There's an old saying in the music business: You get points for sticking around. There may be no greater example of the adage’s underlying truth than master acoustic/electric doubler and Nashville mainstay Byron House, whose long and winding professional career as a highly respected folk/country/rock bassist has led him to one of the most prestigious gigs available today—touring with legendary Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant in support of the album they recorded together, the Americana- flavored Band Of Joy.
“It was really neat that I’ve got all this history of enjoying his awesome, mighty singing, and then I’ve seen him draw near to this Nashville contingency,” says House, who just turned 51. “Robert is a wealth of knowledge about American roots music, blues, rockabilly, original rock and roll, R&B, and all kinds of different things. He’s an absolute fountain of enthusiasm.”
A Bowling Green, KY native who played mainly banjo as a teenager, Byron House met Sam Bush (in the New Grass Revival years) when he was only 11, and it didn’t take much to get him going. Hearing Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira [1976, Asylum] got him hooked on bass as a principal instrument. A dormant upright laying around a military school led him to years of college-age study on acoustic, both in America and in Europe. He was a Fairlight programmer in a famous Nashville studio throughout his twenties, all the while studying recording techniques of the session masters of the day. This crazy amalgam of experience slowly and steadily led to recording and live dates on both upright and electric with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Jerry Douglas, Jorma Kaukonen, and Nickel Creek, all while he was playing on and off with the guy he met back in Bowling Green, Sam Bush. When Robert Plant called, House and Bush had been playing together in some form or another for 30 years.
His influences range from Jaco, Jamerson, Paul McCartney and Phil Lesh on electric, to Ray Brown and Paul Chambers on upright, and he brings every ounce of his hard-won experience to the table in anchoring Plant’s new album, a joyous celebration of distinctly American music. “My bass playing career in the studio has been kind of a slow burn. I just landed with some great songwriters and talent. I’ve been really blessed in the type of folks that have taken a liking to what I do.”
How did you land the Robert Plant gig in the first place?
God bless [Band Of Joy producer] Buddy Miller! I met Buddy when he moved to Nashville. I’m on every record that he’s done under his name, and I’ve done numerous production projects with him as well. We did a gig called Classical Americana at the Schermerhorn Center in Nashville. We were all sitting backstage and Buddy’s like, “I’ve been telling Robert about you. He wants to do a project with me.” He said, “I’m not sure what he has in mind but some of the ways he likes things to go on stage, to have a spontaneous element about them, and your background with upright and electric and different things, I hope this could work out.” I said, “I hope so too. That would be fantastic.”
Buddy asked me to hold a couple of weeks in December. He called a few days before the sessions and said, “You know, this could all be over in a day or two. We’re going to just test it out. Robert wants to see what everything sounds like.” So it was to my great delight about halfway through day two that we started recording instantly. We cut two of the songs on the record that first day.
What was the atmosphere like that first day?
I think it was full of expectation on everybody’s part—a little bit like a first date. I read something later that Robert said the first four hours when you meet a musician are the most crucial. So I guess we passed the audition and it was just a wonderful pairing.
But during the initial getting-to-knoweach- other, of course, we’re all going, “I hope he likes it!” To have him come in midway that second day and go, “Looks like we’re making a record”—you know?! Within days, Buddy was saying “Robert really hopes that everybody would like to go out and play this stuff on the road.” I said, “Well, we’ll see. I’d love nothing more. I hope that can happen.” Of course I was with Sam [Bush], so I had to get that worked out. I actually ended up departing Sam’s band because he needed somebody there.
This is after how many years with Sam?
Nearly 30. We’ll still play—but it was time for me to move on, really. A door was opened that I feel like was just an opportunity like no other. I had this prayer in my mind that if I was supposed to leave Sam, just let it be like a skillet dropping on my head [laughs], because we had a great many wonderful musical experiences together, and I look forward to more.
But as far as now, I couldn’t imagine a better situation to be in. Robert is the ultimate great guy to work for. He treats us really, really well, and it’s all so collaborative. It was his idea to make it a band. For him to give it the name Band of Joy just blew me away. I think that he really felt that in the studio. We had a little band dinner after the first round of tracking, and he was like, “I feel it. I know that this is not some financial venture. There is music and I feel what you guys are putting into this.” There was a lot of joy in those sessions.
What’s that really aggressive distorted sound in the beginning of “You Can’t Buy My Love”?
It’s the Novak Replitar through the Tech 21 SansAmp through the 65amps preamp through the Eden, with the Bassman driving the 1x15 cab. I had come up with the chorus line and Robert goes, “That’s a good bass line,” so I kept that. And then we decided to attack this other little thing I was doing and make that the intro. I hadn’t yet added the SansAmp, and [engineer] Mike Poole chimed in and said, “It’s great, but its teeth aren’t glistening.” So I said, “Ok, give me a second,” and I dialed up the little SansAmp pedal. There’s a little section at the end, and Robert said, “Now go into something on the end here—a part. Lock down on something.” I based it on the chorus part, but he said, “A little bit like Entwistle, or Jonesy [John Paul Jones] on the Alembic.” So that rang my bell— I had the Who’s Live At Leeds album as a kid. I’m just really at a loss for words to describe the feeling of being in there with Robert helping me craft a bass line, paying tribute to some of his favorites.
What’s it like performing some of the classic Plant songs live?
Robert didn’t want any of it to really resemble the Zeppelin sound. “Houses of the Holy” was the first one we worked up, and once we got that it was kind of like, “phew.” You could just see him relieved that we would have a sound of our own, which is kind of a daunting task and I know it was on his mind.
It wasn’t possible to just learn material, come in, and okay—the band’s ready. It was all about having a general idea of the chords in the song. We kind of fragmented some riffs and stuff and took different things from the Zeppelin era and simplified them. We took a lot of pushes out of different things, and we put keys where they were very good for him to be singing. We’re playing “Rock and Roll” and we’re doing it in E, which is a fourth down from the original key. But he sounds amazing doing it. He’s delivering the original melody and it sounds right for where he is at 61. I play upright bass on it, and it’s a slap bass kind of a thing, and it’s got steel guitar on it. Having the upright and the steel is obviously different, but it’s totally walking in the sound of the music that it may have been derived from. If you listen to the intro on “Rock and Roll” that Bonham played, it’s got Little Richard all over it.
What are your thoughts on the role of bass in folk music and Americana today?
It’s been very exciting for me to see that upright bass has returned. It’s been a little bit of a double-edged sword in that I think there were years in town that people who would call me [for gigs and sessions] didn’t know I played electric bass. I love the resurgence of the upright, but I also love electric bass as well. I like to look at it for the song and the timbre, the tone that the artist is envisioning.
I like to employ a variety of tones in folk music, because I think people make the mistake of thinking that upright bass should only be played with acoustic guitar, or an electric bass is for this kind of music. The tone is really in the mind of the player and in the hands.
If you could track bass for a major artist in a completely different genre, who would it be and why?
The person that comes to mind without even thinking about it is Joni Mitchell. It goes back to what I said is my opinion on the finest hour of the bass player who inspired me to choose the instrument—Jaco—and he’s gone. I really admire her Court And Spark record. I love what Max Bennett did on that.
So I’m a rock’n’soul-funky-jazz’n’country- Americana-bluegrass-y kind of guy! [Laughs.] I just love it all. If somebody is really delivering the goods with heart, and lyrically it’s not something that I just can’t stomach, then I’m honored to be there every time.
ON MAKING BAND OF JOY
“My goal is to be as supportive to the singing as I possibly can, because that’s what the song is. Everything else can go away, and a great song will be carried just by the melody and the lyric with a great singer. But I feel like it’s a kind of tapestry— something that’s woven together. It’s fun to lock up with things in the right circumstance, but more intriguing to me is doing some of that and then intertwining lyrical elements, but ideally in a way that won’t detract from the vocal but to only enhance. So that’s what I was thinking.”
ON “HOUSE OF CARDS”
“The last verse has some things that point to Jack Casady and Paul McCartney. I enjoy those moments when you have a chance to do something lyrical but that still has a little shine on it, and then there’s a drop down in the end of that verse. It’s painting a lyrical picture as well, because it’s the house of cards tumbling down.”
ON “CENTRAL 209”
“Funky gutbucket-type upright bass. I enjoy incorporating a little bit of that Stax thing you might hear in the bass and drums. The place I first noticed it was John R. Robinson’s playing on Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” There’s this great little bass drum thing he does halfway through the back half of the solo. I’ve looked for ways to apply that one, two, three and four kind of thing. It’s putting it in pretty technical terms, I guess, but that song is a lot of fun.
ON “SILVER RIDER”
“That’s the only tune where I got to use my old ’56 P-Bass. It’s got flatwound strings, but the treble is just maxed out. I was reminded of Phil Lesh and the tones he had on “American Beauty” and “Friend of the Devil”—beautiful, a little bit crispy, but full, and with some distortion, really supporting the verses, and then branching out with some kind of lyricism in the bass. I believe I asked Robert if he wanted something more locked down and solid in the outro because I had ventured pretty well, and he said, “This is great.”
It was synth bass on the original. At that time I think I was using the MXR into the SansAmp. We put that MXR on the front end, so it’s masked by the whole distortion vibe. It’s very appealing to me that way.
ON “SATAN, YOUR KINGDOM MUST COME DOWN”
That was the second song we cut. It was the first MP3 Robert sent me, reaching back into some really ancient gospel stuff. I think it’s a powerful song. It’s become kind of the centerpiece of the show in a way. At the time we cut it, of course, I didn’t know it was going to end up sounding like that, and we were just in our first day together. So I was like, “Well, that first tune turned out pretty good, I think. Let’s see what happens here.”
HEAR HIM ON
Robert Plant, Band Of Joy [2010, Rounder], Sam Bush, Circles Around Me [2009, Sugarhill], Mark O’Connor, Jam Session [2010, OMAC], Jorma Kaukonen, Stars In My Crown [2007, Red House], Nickel Creek, This Side [2002, Sugarhill]
Basses Novak Replitar, fretless Fender Precision Bass (modded to P/J setup with Bartolini pickups), ’56 Fender Precision Bass, 5-string Fender Jazz Bass (with Novak pickups), Epiphone Jack Casady Signature, 1880s Czech flatback 3/4"- size upright with C extension and Barcus Berry pickup, Clevinger electric upright
Rig 65amps Apollo Head (preamp only) into Eden Highwayman WT-500 (first effects return input), Trace Elliot 2x10 cabinet, 65amps 1x15 cabinet, Analysis Plus Pro Audio Cables
Effects Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI, MXR Envelope Filter, Chunk Systems Agent00Funk Mark II, Chunk Systems Brown Dog distortion, Loop-Master A/B w/Effects Loop
Strings D’Addario Chrome flatwounds, D’Addario XL Nickel roundwounds; Corelli rope-core bass strings (upright)
Studio signal chain Direct: 65amps Apollo head into Eden Highwayman WT-500, DI out of Eden head; Fender Bassman head with Trace Elliot or 65amps cabinet