“I WAS BORN TO SLAP AN UPRIGHT BASS,” SAYS AMY LAVERE. CATCH her onstage with the Wandering (including Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars/Black Crowes) or her duo with co-Wanderer Shannon McNally, and it’s clear LaVere is not kidding. Others might be more schooled, but no player is more at home slapping an upright bass in perfect pocket to a country two-step than LaVere. The bass isn’t just LaVere’s instrument— it’s her dance partner. She twirls it around and twirls her body around the bass in harmonious flow. When the upright lady unleashes her lovely voice, the dance is on and all bets are off .
How did you get your slap bass wings?
I was living with a house full of musicians. I was the only girl. It was a lot like Three’s Company, but there were five of us. A few of the occupants at the time were members of Those Legendary Shack Shakers. There was also a guy who never paid rent— we kept him around for his sense of humor—plus Jason Brown, who was the upright bass player for Hank Williams III, and me. One evening I picked up Jason’s bass and started hopping around and slapping it in an effort to mock him and get a laugh. I play a little guitar, so I knew the notes well enough to play a two-beat in E. I was goofing off , and Jason’s jaw was on the floor—“You’re doing it!”
What would you recommend to an electric player who is considering jumping to upright and giving slap a go?
I’m not sure it’s possible to teach just anyone how to do it. Your hands have to be very relaxed but have purpose, and the rest is “the force.” I don’t mean “force” in the sense of strength, I mean it in the Star Wars use of the word, or going “snake eyes” as they say in Little BigMan. Realize it’s a dance for your hands. Probably the best way to start would be to pick out your favorite Johnny Cash record, drink a little straight bourbon until you are pretty loose, happy, and dancing around the room by yourself. It’s important to not take yourself too seriously if you want to do this well. You simply cannot approach slap bass with any tension or stress involved.
All right, we’re dancing. What’s the next step?
Pick up the upright and dance with it for a while. Flip the record. Then play along. It’s really primitive stuff . This way of playing upright is more akin to jungle drumming than playing a “song.” You have to lose yourself in it and boogie with the pulse— get into it, man! Most important, whatever you do, do not think about playing slap bass when playing slap bass.
Amy LaVere & Shannon McNally, Chasing the Ghost Rehearsal Sessions [Archer, 2012]; The Wandering, Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here: MississippiFolk Music Volume III [Songs of the South, 2012]
Bass Early ’70s e-size Engelhardt upright
Rig Fishman BP-100 pickup, Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum Preamp/ EQ/DI, Gallien-Krueger MB Fusion head, two Gallien-Krueger Neo 212-II cabs
Strings Thomastik Spirocore S42 medium