Kevin Smith: Working the Swing Shift with Willie Nelson

As one of Austin’s premier bass players, Kevin Smith has performed and recorded with many of the best-known and influential artists in the last two decades of American roots music.
By Tim Curran ,

As one of Austin’s premier bass players, Kevin Smith has performed and recorded with many of the best-known and influential artists in the last two decades of American roots music. Since making a mark in the ’90s with High Noon, perhaps the best rockabilly band since the ’50s, Smith developed a reputation as an outstanding swing bassist and slap-bass specialist, and he went on to play with Dwight Yoakam, Brian Setzer, and the Asylum Street Spankers. But one gig, looming large over the Lone Star State’s musical landscape, is with a true living legend: Willie Nelson. Smith has been doubling on upright and electric since Willie’s long-time bass player, “Bee” Spears, died unexpectedly in 2011.

How has your playing changed since you started playing with Willie?

I’m playing electric more consistently than I do in Austin, so my electric playing has improved a lot. As for my upright playing, I’m getting a little better at playing less. It’s a pretty sparse gig, and most of the instruments are acoustic, so I try to think of it as an acoustic gig. Because there’s no set list, the only thing we know for sure when we start out is that we’re opening with “Whiskey River.” I always play that on electric to get the energy up and get things rocking, but after that, the show can go in any direction. Usually, I’ll switch to the upright when someone takes a long intro. I try to keep my feel consistent between the electric and upright, so that it doesn’t throw anyone off.

How did you get into slapping on the upright?

When I started playing bass, I started playing rockabilly, and slapping is an important part of that. My second band was High Noon, a drummer-less trio with acoustic guitar and electric guitar. We were playing in Austin and around Texas, doing a lot of dance halls for ten years, and we needed to be prepared for three or four hours of playing so people would dance and drink beer. I was in an incubator where I could be the bass player and drummer at the same time. If you have a good acoustic guitar player, everything is stable, and you can go off and experiment inside a song.

What do a lot of people get wrong about playing slap?

A lot of people hunch over—that’s really inefficient and forces all of the energy from your right arm to come from the shoulder. If you stand with your shoulders back, your right arm is basically being affected by gravity, so when you move your hand out, it’ll naturally swing back, giving you momentum like a spring. It’s a lot more efficient. You’re using the energy that’s already there to enhance what you’re doing.

INFO

LISTEN

Willie Nelson, Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin [Sony Legacy]; High Noon, Flatland Saturday Night [Bear Family]; Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, Beatin’ the Heat [Surfdog].

EQUIP

Basses Upright, vintage Lewis & Sons plywood bass; electrics, white Fender Precision ’62 Reissue and Epiphone Jack Casady Signature.
Strings Upright, D’Addario Zyex; electrics, DR Strings Flatwound Legend.
Pickup & mic Underwood pickup (with one paddle removed from bridge) and DPA 4099B microphone, into Acoustic Image Flex preamp, and blended before going to the amp. “The mic isn’t the primary source; it rounds out the sound and evens everything out. It makes it feel much more acoustic.”
Amps Upright, Genz-Benz 6.0 Shuttle with Genz-Benz STL-210T 2x10 and STL-12T 1x12 cabinets; electrics, Fender Bassman TV 15 1x15 combo.
DI Radial JDI between the P-Bass and the Bassman.