but again I didn’t feel comfortable in the role the course was steering me towards. I did manage to complete the course this time (yay!) but I knew I didn’t have the energy or motivation to successfully take this role up professionally. I tried to find work in ancillary and technical roles related to film music, but without success. I didn’t have the right skills to be a good fit and by this point I was too old to be an easy choice for entry-level positions.

It was clear that much of the problem was within me, but I didn’t at this point have a simple label for the what and why. Lots of the elements of depression were apparent to me, but it took a while to knit this into a whole cloth and even longer to get (at least some) effective help. Confidence was definitely a problem and in some lucid moments the link between that and self-esteem was clear. Continue reading Making Music With Depression

Don’t Study Composition (yet)

In the past couple of weeks, I have been asked twice about my opinion on studying composition as an undergraduate. First by friends of mine who have a son that is developing into a fine young musician and once on Reddit. Studying music is a tricky thing, and studying composition is even trickier. You are putting your development as a creator of music in the hands of a few people. This is a big decision, but I haven’t seen much useful advice about it online so I thought I would add my opinions as something to ruminate on if you or someone you know is orbiting this decision.

My Story

My story starts in high school in New York. I started out playing in the school jazz band as a bassist and started writing some tunes for the band. A couple of the music teachers at the school encouraged me to try writing more formally organised music for the school’s various ensembles; wind band, recorder consort and string ensemble. There wasn’t any formal instruction but the high school music teacher guided me and I studied harmony and counterpoint from books.

Over my four years at the school I learnt a huge amount. I was very fortunate indeed to be supported by the staff and even my fellow students who were willing to have a go at playing my music. It was exciting to hear my music realised. There was a wide variety of talent levels and experience in the school’s musical people from professional level players on the staff to young middle school recorder players. This placed all sorts of different constraints on me in writing for different people, which was incredibly valuable in making me think about how music conveys complexity. Much of what happened to me was simply good luck, the experience worked for me and I developed a naïve but enthusiastic approach to writing music.

In my last year of high school I put on an evening of music that I had composed. I put my head down to write and rehearse an hour and a half of music. Making something like that, at a young age, was very cool indeed. Marshalling all the people involved was perhaps harder than writing the music, both were valuable experiences. I developed a very strong sense of authorship, both of the music and of the evening as a whole.

Applying to Conservatory

While this was all playing out I decided to apply for a place on a conservatory composition programme. I assume one of my teachers suggested this as a possibility at some point. I am no longer sure of the genesis of the idea. I do remember feeling excited that this was even possible. Going to conservatory was intoxicating stuff. That was what really good musicians did. I had come to this game fairly late by traditional standards and had little formal training so that good adult musicians were encouraging me felt intoxicating.

Applying for composition programmes was my only option to go to conservatory. I definitely was not a good enough player. At this point my main instrument was bass guitar. I played piano but in a rudimentary way. The keyboard was a tool for getting music out of my head rather than an instrument I could perform well on. I had played double bass for a year and a half and trying to teach myself clarinet for about the same amount of time. There was no way I was getting in as a player, but looking at the composition entry standards for the conservatories in New York City where I was living, I had a shot. Continue reading Don’t Study Composition (yet)