Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
FBPO: How did you learn to play? Did you study the bass formally or did you just teach yourself or learn from those around you?
MR: I didn’t teach myself, really. I learned from those around me. I learned by listening and I picked up as much as I could. I did not study formally, though; I just played. I was a teenager and I just played all the time. I played with records and I played with other people. I would go to bluegrass festivals and spend hours and hours jamming with other musicians, mostly people my own age, so it was just that.
After I graduated high school, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and I got a job with a band that was playing full time. Of course we weren’t really making a lot of money, but the music was quite interesting and it was quite challenging, really, because all of the other musicians in the band had a lot of musical knowledge. They had a lot of background in theory and all that and I didn’t, so I spent some time during my early 20s kind of beefing up a little bit on theory. I just kind of did it on my own. I never had a formal (music) education.
FBPO: When did your career first start to take off? Was there a defining moment you can identify?
MR: I worked with this band that I was just speaking of for three or four years and then I went on the road with one of the second generation bluegrass legends, Eddie Adcock, for about eight years. He had been in David Allan Coe’s band for a while. He’d just gotten off the road from that scene, but he was one of the original band members of The Country Gentlemen, which was the band that I grew up listening to, so it felt a little bit like I had come full circle playing with him. That experience definitely gave me an introduction to what it’s like traveling as a full-time musician out on the road and playing venues that I had not played before.
Then my husband and I decided to make the move to Nashville and I guess it was probably after that I started getting calls to fill in with bands, a lot of them playing the Grand Ole Opry and various things like that. Through that, I got my next job that I felt was really great, which was to play with Claire Lynch, who I worked with for pretty much the next twelve years. I recorded lots of records with her and GRAMMY-nominated albums and stuff like that.
FBPO: It sounds like things really moved into high gear.
MR: One thing led to another through word of mouth. When we moved to Nashville, we actually did know a few people because many of our musician friends from around the country were living here or were coming here. Now there’s just a huge community where many of us that have known each other from other places are all living here. It’s a great central place to be located if you do make your living playing music. It’s not that we all play so much in Nashville, but it’s just a really great place to sort of be centralized and then play from.
FBPO: Were you part of the “Low Notes for Nashville” benefit concert?
MR: I was not, actually. I supported it, but I wasn’t part of it.
FBPO: There are a lot of great bass players in Nashville. I hadn’t realized until recently they were all in that area: Victor Wooten, Roy Vogt, Lane Baldwin, Adam Nitti and several others.
MR: Yeah, this town has now and has had many really great bass artists. It has great everything. When I go to dinner tonight, I’m probably going to be waited on by some really incredible fiddle player, you know, or the next great songwriter.
FBPO: I hope the food’s good, too!
MR: The food will be good. It’s a really great town. It’s changed a lot. I’ve been here about twenty years and it’s changed a lot—it’s evolved and it’s a really great community. It’s in the South and it’s got nice Southern attributes to it, but it’s also a very eclectic and artistic community.
FBPO: Tell me about The New Hip. I really like that name, by the way!
MR: Well, I just finished another session for our new record. The New Hip is a band that I started a few years ago, my first time to lead my own band. I consider myself a bluegrass bass player, but I’ve always really loved and studied and been influenced by many kinds of music—a lot of jazz and a lot of great vocalists, a lot of rock music and just a lot of styles that, to me, are related to bluegrass but aren’t necessarily bluegrass. I’ve always wanted to have a band where I could explore some of the things that I love most about music and create music and do it my way and not worry about the genre, not worry about whether it fit into this mold or that mold or this category or that category. I just want to be able to put together whatever instruments I wanted to and do the songs that I wanted to and just honor the songs with the arrangements and not worry about what mold we might be fitting into.
So that’s kind of what this band is about. We’re a band with drums, we have electric guitar, we have acoustic guitar and then we have mandolin. Sometimes we’re just bass and drums, sometimes we’re acoustic guitar, mandolin, drum and bass and all these different variations. Sometimes we’re electric guitar and mandolin, which is a really cool sound. Mandolin is very much a part of everything we do. It’s obviously a very bluegrass instrument, but I like the juxtaposition of all of these different instruments. A lot of the material that we’re doing is definitely not considered bluegrass. To me, it’s just that I’ve hoped to always find and write great songs and just create arrangements that make them work.
FBPO: It’s interesting that you say that because that band has been described in so many ways. It’s acoustic, it’s electric, it’s jazz, it’s R&B, and—my personal favorite—“Rhythm & Bluegrass.” What do you call it? Do you just call it The New Hip and let the people decide for themselves how they want to slot it?
MR: Well, that’s what I would love to be able to do, just say it’s new hip music, but I recognize the fact that I live in a society that must label things, and so I’m always being kind of pushed to categorize it. I have called it Americana jam jazz, or Indie rocks bluegrass. I’ve called it all these things, but I think that on this new record I’m definitely doing a whole lot more singing, which has been really exciting for me and really wonderful, an avenue that I’ve always wanted to go down. Then there’s the whole “I don’t care what they call it just so long as they call it” kind of thing!
FBPO: Tell me about your experience as a female bassist playing an instrument that’s traditionally been played by men. Do you ever think about that?
MR: I have. I used to think about it. I didn’t think about it when I first started it because I was a kid and when you’re a kid, I don’t think you think those things. You’re just playing bass and you’re not thinking about it. When I went out as a kid, I would hear people say, “Wow, is that a girl playing that?” None of those sentiments had been said to me in my home. That was a really new thing. It was like, “Oh, I guess this is kind of weird or different.”
I was never given that mindset by my parents at all, so it never occurred to me much. It’s only been from other people that I realize that the thought is there, so I don’t think about it much. Almost all, I suppose, of my greatest influences have been men, although there have been some important women too that have played in the early days, even then, but especially now.
FBPO: Like Esperanza Spalding?
MR: Yeah, people like that. There are role models coming in right and left. But for me, early on, I was probably always relating to men as players. It never registered that it was male or female. It was just, “Oh, that’s great music. I want to play that!”
As a singer, I will say that it registered even more, especially with bluegrass, because I don’t have a bluegrass voice. I feel like I have a much more stylized voice, and it’s just sort of my thing. I never could see me singing like some of my favorite male singers, or particularly the female bluegrass singers, who sing high and kind of lonesome. That wasn’t me, so it took me longer to try to find my identity. I can relate way more to some singers like Bonnie Raitt, Shelby Lynne and people like that who sort of speak to me a little bit more.
FBPO: Tell me about this new bass instruction series you’re doing, with Nathan East and John Patitucci rounding out the bass faculty. Were you already there before the others or did you all join at the same time?
MR: The Academy of Bluegrass School of Bass was launched first and then the Bass Campus came with John and Nathan joining me. The folks at ArtistWorks are just this amazing company that have taken on teaching music to the world. They put together this campus, which includes John Patitucci and Nathan East, and it gives this completely rounded direction of an opportunity for bass players because there’s something for everyone.
FBPO: I understand the students can send videos of themselves to the teacher for one-on-one feedback. Couldn’t that get out of hand pretty quickly?
MR: You mean a lot of videos and a lot of responses?
MR: There’s definitely a lot of that going on and you have to stay up on top of it. But not everyone is going to do a video. One of the things that we’ve learned is that many people are learning so much just by watching other videos that people have put up and the responses to those. It’s become like this huge virtual master class because you can watch all of the other videos that people are doing to see what you have in common with what they’re doing or you can send your own videos. Not everyone is going to send in a video. If I were trying to provide individual lessons to all of these people, that would be impossible, so this site allows me to reach thousands of people in a way that I wouldn’t be able to any other way.
Deone Jahnke Photography
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days, Missy?
MR: We’re busy right now, just working on this new record and it’s going along just great. In addition to touring heavily with my band, I just finished a weekend in Wisconsin with several bluegrass greats—David Grier, Mike Compton, Shad Cobb—where we did a couple sets of pretty traditional bluegrass and old time music. I also did a recent tour with another great guitar player, Jeff Autry, and we did some slightly different stuff. For me, it’s just trying to keep a balance and play as much as I can, so I’ve got that going.
As a matter of fact, David Grier, Mike Compton, Shad Cobb and I have officially become a band now: The Helen Highwater Stringband. We’ll all still be focusing on our “main” gigs, but we’ll be doing some performing in 2013 as this band and, who knows, maybe a recording. This band has a very traditional slant and it’s just awesome to get to play both New Hip music and have an outlet for my traditional bluegrass passion, too!
In addition to working on the new record, I did the IBMAs—the International Bluegrass Music conference—with my band at the end of September, where we stretched that bluegrass boundary yet again. Other than that, I’m just busy getting the tour schedules in line for next year. There’s so much to be done!
FBPO: What else is in the future? You’ve been at this a little while. What else would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
MR: There’s a lot more music that I’d like to record and write. I’d like to do a really great bluegrass record one day with a select group of folks. I’m actually planning a Christmas album for next year, too. In terms of really big goals, I’ve been writing more and more lately than ever, both for the bass and songs, as I say, with actual words! What I’d really love to do is write a whole lot more and record a whole lot more of my own stuff.
FBPO: What would you be if you were not a bass player?
MR: I would work in my yard all day and I would take in every stray animal that I ran across. And I would be still just as broke as I am now! I like to cook, I like to garden and I’d definitely take in strays and foster them.
I would probably do some kind of crazy combination of all that or maybe run some sort of an animal shelter. The trouble is, I’ve been asked this before, and I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine what I would do if I wasn’t playing music. I really can’t.
For information about enrolling in Missy's online instructional bass program, click on the banner, below:
See our exclusive FBPO interviews with Lane Baldwin, Nathan East, Adam Nitti,
John Patitucci, Roy Vogt and Victor Wooten, all of whom are mentioned in this interview.