A new groove in Music City
Detroit native Dominic Davis has been a full time bassist for most of his adult life. But it was only last year that he made the move to Nashville. Many a talented picker has made that move only to turn back for home. It's a tough town with a lot of talent. And much of that talent spends their days (and nights) waiting for the phone to ring.
But Mr. Davis has not been sitting idly at home. And in fact, there may come a time soon when he decides to turn his phone off just to get a little rest ("I'll let you know when that happens," laughs Davis.) In the short time he's been in town, Davis has made a name for himself in virtually every genre of music kicking up dust in Music City as the rare rhythm- man who excels at both upright and electric. Davis has racked up sessions with Wanda Jackson, Tom Jones, Buddy Miller, E Street bassist Garry Tallent, and boyhood pal Jack White, who he backed up on his world tour for the #1 album Blunderbuss last year. Davis also served as bandleader for CMT Crossroads' 80th birthday tribute to Willie Nelson and joined Jack and Epiphone's Fats Kaplin on stage at Town Hall in NYC for the Showtime film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
That's a lot for one year's work. But in a town where a single session might include alumni from Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" or Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde--what has made Davis stand out is his love and enthusiasm for his instrument. He loves the bass guitar and plays every session and show as if there is no better place to be in the world. And why would there be? Check out the video of Dominic and his powerhouse-singing wife Rachael live at Gibson's Listening Room.
Epiphone.com spoke with Davis about growing up in Detroit, attending historic Detroit Public School's Cass Technical High whose alumni included Ron Carter and Paul Chambers, and his new favorite bass for studio work, an Epiphone Jack Casady. Look for him on tour this year backing Mr. White on his new album, Lazaretto.
You're the latest in a long line of professional bassists from Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Looking back, what was unique about that school's music program?
I grew up in a Detroit neighborhood with plenty of character. My neighborhood high school was less than desirable so I choose to take the test and see if I could get into Cass. I was already playing the bass and knew that Cass Tech was a great school, but I didn't know much about the music program or all of the folks that had gone there.
I was accepted to study visual arts and just happened to take quite a bit of music classes while I was there. Looking back, it was unique because you picked a major and got to take the classes that you wanted to take. I became immersed in art and music and was given plenty of time to work on it.
You show such joy when you're playing bass. Was there a moment of discovery when you thought: 'This is the instrument for me'?
I started out as a young guitar player, simply because there was an old Kay kicking around the house that belonged to an uncle. My mother was always very supportive and bought me a cheapo shredder guitar for Christmas one year. Whammy bar, pointed headstock, the whole bit. I believe the brand was MX-N. Anyhow, I would always jam at a friend's house whose older brother also played guitar. I was probably 11 or 12. We were in the attic playing away and my guitar wouldn't stay in tune, so he handed me a bass and said: "I think you're a bass player." It's funny, in 2 minutes he showed me your typical 1-3-5-6-flat7 blues walking bass line and I haven't strayed too much since. I felt that it was my instrument immediately.
Did you learn upright and electric simultaneously?
I played electric bass until I started high school. I hadn't even touched an upright until I took a strings class at Cass. It was the early 90's and a great era for the stand up bass. Just listening to music on the radio, you had MCA rocking an upright with the Beastie Boys or Ron Carter playing on A Tribe Called Quest records. I wanted to do that--plug the upright into modern music, but I really didn't become comfortable with it on stage until I started gigging with one. It took a bit of time to figure out how to amplify it and get comfortable with it on a stage setting.
What artists helped you conceptualize the role of a bass player?
I went and saw Neil Young when I was in high school and Booker T and the MG's opened and backed him up. I really didn't know of Duck Dunn at the time but I tried to learn some bass lines off of a copy of the Blues Brothers I had taped from TV. Watching that show and how he first played a bunch of his own tunes then fell right into his role of backing Neil up--it just all made sense to me.
Did you have an instructor who influenced your style?
It's funny. I've never actually had a bass teacher. Never. I had a lot of older friends who played in cover bands and wedding bands when I was a teenager who I really looked up to. There was this one guy, Darnell, I don't even know his last name, but I was always showing up at his gigs and he would pull me aside and show me a few things.
Luckily, I was really into classic rock in my early teens. Listening to Led Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers really helped me out, but I just kept looking further back from Zep to Howlin Wolf, then from him to Son House and Robert Johnson. When I first heard some of the early Muddy Waters records, I absolutely got it. Hearing something as simple as a duo with Muddy on bottleneck and an upright bass pounding away was really moving to me.
Later in college, I worked at the music library and was a jazz nut. I loved Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, and Charles Mingus and I learned a lot from those records, but I never really tried to play like them. I learned some standards and still deeply love that music, but I always realized I could learn more from an ensemble than just the bassist. I could hear the band swing but would care less about a bowed solo or a bass spotlight.
Is there a "Detroit" approach to bass? In other words, when you started touring and getting out in the world, did you start to recognize that you had a "Detroit" style?
I owe everything I am musically to the city of Detroit, but it was a strange place to grow up. I really didn't have many friends my age that played music. I think just being from that place, I had a certain know-how and could make things happen in any situation.
I would sometimes have to wire some pickups or tie back a broken guitar string simply because we didn't have a music store for miles. Going to a school where I was in the minority did expose me to some music I wouldn't have heard otherwise and that helped a great deal. I learned as much from listening to Kind Of Blue that I did from listening to Midnight Marauders, and probably wouldn't have heard either if I was in the suburbs.
One of your passions is swing music--especially swing bass lines and grooves. That concept is elusive for a lot musicians. And some of the most inventive walking bass lines --from players like Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, and Jimmy Blanton--were not necessarily intended for dancers. For today's players who want to bring that feel to bass guitar, how would you suggest they think about their approach?
I think all musicians need to take a step back and look at the big picture. In the end, you're simply moving air and in-turn, trying to express yourself. And hopefully moving some feet and rear ends in the process. Jimmy Blanton and Duck Dunn were essentially doing the same thing in different eras. James Jamerson was an upright jazz bassist who concentrated deeply on hooks and form with an electric bass in his hand. I just hope that today's players don't loose all of those connections.
I'm seeing a divide these days with schooled players who have an elitist attitude and talk more about music they don't like instead of music that they love. If we're going to keep that movement on the low end, we need to connect those dots and not push them farther away. I'd love to hear some young jazz-school bassists pick up an electric bass and play a set of original tunes, perhaps backing a good songwriter, without being able to feel they're dumbing it down just because there are only three chords in the song. In the end, it's not about yourself or how good you think you are or even how good anyone else thinks your are. It's about the song.
During the Blunderbuss tour, you were putting bass lines to White Stripes songs for the first time in many cases.
That was not an easy task. I told myself early on that I could do anything as long as Jack still had the freedom he had with The 'Stripes. If I was walking or had a line going on that didn't allow him to add a bar here or there or vamp before a verse, it wouldn't work.
I also learned a lot that year playing big rooms on a consistent basis. I was always a "bass on 10 everything else on 1" kind of player and hated midrange EQ, especially on the upright. If you're playing a huge room though, midrange can really be your friend. Vance Powell, Jack's engineer, would always spike the mids on the console when we were recording. I kind of found my territory in that band around 1K, which adds just enough definition and punch.
Nashville is once again a melting pot of influences but everyone is still after the same thing--making a great record. What are some of your session highlights since moving to town?
Working with Jack is always great. He's so in-tune with the process. There's a real workshop mentality at his place. I've done a few other 45's for his label Third Man Records with Tom Jones, Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes) and Wanda Jackson. I was also in the studio this fall with Drake Bell with Brian Setzer producing. Drake is fan of old time rock & roll. I think he's trying to make the record Eddie Cochran never got a chance to make.
One highlight would have to be Willie Nelson's 80th birthday show. I served as musical director for the concert and CMT special. I got to put together the band to back Willie and a crowd of special guests including Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Leon Russell, and Neil Young. That was one to remember.
How does the Epiphone Jack Casady compare to playing upright?
I love the Jack Casady because it gives you that quick decay that an upright has. I have a lot of hollowbody basses, but most of them are short scale like a Hofner. The Jack Casady plays like one of those, but stays in tune and feels like all of my other regular scale basses. Plus, it's versatile. My other hollowbody basses sound great, but they only have one sound. The Jack Casady really gives you a lot to work with. I highly recommend it with flat wounds.
Do you have a favorite kind of venue that--for you really--allows you to hear the bass on stage the way you want people to hear it?
I really just love playing. Quite frankly, I'm more interested in hearing everything else onstage than I am hearing myself. For the upright bass, there's nothing better than playing a show completely acoustic. No amplification at all. It sits well in the mix all by itself, even when you think you can't hear it.
You mentioned that you helped supervise the mix for the CMT Crossroads featuring Willie Nelson. A lot of bassists--Brian Wilson, Willie Dixon, and Paul McCartney being some obvious choices--were also known for being great producers. Is it coincidence or is there something about being a bassist that gives one the opportunity to see the big picture?
To be fair, in both of those cases, they happened to be the songwriter as well. And you forgot Nick Lowe! I've always been very song oriented, even at a young age. Young players come up to me and say 'teach me to play jazz' or 'teach me to play the blues' and all I can say is: take it one song at a time. Want to learn how to swing? Learn one swing tune, then another, then another.
I do get a lot of session leader or musical director calls and I think it's just because if I'm playing the bass the way I should be, I should have a free hand to jot down some notes while I'm playing!
The nature of Nashville is that one day you can be on a big stage with your every need taken care of and the next day you can be playing a tiny stage, playing for tips. How do you lose yourself in your instrument so the gig always feels fresh?
I've really never had a problem with this. I love playing all kinds of music for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Yesterday, I played a set of kids' music in the rain for a very small audience and it was the most fun I've had in a while. I think bassists are lucky. We play the bass. Our job is fun.