Recently, JT Crawford asked me to play bass with him and Jane McCoy for the Flint Hills Beef Fest BBQ contest concert Aug. 22.
So we’re just under a month away from “Barracuda” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” From Loverboy to Johnny Cash, the Pretenders to Garth Brooks, we’ll likely have it covered.
Not having touched my bass since the last time we got together, the 2013 Smoke in the Spring barbecue event in Osage City, I was a bit hesitant to agree…only for the simple reason I haven’t had much time or inclination to dedicate to what once had been an integral part of my life.
I first met Red at Paragon Music in Lincoln, Neb, back in the late 1990s.
I had started teaching myself bass guitar a few years earlier after what can only be called a failed flirtation with guitar during a failed attempt at college in Tucson, Ariz. I don’t even remember how I became acquainted with the black three-quarter model I officially started out with, or how I came in contact with the Peavey 5-string that followed. I do remember the 5-string, Thumper, was a ton of fun, either hanging out for a solo creative session or at parties.
However, I made a slight miscalculation that ended our relationship. As in not studying how to properly tune said 5-string.
Inattentiveness to details such as that is bad. Very bad. It leads to bad breakups…or, in this case, a neck so warped it’s impossible to fix. I could have done some repairs, or had somebody else do them for me), but I decided against for some long-forgotten reason. I think a large part of that was I was just looking for something else, something more basic.
So, with Thumper effectively out of the picture, and with me totally hooked on the instrument (thank you, Geddy Lee, John Illsley, Kim Stone, Roscoe Beck, Marcus Miller, Brian Bromberg, John Pattitucci, Flea, Muzz Skillings, Bardi Martin, John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Jeff Ament, Gabe Nelson, Steve Kilbey, Peter Hook and others) I was looking for something long-term right away. There were a lot of flashier (and more expensive) models to dazzle the eye and the fingers. All sorts of brands were available in all colors and finishes.
It was a rather mind-numbing choice to make. And, no, I didn’t have any mind-numbing ingredients in my body when I stopped there.
Given my budget, I had to eliminate most of the store’s selection…and hope one of the less pricey models was the one. I didn’t really have any set criteria when I visited Paragon that summer afternoon other than my new musical partner had to feel right. It had to fee comfortable when it was draped around my neck. My fingers had to slide quickly up and down the neck. The instrument had to hold its tune — something I had struggled with (through a lot of fault of my own) with my previous two basses.
Somehow, some way, Red did. I picked up Red for the first time, plunked a few runs — and I knew. Right then and there.
Red, in case you’re wondering, is an Ibanez TR series 4-string. Twenty-two frets, two pickups, bass and volume knobs. All in all, pretty simple. There were apparently several in the series, and at this point I have no idea if I have a TR 50 or a TR 200 — although judging from a 1995 catalog, it looks like I have the TRB 50. If that’s the case, Red has a light American maple body, maple neck, Powersound pickup setup and standard four-string bridge. Oh, yes — don’t forget the Ibanez All Access neck joint. Again, nothing to make you jump up and say “wow.”
Sometimes, though, you don’t need the “wow” factor to develop something special.
Red became more than my bass, and it didn’t take long for that to happen. With me trying to get a Catholic rock band started, and with me writing lyrics for several years beforehand, Red became more and more of a partner as I conceptualized bass lines, guitar and drum parts to go with the words. We were pretty much inseparable after a short time, and we spent a lot of long hours together. I’d take Red out with me to work some days, over to the church on others to work on some licks. Red would stay up well past 2 am some nights me as I’d hammer out some song details or rock out a jam session with some of my friends.
Soon, Red wasn’t just my music partner. Red also became my dream partner. Music had been part of my life since my dad let me play his cornet back in fifth grade. Even as I slid down the scale from there (thick lips=no range=instrument change) to euphonium, trombone and eventually tuba in high school, I’ve always loved not only listening to music but playing — and performing. I don’t remember when my dream developed of having a rock band, but it’s always been burning for as long as I can remember. Getting a chance to play “as part of a band,” even with all of two performances (a one-song gig at a church and a youth conference), was pretty heady stuff.
Red assisted me in how I wanted my music to sound (what I can describe, at least in my head, as a mix of Rush, early Dire Straits, Candlebox, the Rippingtons without a saxophone and The Church), and although I never purchased any music software to flesh out ideas that sound is still where I want to go if I have the good fortune to do so. Red also helped me unlock my inner performer, although it took a move to Kansas and a shift in music genre philosophy for that to happen. I have never been the cleanest bass player — far from it, actually, and the more amped up I get the messier I get. But as I got more practice in front of people, the mistakes smoothed out and I didn’t let them affect me for long stretches like I did when I started. On top of that, especially as I transitioned from religious rock to more secular music later, I began realizing you can’t just stand there and play and expect people to want you back. You just can’t. You have to, well, “give them a show.”
Off the microphone or off the stage, I have no problem blending into the woodwork. Give me a stage and my bass, and something happens. Something changes. Automatically I’m trying to do what I can to keep the audience engaged, wanting more. I can’t play behind my head (tried that, didn’t work), but I’ve slid on floors, stood on tables, turned my back to the crowd and looked back through my mike at the group (people still laugh at me for that one), used my cell phone for the ballad lighter effect…all while playing what I can only describe as some active bass lines.
And Red saw it all. Was part of it all. Helped to nurture it all.
When I moved to Emporia to become a news reporter with some sports duties, I figured I’d get to form a band at some point. Initially, though, it looked like Red and I would just hang out in my apartment. I was honestly working more to fit into the community than finding fellow musicians. Then two things happened: Crawford called me to play at Reading’s annual concert…but before that, I started dating my future wife.
I actually started dating Ginny as my time in my last praise band was ending. Things developed very quickly, and in barely four months we were engaged. The wedding didn’t take place for another year, but 11 months afterward we had welcomed our daughter, Isabella, to the world.
JT had heard me mention on air that I played bass a few months later, and he invited me to the school to play. Things went well between him and his friends, singer/guitarist Tammy Patterson and drummer Dan “Boogie” Wooge — well enough for us to loosely form a cover band, practice occasionally and look for gigs.
It took a while to develop some contacts, but that eventually happened and we did indeed get some gigs. Quite a few, actually. Osage City, Melvern, Burlingame, Topeka. Even played the Flint Hills Beef Fest main dance back-to-back years.
Life happened, though. I moved from news reporter to news director. JT, Tammy and Dan all had life-changing events of their own. And I started losing interest in playing, especially as I was poorly balancing my home life and sleep. So my personal jam times, which about a decade earlier would run in the hours, could be compressed into 10 minutes or less (usually less). Eventually, about two years ago, the jam times evaporated, with my bass guitar collecting dust on its stand.
Red sat. And waited.
Red’s still waiting.
JT’s call came at a time when I finally was feeling the itch to start playing again, although unfortunately not feeling the itch enough to actually get the instrument out, find the practice amp and play. It took two weeks after JT’s invite before I finally took stock of my current relationship with my bass guitar.
Red’s a different color than Thumper, but Red’s now in similar shape to Thumper when I regretfully set it aside. Red’s been in its case for I don’t remember how long. The neck is dirty…and it’s warped. It’s a different reason, but it’s the same sign of neglect that’s worrisome to me.
I’m not in the best of shape, either, and not just because I’m about 40 pounds overweight. My calluses are completely gone, and soft fingers make for painful bass work. Sliding my fingers up and down the neck, trying a few hammer-ons and trying desperately to remember some of the runs I’d conceptualized over the past 20 years, it still feels right to play.
Dealing with instruments is like dealing with friends. You can’t not interact with your instrument for months, in my case now 15 months, and expect you can pick up where you left off. That certainly hasn’t happened with me and Red. The timing’s currently off, the runs don’t come naturally anymore, my fingers are quite sore after the first couple minutes, the freewheel feel of piecing together the fretboard on the fly and creating a coherent but pretty fricking awesome run just isn’t there.
It will take some time to get reacquainted. Get comfortable again.
But it will happen. Over the past 15 months, I’ve rediscovered the need I’ve apparently always had to have some form of music creativity in my life. For that to happen, I need to be back with Red.
And the whole process will be worth it in the end.