State Of the Union Address …And More, Dave Pomeroy: July 2022 Issue
Interview With Dave Pomeroy…
By David C. Gross and Tom Semioli
Photos: Cover & Header, Jim McGuire | Header, Mickey Dobo
DP: David Pomery
DG: David C. Gross
TS: Tom Semioli
DP: We’re bass players, we just want people to feel good! In fact, that’s my whole approach to life!
DG: Bass players have great leadership qualities…
TS: We’re the only players on the bandstand and in the studio that know all the changes!
DG: There’s something inherent about being the connection between rhythm and harmony that gives us a ‘leg -up’ on everyone. Singers will look at us. Band members ask us ‘what are the chords to the song?’ The guy who hangs out with musicians – the drummer – will want to know something. (Laughter) We bass players have an interesting perspective…
Few musicians have had an impact on their peers and the music industry in the 21st Century than bassist David Pomeroy.
If it were just for his work as an A-list Nashville session player and sideman – we’d afford Pomeroy legendary status. In the country music realm, his recordings and stage work span Keith Whitley, Emmylou Harris, Alan Jackson, Earl Scruggs, Alison Kraus, Reba McIntyre, Chet Atkins, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Lorrie Morgan Waylon Jennings, Keith Urban, Kris Kristofferson, and Earl Scruggs to cite a very, very scant few.
Add to that the list of rockers, jazzers, folkies, and permutations thereof anchored by Pomeroy – such as Peter Frampton, Richard Betts, Mark Knopfler, Sting, Tom Rush, Janis Ian, Steve Winwood, Lee Ritenour, Eric Johnson, Don Henley, Neil Diamond, Sheryl Crow, Mose Allison, and Bonnie Raitt among many others, nary a second goes by wherein Dave’s bass artistry is not being heard on record, radio, film and television soundtracks, podcasts, playlists somewhere on planet Earth.
An individual with an activist bent for his fellow musicians, Pomeroy became President of the Nashville Musicians Association, AFM 257 in 2008, and was unanimously re-elected in 2011, 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2020. Jokes David “nobody wants my job!”
A master negotiator, Pomeroy is bringing the music industry as we knew it into these uncertain modern times – creating contracts and agreements for streaming, home recording, publishing, and such overlooked revenue sources as the use of studio tracks on stage. First elected to the International Executive Board of the American Federation of Musicians – and re-elected again in 2013, 2016, and 2019 repeats Pomeroy “nobody wants my job!”
And in his “spare” time, David helms his own imprint – Earwave Records. Among his releases include his all-bass and vocal solo albums. Pomeroy’s DVD release The Day The Bass Players Took Over The World and All-Bass Orchestra are essential viewing for players of all genres and levels.
David has penned articles aplenty for Bassics, and Bass Player. His profile appears in such historical references as Studio Bass Masters (Backbeat Books) and Michael Visceglia’s A View From the Side.
DG: Dave, if I’m too provocative, just let me know! In the 1970s I was a New York City session player. In fact, I was fortunate enough to be Will Lee’s sub for a while. I was one of the few “rock and rollers” that could actually read music. That gave me a leg-up on the competition. I liked doing studio work, but my first love was playing live. When I got out of Berklee circa 1972-73, I go down to the union hall which was the Roseland Ballroom, and I got my card. Things were changing. What the union was giving and advising young musicians was no longer applicable. Meaning ‘okay so I’ll do a Holiday Inn jingle, then at night I’d end up at The Other End or the Rock and Roll Café (two prominent NYC rock venues in the 1970s) playing a gig for $100-150.00. And in the back of my mind, I’d remember one of the older AFM people saying ‘ya better have your card with you! Because they’re going to come down and check on you!’
In fifty years, I’ve never been carded! Outside of some Broadway theater work, and some session work, and even on record dates, I was not being paid through the union!
Take us back. Where did the MU stop being applicable to the modern musician and how is it now applicable?
DP: Great topic. I didn’t know anything about the union, or that there even was one when I moved to Nashville. One of the older musicians that I met early on simply told me ‘ya need to go down and join the union!’ I didn’t ask why. I just did it.
A lot of the disconnect happened back in the day, as you refer to, because the union limited itself by only concentrating on the really big stuff. If you were in New York, it was all about Broadway theater, the Lincoln Center Orchestras, and so on. It was not about Greenwich Village and the jazz clubs – which I always felt was quite unfortunate as I learned more about it.
In Los Angeles, a lot of the focus was on big-budget films, with big orchestra soundtracks, and live television, which was also part of the New York scene. But here in Nashville, from going way back to the 1950s, there’s always been a focus on recording. And not in particular major label recording. That’s because Nashville organically built this community of songwriters who wanted these country artists to record their songs. As such, a demo session culture emerged. This is where people like myself learned how to be a studio musician.
And if you were lucky, one of those songs got picked up or the producer would say ‘hey that’s a cool bassline!’ Who’s that? And then you’d get hired for more work. Those things happened all the time.
I think the stereotype of the union as ‘big stuff or nothing’ and ‘we’re going to intimidate you into doing the right thing!’ has never worked in Nashville. And it works less and less anywhere else. Because of Tennessee being a right to work state, or as we call it ‘a right to work for less state,’ meaning you can negotiate down all you want! – no one has to be a member of the union!!!
So we have created this culture – and when I say ‘we’ I’m going back to the 1950s when RCA and Decca came to Nashville and said ‘we’re gonna make money on hillbilly music’ – but instead of hiring suits to run the label, they hired Owen Bradley who was a piano player, arranger, and producer; to run Decca records, and famous guitarist Chet Atkins to helm RCA records. They basically said ‘okay big companies, you can come here but these are our friends, and we’re gonna be working with them on Saturday night on a gig so we’re not gonna screw them over in the studio. We’re going to do everything on a contract.’
And the labels agreed. That action created this culture that we call ‘The Nashville Way.’ Which means that the music business does not have to be win/lose. It can be win/win if everyone involved is honest and respectful.
We have been able to preserve the best of that culture and branch it out. Frankly, the first time I got involved in the leadership of the AFM was when the union’s business agent was hassling me over playing small club gigs with my own band, playing our own music. We had a following and we were making enough money to make scale. It was a situation where we were playing for the door receipts and the club made the money at the bar. And that’s standard when you’re playing original music. Very few venues, unless you’re famous and successful, are not going to pay you a guarantee.
But the union kept hassling me and for a while had me forging contracts with the club owner’s signature on them – just to get him off my back.
However, I didn’t want to do that anymore. So in the 1990s I stood up at a meeting and said “hey I want to talk about playing for the door. I’m forced to forge a contract while I’m trying to teach two of my kids to tell the truth! And I don’t like lying! The problem is not how much money we are making, the problem is that there is no union contract. So, what are we gonna do about this?’
They made me the head of a committee. We met and wrote a bylaw that said “when playing original music in a listening room the bandleader can be the employer.” This bylaw fixed a problem that hundreds of people from running away from the union because they did not want to be hassled trying to get their own music heard which was a ridiculous concept.
That was the beginning of my involvement. Fast forward to the mid-2000s – when we had national leadership problems with the AFM. It was old-school all the way. They were not acknowledging the changes and they were not managing their money very well so they decided to come after some of the back-end residuals of recording musicians – of which at that point I was a full-time recording musician. We stood up and said ‘hey this isn’t right!’ So we started asking more questions and learned that our leadership here had been duped into thinking that somehow I was being dictated to by LA and New York telling me what to say to the Nashville leadership. That was a completely ridiculous theory that had no basis in truth.
As we got more frustrated with our local and national leadership, it was one of those things where you go ‘isn’t somebody going to step up and tell grandpa that he can’t drive the truck anymore. We’ll take him anywhere he wants to go but he’s gotta give us the keys!’ We were able to pull that off in 2008 much to the surprise of the national leadership. A year and a half later at the national convention, we were able to get Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles on the same page. It was a palace revolution! We voted out the national leadership and I became a board member in 2010. I’m also in my fifth three-year term as a national board member. We’ve been able to implement a lot of the changes we made in Nashville and bring them to the national stage.
Things such as having a scale for overdubbing at your home studio. It’s not an hourly rate, it’s a per song rate that you can negotiate. And there’s no maximum – if you’re a famous player you can command x dollars per song. You can do that and put it on a union contract and pay into your own pension – which they’d also told us we weren’t allowed to do! We wrote language that read “employer agrees that musician may make pension payment on behalf of employer! And they went “yeah sure!” After twenty-five years of telling us we can’t do that it was that easy to fix.
We also came up with a scale for when artists use tracks from their records on tour. The old adage was “oh nobody would do that!” Oh really? Look at the drummer when he counts to four and hits a button – they see what you hear that is not on stage! Thus, we created a formula while working with a couple of artists that were agreeable – to pay musicians whose work was being used on stage on tour. We’ve been able to pay out more than a half-million dollars who are sitting at home while their tracks are being used on stage.
DG: That’s fantastic!
DP: Think of it as a case-by-case problem-solving approach. I refuse to buy into the old-school mentality that things can only be done one way. If anybody’s paying attention, the music business has changed rather drastically. We have gone from being the hillbilly cousin to being on the cutting edge and getting musicians paid for things that they never dreamed they’d get paid for. Which I love doing – it’s almost as much fun as playing the bass!
TS: Musicians are adapting to the digital – which has devastated a lot of us. Witness sampling, digital recording, and home studios virtually wiped out all the commercial studios in New York City. It also had an adverse effect on our instrument – the electric bass. It’s cheaper to program a bassline rather than to hire an accomplished bassist. In the analog age, we had to master our instrument. Bassists had to nail the track in one or two takes not only for economics, but not to wear out the tape for the vocal, horn, string, and solo overdubs.
DP: Absolutely. There’s still quite a bit of live section recording going on in Nashville. There’s also a whole new breed of these producer / multi-instrumentalists who do 60 to 70% of the tracks on a record and just bring in some specialists here and there – or maybe two guys will do the entire record on their own. We’ve been having to educate this multi-instrumentalists / producer that even if you don’t get paid on the front end to be a player on this record you’re producing, because you’re getting paid to be a producer – anytime that record goes somewhere else if you’re not on the contract as a musician you’re only going to get the sliver of money you’d make as a producer. And you’re leaving money on the table. If their song goes into a film and they’re not on the union contract, they’re not going to get compensated. Sure, they may get some producer money, but it’s not the same thing as being a union musician on a union contract on a union-covered film. Those musicians share one percent of the back end – but once that movie leaves the theaters – that is, if it even gets to the theaters these days, that revenue coming through the musician’s secondary markets fund pays out 80-90 million dollars a year!
For musicians that play on a successful soundtrack, that can be a game-changer.
With some exceptions, we’re all making a living from a variety of small revenue streams rather than I have this one gig with this one artist. Or I’m a session guy – I don’t do anything else. Those days are long gone.
The union is educating musicians in this new world. Even though your not making a record in the traditional way, and you’re not getting paid upfront as a musician – don’t screw yourself over!
The simplest way is to file a union contract with every recording. Especially now with streaming where often there are no record credits – because there are no physical records or CDs.
With every session that’s filed with the union, there’s a pension contribution that adds to your social security. You can’t track stuff on All Music Guide, and Wikipedia – but a lot of that stuff is conjecture. With filing a contract – it’s all clear and accurate you have proof – it’s what we call the digital paper trail.
Even during the Pandemic, we did eight million out the door in 2020, and nine million in 2021. A typical year for us would be between 10 to 12 million dollars. And that’s not all major label stuff. That includes independent artists doing what we call ‘limited pressings’ contracts where you can get a better deal and if you reach 10,000 copies – which is getting more and more rare – then you have to do a little ‘bump’ for all the players. Though if you’re at 10,000 hard copies in the digital age, you’re pretty happy about that.
In terms of the way things have changed, it reinforces the need to have documentation. I’ve had a million meetings with people to discuss metadata – wherein you bury that information into the track – everybody is going to know who’s on it. We’ve talked about doing this with the labels for decades, but with all due respect to the good people at the labels, that makes it way too easy for them to have to pay everybody. As expected, they’ve been avoiding that. As far as I can tell.
There are ways to recreate it. The way they do album credits now is also problematic. On an album that might have been cut by ten different producers you see drum credits with five different names, guitar with seven different names and so forth – so there is no way to figure out who played what.
We remember the days when each track had individual credits. I was an album cover junkie – which is why I love chasing this stuff down. The documentation is more important than ever because it is such a scattershot of information. But the ability is there.
For example, take the Shazam app where you ask the name of the song and you get an immediate response that tells you what song it is. Well, it also should tell you who played on the album but that hasn’t happened – yet. But it will! And again, this is a situation where a label will say ‘here’s some money, go make an album and give it to us when you’re done’ – and they don’t realize until later that they should have documented the credits in a better way. Because what happens is, that when one of these songs becomes a hit – it gets played on a television show. Now, the television show knows they have to pay everybody who is on the record. And if the producer left himself off – he’s not going to get paid even though, legitimately, he has a right to be paid for his work as a musician.
We educate musicians, and producers. When we ‘clean up’ two or three things for somebody, the light goes on in their head! If you do this on the front end it’s a lot easier.
We’ve done everything we can to make filing a contract as painless as possible. And to make sure that it’s done the right way. If you’re doing something for a film, you’re not filing it as a record date. Because that’s a different contract with different parameters. Especially when it comes to the back end – which is mailbox money.
You know we’re almost conditioned as musicians to think ‘oh that’s just for songwriters and producers and stuff…’ But we do and we should get paid!
We’ve got legislation in front of congress right now called The American Music Fairness Act that will fix this. The bottom line is, that there are hundreds of millions of dollars owed to American musicians being held overseas because we’re not paying musicians overseas their tens of millions of dollars. It’s like an 8 to 1 ratio. In the United States, we make the majority of the world’s popular music. But other countries don’t want to pay us because we’re not paying their musicians.
TS: We’re living in an age wherein the listener no longer purchases music. Streaming is now the predominant delivery service, and as much as vinyl is making an aesthetic come back, we’ll never put the toothpaste back in the tube because there is no tube anymore! Music is free on YouTube, it’s free on Spotify or you can splurge for $9.99 per month for a commercial-free subscription. This is an existential crisis for recording musicians.
DP: It certainly is, and we’ve had to make adjustments in all of our agreements to allow for streaming. We have a couple of different funds that were primarily funded by record sales – and we’ve had to make changes in those funds. For example, we’re getting a percentage of foreign streaming royalties for the American labels. To get that money and split it up into individual pieces for all the people involved would be a daunting task – but we were able to take a certain percentage of that streaming revenue and put it into these funds to keep them going.
There’s no question – the whole Spotify debate – there’s a big difference, and people don’t understand this: there is a difference between interactive and non-interactive streaming and how that is dealt with financially. And it was all when they first passed this stuff back in the early 1990s – and somebody looked at this stuff.
With interactive, if you tell the service that you enjoy the music Pink Floyd then they’re going to lead you to other artists that are similar to Pink Floyd. Somebody along the way must have thought ‘wow, that sounds too expensive, let’s give them a lower royalty rate!’ And not understanding that robots are doing that programming. And there isn’t a real significant additional cost. I’m sure that the founders of Spotify looked at interactive versus non-interactive ….so… some of it is intentional and some of it is a consequence of technology and people looking at it and making decisions based on that.
The demise of record sales made many of our traditional business models either go completely away or have to be readjusted. And we have made changes and we do get musicians percentages of back-end, which is the equivalent of record sales residuals – but no question, it has been quite an adjustment and it’s still in progress. And it probably always will be.
TS: Many of my colleagues are indie artists and the money they make from streaming services is not enough to pay for a hamburger at our local diner – granted we live in New York City and restaurant prices are much higher than in other parts of the country. Given that, are we returning to the days when to be a working musician is to be a performing artist. Most musicians, other than the big stars, cannot make money off recorded music. The expenses of creating, producing, and promoting recording music will not reap dividends. It’s a loss leader.
DP: Right, now recorded music is now just part of the formula. It’s part of merchandise. One of the things that I refer to a lot – and this sounds like an oxymoron – is the ‘Grateful Dead business model.’ Which was relentless touring not tied to a new album or a radio hit, giving your fans total access as they did, allowing bootlegging of shows and tape trading – then selling them the t-shirt. So now it’s sell them the t-shirt and the special vinyl edition!
Unless we’re talking mega-stars, it is difficult. One of the things that we’ve done is to adjust our recording rates to where there are affordable rates for artists who know they’re not going to sell a million records.
We created the category of ‘Low Budget Master’ rate when the artist submits a budget in advance and it’s less than $100,000.00 – which used to be considered not spending any money at all, we see indie labels making great records for $25,000.00. When you get studio musicians who are rehearsed and very efficient, you can make a great record in two or three days.
Look, with record sales tanking, and that revenue never to be replaced by streaming revenue which is considerably lower – it is a huge challenge. This shift has brought back the reality that live music is the one thing you can only simulate but not really experience through a computer. Now, with the return to live music, touring is making money for the artist which, in most cases, dwarfs their record sales. It’s all about the merch, the meet-and-greets, and special fan experiences.
No question, it’s a drastic economic shift to multiple small revenue streams.
TS: Young musicians ask David and me for advice, and among my recommendations is not to invest in the production of hardcopy music. Put it out on streaming services, YouTube, and similar platforms. In my view, recorded music is now relegated to a promotional tool in the marketplace. The last two generations of fans have not purchased music – the stats of record sales don’t lie.
DP: I hear you; old habits are hard to break. I still like to go to record stores. At the same time, it’s easier to go ‘Hey Siri, play such-and-such a song on Apple Music. I’m always happy to pay for music – live shows, merch… it has value. The resurgence of vinyl, as esoteric as it is, does speak to that behavior of ‘I want this special thing…. something tangible that you can hold in your hand.’
But I also recognize that I am an old dude compared to people who are streaming everything.
TS: On that note, let’s talk about the record label you founded – Earwave. You’ve released over a dozen albums, you created the “All Bass Orchestra” – note to our readers, do not try this at home! What have you learned from sitting on both sides of the desk?
DP: My records are all million sellers – there’s a million in my cellar! (Laughter) It has been a very interesting experience. As I made the transition from being a touring musician to trying to break into the studio scene, I always liked doing my own stuff on the side. Not only as a creative outlet, but also to create some notoriety in a different area, and in some ways putting out all bass records is not the greatest strategy for getting normal bass session work.
I became known for playing this electric upright bass – and I’d hear ‘man we were going to call you up but we didn’t want fretless bass on everything.’ What! I have other basses too! People tend to put you in a ‘bag.’ And I went through that from the moment I came to Nashville. It was like ‘oh he plays too much!’ And then I got a gig with Don Williams at it was ‘oh he does not play enough!’ And if they saw me in a blues band it was ‘look, he’s a blues guy….’ We started a world music group then I was ‘a weirdo world music guy…’
I was like ‘what song are we playing? I’m gonna play what’s right for the song!’ For me, the experience of doing my own stuff on the side did get me involved in the union in the sense of ‘why are you guys messing with me…I’m doing these little gigs for my own enjoyment and for our band to get paid – and you guys really didn’t have anything to do with this.’
Having that perspective of putting out a record and hoping for the best. Selling them at gigs. All of those things gave me a perspective – more so, that when somebody’s on the other line I’m not like the union guy barking ‘well son, that’s just not the way we do it around here!’
I’ve been there – explain your situation! Because I’ve been a touring guy and a studio guy and my own artist label / producer I think it’s given me and the ability to interact with different people without coming from just one place. For me, it was an artistic outlet more than anything. If we made some money – great. The Christmas stuff we’ve done has all been for a wonderful charity here in Nashville called Room In The Inn that works with homeless people in a very enlightened way. We’ve done twenty-plus years of Christmas concerts and albums for them – raising almost $500,000.00. To me, that’s the power of music.
Putting out my own stuff allowed me to explore different things musically. Ironically, some of the weirder musical decisions I made wound up having a positive effect on my mainstream career.
I was greatly inspired by Eberhard Weber – fronting his own band along with the sound of his upright bass. More so than the Jaco sound, Weber was decidedly ‘trombone-ish.’ Back before there was a Bass Player magazine – you remember the days when Guitar Player magazine would throw us bass players a bone – I saw this photo of Weber and it looked like an upright bass designed by Harry Fleishman. I called Harry and asked him if he’d ever heard of Weber, and he had, and could make me a bass. As luck would have it, I was on tour with Don Williams, and we were in Denver where Harry lived, and he brought one to my hotel room. I played just a few notes on the instrument and knew immediately ‘that’s the sound!’
Don was kind enough to loan me half the money (total cost $2500.00) – it was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought up until then. It cost more than my car! I spent three or four years learning how to play it. I played upright as a kid, then gave it up for electric when I was about 13 years old. I got my chops together playing simple Don Williams music.
I started getting more sessions around 1987. An album came out that I played on by a singer named Keith Whitley. He had this certain ‘envelope’ to his voice where the notes would kind of expand and this bass just fit it beautifully. It was a mirror image of his voice. So I’m playing it and nobody is saying a word – and I ended up playing this bass on every song on the album (Don’t Close Your Eyes – RCA) with the exception of one or two songs (with bassist Larry Paxton). They told me that they didn’t want that fretless sound on the songs! Shows you how you can quickly get typecast!
The album blew up. One of the songs, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” was a huge hit. It has a lyric at the end of the bridge where Keith sings about the rain really coming down hard and everyone stops and I do a slide down the E string. And when the song garnered airplay and attention, my phone just started ringing off the hook! I had one engineer call me into the control room ‘bass player c’mon on in here for a minute… listen to that, there’s something wrong with your bass!’ And I replied ‘there’s nothing wrong with it, I’ll play a Fender if you want!’
So when I talk to young kids about the music business, I always say ‘listen to your heart… your gut… God… whatever you want to call it. Listen to it because if you don’t – it might stop talking! And the best decisions I’ve ever made musically – including moving to Nashville, getting that weird bass, and starting the All Bass Orchestra – are all things that made absolutely no sense from a logical standpoint and ended up to be three things that had a tremendous effect on my music career. And my life!
DG: Getting back to Eberhard for a minute, I was inspired by him since I heard the album Colours of Chloe (1973 / ECM). There are so many players who sound like Jaco, James Jamerson, Jack Bruce, and so on… but there is nobody that sounds like Eberhard Weber. His resonance almost ‘whines.’ It’s crying all the time. He was a cellist as a young player. He played the cello tuned to fifths, he was a big fan of Red Mitchell, yet he played the upright in fourths. And I wonder if some of his sonics he was seeking came back to that. He’s also one of the only bass players that prints his delay and reverb. He did not overdub – because that is his sound! No one composes like him either.
DP: For me, the big three in the chronological order I discovered them are Jack Bruce, Charles Mingus, and Eberhard. Of course, I love Chris Squire, and John Entwistle, growing up on the whole British Rock invasion. My dad was in the military and we lived in England when I was a child from 1961 to ’64. I got a two-year head start on The Beatles before the Ed Sullivan Show (Note: The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show was in February 1964).
You know, with The Beatles, I saw it as an oil painting. I couldn’t separate out what Paul McCartney was doing. Especially listening to the records. However, with Cream, even when I saw them on television, I could see who was doing what. So I saw Jack Bruce and I thought ‘I want to do what he is doing!’ Jack was writing the songs, he was singing, and he was playing bass. And he’s kicking the guitar player in the butt – all night long! That’s what I wanted to do!
Eberhard opened my mind. I had already discovered Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke – I love the first couple of Return to Forever albums when Stanley was playing upright with Airto and Flora Purim. The fusion thing got out of hand after a while. I loved the Jeff Beck side of that with rock coming to jazz with Blow By Blow (1975) which to me, is one of the great records of all time with Phil Chen on bass.
Those players really influenced me, but Eberhard always stood alone. I met him when he played in Nashville in the early 1980s. I snuck backstage and spoke with him briefly. I told him how much I loved his compositions and his reply was ‘the melody always comes last’ – and that stuck with me!
No question Eberhard was unique and very underrated. The only other bass player to me that is as underrated as Weber is Kenny Gradney from Little Feat. I saw them recently and he looked so good that I thought the bass player was a replacement! I’m thinking ‘that guy is nailing Gradney’ and at the end of the show, I realized it was him! The latest configuration of Little Feat is really really good. Kenny is one of those players that you could never really give enough attention to. Perhaps that’s because Little Feat never really fit into a category.
DG: If we go back to the 1950s, we have “real” country music. Then in the 1960’s you still have “real” country music but then this guy Billy Sherill (producer, arranger, composer known for generating commercial hits for several country artists) came in and started homogenizing the genre with the Johnny Paychecks and some of George Jones’ recordings. Then you go into the 1970s and 1980s and now we get rock and roll and the country music of today is really not “real” country music. Am I right or am I wrong?
DP: You’ve brought up a very interesting subject. The “homogenizing” which became known as the “Nashville Sound” because they were trying to compete with pop music with the strings and the background vocals.
I was fortunate enough to get to know Chet Atkins at the end of his life I interviewed him, and I had to ask him “what was the Nashville Sound to you?” And he responded, “that was the sound of us trying to keep our jobs by selling records!” The other time I asked him and he just shook his pocket full of change and said “that’s the real Nashville sound! (Laughter)
But I think the evolution goes in cycles and what happens is that the music that you think is country music still exists, and there are still people making that type of music, but it’s now in the Americana and Bluegrass categories. Country music as a genre has been influenced by all these different sounds and the audience has gone with it. As the country music audience got younger the audience was more open to those new sounds.
One of the interesting turning points in the late 1980s and early 1990s was when there was a resurgence with artists such as Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, and Keith Whitley among others. Then Garth Brooks came along. And Garth had done something new in country music and I saw it firsthand. I knew him before he was famous. He was the first country singer to take the rock and roll front man attitude. Whether you want to compare it to Black Oak Arkansas, or Robert Plant. That (shouts) “hey Cleveland how ya’ doin? Are you ready! We’re gonna have fun tonight!” No artist had ever taken that stance in country music before Garth.
We did a year on the road in 1990. Garth Brooks did twenty minutes. Don Williams (with Dave Pomeroy on bass) did an hour. And Reba McEntire did seventy-five minutes. And in his twenty minutes, Garth would wear the crowd out in a way that I had never seen before in a country setting! Thankfully with us, Don Williams was an artist who was very laid back and all about people listening to the lyrics and believing every word the way he sang it. So it was the perfect setup for Don. The audience was exhausted and dazed, and Don would hypnotize them. And then Reba would come on and do her country-pop thing.
But I guarantee you, that crowd, for the next few years, the day after they attended a Garth Brooks show were lined up at the record store buying his albums! Garth’s songs have held up – I just saw him do a stadium show here in Nashville (2022) – which has allowed him to break all the rules in country music that has nothing to do with radio. To me, Garth represents the transition of presenting country music in a much more “in your face” kind of way. And the genre absorbed what he does. And that attitude has opened up country artists to new audiences. Younger audiences are not burdened with preconceptions of what country music is, and what country music is not.
TS: My theory regarding the “new” country music is that artists such as Lucinda Williams, Keith Urban, Ryan Adams, and Steve Earle all grew up around rock and roll in the 1960s, and 1970s. Garth Brooks was a Kiss fan in his teen years, so naturally, those influences materialized in their music and their performances. Just like the generation before with artists such as Willie Nelson were influenced by folk and blues. It seems to be a natural progression in all genres of music. Jazz fusion artists of the 70s and 80s were influenced by rock artists of the 60s, and so on.
TS: One of the turning points in Nashville had to be when Bob Dylan came to town to record Blonde On Blonde (1966) and later Nashville Skyline (1969). Bob made it cool to be in the South. Hence the Rolling Stones started recording in Muscle Shoals. It was “hip” to be country!
DP: Yes, Dylan coming to Nashville was a huge turning point. What we call the “A-Team” – the original group of local studio musicians were not hillbillies. They were jazz musicians who could play anything. Guys such as Wayne Moss, and Charlie McCoy who worked on those Dylan records had the approach of “do your thing man, we’re right here with you. That gave a certain credibility to Nashville that the rest of the world just did not understand.
Nashville has always had lots of different kinds of music. It’s just that the success of country overshadowed a lot of other genres of music here. In the early days of that country success, the city was…embarrassed! Nashville was known as “the Athens of the South” before it became “Music City.” It was an education-oriented place. Part of that was Fisk Jubilee – in the late 1800s the Jubilee singers were touring the world singing Gospel music. Rumor has it that when they performed in Paris and sang for the Queen, one of the royal minions proclaimed “you sound so wonderful that you must be from the ‘city of music.’ And some historians cite that as the first time the term “Music City” was used to refer to Nashville.
There has always been this diversity in Nashville. And I think that Dylan crystalized it. For Blonde on Blonde the credit to where everything was recorded was obscure, however with Nashville Skyline came along, Bob was transparent and proud to be making records here. It was definitely a game-changer for the city.
So the attitude became “hey what kind of records do you want to make? We can do it all!
TS: Let’s talk music education. We’ve talked with bassists such as Benny Rietveld (Santana, Miles Davis, Sheila E), Michael Manring, Leo Lyons (Ten Years After), Ron Carter, Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, John Lennon), George Porter Jr. (The Meters), Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Quiet Riot), Harvey Brooks (Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Michael Bloomfield), and Jim Fiedler (Blood, Sweat & Tears) among others, and they’ve all stressed the importance of education.
With the bass instrument – every note we play affects harmony and rhythm. With digital technology – mastering an instrument isn’t always necessary. Is education still important for a bass player?
DP: Great question and I’m sure you’ll get a different reply from everyone you ask. I myself will confess that my sight-reading was never great. It was okay. I came from the era where you just memorized everything. I played along with records until I learned the song. Very rarely would we pull out a chart. Or look at the sheet music.
DG: You also had the number system.
DP: Right. When I first arrived in Nashville and wandered down to lower Broadway and I was playing a song I’d never heard before. The singer was flashing these numbers with his fingers behind his back and I thought ‘what’s he doing!’
And one of my bandmates whispered to me ‘it’s the numbers man!’ And I responded ‘numbers? Isn’t that gambling? Running numbers? What are you talking about? Of course, I had to learn, and even then I would still try to memorize. And one of my best friends, a top-session guitarist who was a few years ahead of me in the studio curve, busted me. ‘Hey man, quit trying to remember everything. You need to learn how to read and write these number charts.’ Man, I thought I was getting away with it. So I did the work and learned.
The beauty of the number system is in a couple of things. In the land of guitars and singer-songwriters and their capos, you’ll have a chart written in E and all of a sudden the bandleader says ‘hey let’s take it down to Db.’ Whoa, you have to transpose on the spot with standard notation. With the number system, you just put the “1” in a new place. And if it’s a minor key, you do the relative minor. Most of the time you write the minor keys as the “6” being the “1.”
Basically, the number system is do-re-mi. It was a revelation to me because I still got to make up my own basslines – which I am way better at than reading a bassline that someone wrote out. Fortunately, that weakness of mine became a strength because of the world I was in.
Regardless, I still maintain that you cannot learn enough!
Even now I go back and look at the fake books and The Real Book to make sure I do not forget where it all came from. I do those things as mental exercises. Nobody puts a written notation chart in front of me these days.
Theory is real important. It is important to understand it. From a conceptual point of view but also from a contextual point of view. For example, if you’re in a blues band, you don’t necessarily need to learn Fugue lll but at the same time, you never know where you might end up. Education for some people has become very competitive and folks like to argue about the different ways of getting an education.
For me, it’s whatever works for you. Learn what you need to know for where you want to go as a musician! Don’t kid yourself. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. As a musician, you want to work on your weaknesses. If there is something you can’t do very well, don’t wait for the next time somebody asks you to do it. Work on it now!
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