Epiphone recently spoke with Epi bassist Chris Donohue, who has been using his Jack Casady
in the studio and on stage with Emmylou Harris as a member of her Red Dirt Boys band as well as a host of other artists, including producer Buddy Miller. Emmylou is renown for her ear for young talent going back to her Hot Bands in the ‘70s that introduced Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, and many others to a wider audience. For Chris, the opportunity to play with Emmylou provided the ultimate test for a bassist--learning to play to both a great voice and a great lyric. The Jack Casady bass has been the ticket for both.
“I've found that keeping the Electar switch on the Jack Casady
at the 250 setting and the tone knob set to 6 generates enough midrange and definition to sit comfortably in a mix without being too aggressive. When I want the sound to burn a bit more (like a good wasabi), I'll set the Electar to 500 and engage the overdrive channel of my Aguilar 500. For special occasions, cranking the tone knob up to 10 and using a pick will melt faces.”
Chris was born in New York City in the late ‘60s to a family that listened to a wide range of music. In his father's Gremlin-X, Chris heard The Beatles, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and The Rolling Stones’ Love You Live
. When driving with his Mom in her Chevy Impala, he heard AM radio along with Donna Summer, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton. “I started guitar when I was 11 but at the same time, I was playing drums and percussion. Sometimes I’d jump on bass if I had the chance."
As a teenager, Chris began to pick out players who combined personality and great technical skill. “When I was a kid, I took in a lot of Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney, John Entwhistle, Jaco Pastorius, and Geddy Lee. I have a great many music-loving cousins in my family, and from my anglophile cousins I got all my early exposure to The Clash, Kinks, and Who. Another cousin gave me a complete education in prog-rock and outlaw country, and interestingly enough he’s now got a folk and bluegrass radio show for which he’s interviewed many of our childhood heroes, including Albert Lee and Chris Squire. Regardless of the style, though, I was always fascinated by the more intricate side of music making. I’m still curious about it and love to take apart the layers of--say--a King Crimson track and discover how all the parts are overlapping.”
After spending time in New Orleans (“I didn’t play for awhile - I just listened,”) it was Chris’ stint in an industrial band that proved to be the catalyst for the full-time music career he felt called to. The tight structure of that group’s arrangements helped Chris further explore the role of the bass as the link between rhythm and melody. “Because we were triggering tracks, the electric bass would frequently have to play around a synth bass and the drummer was always playing to a click or rhythm track. The whole band had to be right on with the click, yet still find room to groove and make it all feel good. This approach to music was different from the free-form style I grew up with, of course, where everything breathed and moved forward in a very human way."
“Industrial music is definitely an acquired taste, but listen closely to the best of it and you’ll find some very clever interplay and syncopation at work in the bass and drum programming. In their own unique way, artists like Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, and Trent Reznor were creating some of the funkiest beats in modern music at that time and could more than hold their own against even the best of the pop programmers. It wasn’t long after that I decided to move to Nashville and have a go at playing full time.”
Chris moved to Nashville in the ‘90s and quickly acquired an upright bass (“I followed the guy who was consigning it into the music store - if I’d have caught him in the parking lot I’d likely have paid half the price”) and dedicated himself to learning more about the more complex styles of music composition and performance that had so intrigued him since childhood.
“I studied privately with Liz Stewart from the Nashville Symphony in the mid-nineties. Joel Reist, the NSO's Principal Bassist, is a close friend and we frequently compare our discoveries and opinions about different instruments, strings, technique, and practice routines. Around the same time, I audited a composition course at Blair School Of Music and studied some jazz harmony with Bruce Dudley. That opened up whole new worlds of listening and learning.”
Right away after moving to Nashville, Chris started gigging and recording with The Vigilantes Of Love from Athens, Georgia. “I was striving to function in all these musical worlds as authentically as possible. I was soaking up a lot of influences from different types of music but wasn’t necessarily trying to play rock like a jazz player or vice versa.”
More studio and live work followed until Chris got what for many in Nashville is the ultimate call - a chance to work with Emmylou Harris. A great vocalist depends on a melodic and inventive bassist to project with passion so it’s not surprising that Emmylou sought out Chris to be one of her Red Dirt Boys. “Buddy Miller called me in the summer of 2006 and told me he’d recommended directly to Emmylou that she get in touch with me about joining her for some upcoming shows. We rehearsed in her living room for a couple of days, played about a dozen concerts that fall, and I’ve been working with her ever since.”
“Emmy is her own musical style and brand, and truly seems to have done it all,” continued Chris. “She may have started out in folk and country rock, but over the years she’s also allowed herself the freedom to explore other musical styles including rock and bluegrass. Because she moves through these different musical genres so gracefully and with such integrity, her fans continue to loyally support her no matter which creative direction she’s taking.”
In country music, where Emmylou has drawn so much of her inspiration from artists like Patsy Montana, Kitty Wells, Rose Maddox, and Hazel Dickens, upright bass was both a melodic instrument and a rhythm anchor. Chris said Emmylou's phrasing is consistent regardless of whether she hears upright or electric bass.
“The double bass gets used mostly for the bluegrass tunes and for an occasional arco passage. I'll frequently play the electric chordally to fill out the multi-tracked bed of bass and synth on the recordings from the Malcom Byrne and Dan Lanois production eras. The Epiphone Jack Casady
bass is wonderful for chords, by the way - each string speaks with piano-like definition. Emmy's singing style doesn't change based on what sort of bass we're using. The ultimate goal is to create the right low frequency atmosphere to support the full range of emotion in her singing, which can both soar and whisper in the same musical phrase.”
“Emmy’s not a task-master, so a really fun part of revisiting her classic studio tracks is finding a way to extract the signature bits from the original parts and still add something of my own. That she gives myself and the others in the band the freedom to do so is a gesture of trust that none of us take lightly.”
Chris’s work with both Emmylou and Buddy Miller has also given him the opportunity to look deeply into the countrypolitan era of Nashville from the ‘60s and ‘70s, a deep source of inspiration for Emmylou and Buddy that is the very opposite of the great honky tonk records of the Hank Williams era. “Some of those ‘60’s country recordings are very rich harmonically, especially the ones Billy Sherrill worked on. You’d sometimes have electric, acoustic, and tic-tac bass along with piano, drums, organ, several guitars, a string section, and a small chorus of background singers. The basic chord structure of the tune could be fairly straight ahead but then, out of nowhere, you’d hear these jazzy passing chords dropped in, and it all sounded so natural and beautiful. I’ll always be thankful to Buddy Miller for turning me on to that stuff.”
Chris balances his time with Emmylou using both upright and his Epiphone Jack Casady
, but when working with Buddy Miller his main instrument has been double bass, at least until recently. “Buddy and Emmy draw from the same pool of musical influences but Buddy’s solo sets are raw, primal, and explosive. It was a funny conundrum at first because Buddy is a big fan of the double bass, but the volume of his AC30 would consume almost anything in its sonic path.”
Which brings the conversation to one of the most basic questions that any musician has to grapple with, the difference between being loud and intense. Since vocalists, regardless of their singing volume,depend on a bassist to support and inspire their phrasing balancing volume and intensity is both intuitive and technical in Chris’ view.
“I certainly love to play loud and throw subtlety to the wind,” said Chris, “but playing in more intimate performance settings actually requires greater amounts of musical intensity and commitment. When playing for smaller audiences, I often find that the more quiet the music becomes the more closely everyone listens, performers and audience alike. It’s a thrilling and intimidating experience all at the same time.”
Chris also found that the path to resolving these and other musical questions has often taken him to places outside music. “At this point in my life, I’m making it a priority to maintain honest and rewarding relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues, and to always give my full attention to each individual moment. When I’m considering a new project or experience, musical or otherwise, I try to look past any short-term rewards or goals and ask myself honestly can I get lost in this? Will I come away from it inspired and a little wiser? As I’ve started considering these questions, I’ve found much more freedom to be authentic both personally and as a musician.”
photos with Emmylou at Town Hall courtesy Tanya Braganti. All other photos courtesy Chris Donohue.