Bass

Updated: February 28, 2011

The string bass (also called the upright bass, double bass, or stand-up bass) and its recent relative, the electric bass guitar, provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation for much Appalachian music.

The string bass (also called the upright bass, double bass, or stand-up bass) and its recent relative, the electric bass guitar, provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation for much Appalachian music. Originating in Europe in the sixteenth century, the string bass—an acoustic, wooden, four- stringed instrument, generally tuned E-A-D-G—is the largest member of the viol family. In colonial America, the string bass was often utilized in churches; usually bowed, the instrument would double the bass line played by the organ. Appalachian string-band music, already developing long before the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the region, employed the string bass to provide rhythmic pulse and harmonic underpinning. The string bass’s timbre blended well with the other acoustic instruments used in Appalachian string bands—fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and guitars. Bassists usually plucked the strings, sometimes slapping them against the fretboard on upbeats for percussive effect. Before drum sets were introduced into the region, the string bass played the principal timekeeping role in Appalachian instrumental groups. Many later musicians playing country, rockabilly, western swing, and old- time string-band music have continued to rely on the string bass to provide a traditional sound.

When a string bass was unavailable, early string bands utilized either a washtub (or gutbucket) bass or sometimes a cello or an accordion to provide bass parts. The string bass was sometimes referred to as a doghouse bass or bull fiddle, due to its size and function. The Appalachian bluegrass or traditional country bassist typically played in a simple two- beat style; the player maintained the rhythmic pulse utilizing the root and the dominant note of each chord, sometimes slapping the strings as described above. The bassist would frequently connect chords with scalar “walking” patterns.

Many Appalachian bands in the 1920s and 1930s played for traveling tent shows; bassists in these shows often assumed a comic role, dressing in rube outfits and blackening their front teeth. The bass itself could be a prop, variously spun, hidden behind, or even ridden as if a horse. Exemplifying this tradition was comedian Cousin Wilbur (a.k.a. Willie Westbrooks), a bassist with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s.

By the 1940s, such Appalachian string bassists as Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater) were playing both traditional and commercial styles. Other Appalachian bassists active during this period include Hillous Butrum (from Lafayette, Tennessee), who played with Hank Williams Sr.’s Drifting Cowboys; Billy Linneman, the bassist with Merle Travis; and Sheffield, Alabama, bassist Dexter Johnson, who played with the Blue Seal Pals, mainstays on WSM Nashville’s Sunup Serenade radio program. Country singer Carl Smith, a native of Maynardville, Tennessee, performed as a string bassist at WROL in Knoxville, while Florence, Alabama, native Buddy Killen, a leading Nashville record executive, began his career as a bassist on the Grand Ole Opry in 1951. In the 1960s, Henry Strzezlecki, of Birmingham, Alabama, became an active session bassist in Nashville studios, as did Knoxville’s Roy “Junior” Huskey. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the latter’s son, Roy Huskey Jr., was a leading Nashville studio bassist whose playing incorporated a blend of bluegrass and rockabilly.

First- and second-generation bluegrass bassists from Appalachia—all of whom specialized in the string bass— include George Shuffler, from Valdese, North Carolina, who played with the Stanley Brothers in the 1950s and who introduced the “driving bass” (walking bass) style to bluegrass; John Palmer, born in Union, South Carolina; Jack Cooke (from Norton, Virginia), who played with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys; Jake Tullock (of Etowah, Tennessee), who accompanied the Bailey Brothers and the Happy Valley Boys; Jason Moore (of Ruffin, North Carolina); and Ben Issacs (from La Follette, Tennessee). Mercer County, West Virginia–born singer and songwriter Hazel Dickens often played bass early in her career.

Contemporary bluegrass bassists with Appalachian connections include Missy Raines (from Short Gap, West Virginia), recipient of several International Bluegrass Music Association Bass Player of the Year awards; Mark Fain (from Rogersville, Tennessee), who worked with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder; and Barry Bales, of Kingsport, Tennessee, who played bass with Alison Krauss’s group Union Station. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, native Edgar Meyer, a classically trained bassist equally adept at jazz, country, and bluegrass, melded those styles on two collaborative albums, Appalachian Waltz (1996) and Appalachian Journey (2000), which also feature cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O’Connor.

Pittsburgh’s jazz scene has fostered several nationally recognized string bassists. Eddie Safranski performed with Stan Kenton’s band in the 1940s. Ray Brown, also a com- poser, recorded as a bassist with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. Paul Chambers (born in Pittsburgh but reared in Detroit) played bass with such jazz stalwarts as Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. John Heard has been affiliated with jazz musicians Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Williams. Birmingham, Alabama’s jazz scene produced bassist Cleve- land Eaton, who worked with the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra; Eaton also recorded a popular regional hit, “Bama Boogie-Woogie.” Jimmy Blanton, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a virtuoso bassist whose melodic hornlike solos were featured on duo recordings with Duke Ellington.

The electric bass guitar appeared in the 1950s and soon became the standard bass instrument used in rock, rhythm and blues, and modern commercial country music. Best known as Nashville’s premier harmonica player, Charlie McCoy, from Oak Hill, West Virginia, played electric bass on some important recording sessions—most famously on Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. While bluegrass is usually performed acoustically, several Appalachian players have preferred the electric bass, especially since the 1970s emergence of the progressive bluegrass style. George Shuffler played electric bass on a few Stanley Brothers’ sessions in the 1950s. Other bluegrass bassists who have preferred the electric bass include Lawrenceville, Georgia, native Ray Deaton; Mount Airy, North Carolina, native Ronnie Bow- man; Christiansburg, Virginia’s Ronnie Simpkins; and Danbury, North Carolina’s Lou Reid.

Many electric bassists have worked in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama–area studios, and several are from that area. Norbert Putnam, for example, was affiliated with the legendary FAME Recording Studios in the early 1960s before moving to Nashville, where he became an acclaimed session bassist, arranger, and producer. Guitarist/bassist Albert “Junior” Lowe of Florence, Alabama, worked as a session musician at FAME in the 1960s and 1970s. Tommy Cogbill created an influential electric bass style that is closely tied to Muscle Shoals, where he recorded with Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Cogbill and Memphis- born bassist Mike Leech, who also recorded at Muscle Shoals, participated in Elvis Presley’s celebrated sessions at Memphis’s American Studio in the late 1960s. David Hood of Sheffield, Alabama, another electric bassist who started at FAME, later gained international recognition for his contributions to hundreds of hit records as a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Bob Wray, a Wisconsin native, is another well-known session bassist in Muscle Shoals, where he played on such hits as Clarence Carter’s “Patches.” Three other non-Appalachian bassists—Jerry Jemmott, Lenny LeBlanc, and Gary Baker—have also recorded frequently in Muscle Shoals.

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MLA Style

"Bass," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Apr 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=34>

APA Style

"Bass." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved April 23, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=34

Barry Bales