We meet Dave Roe, the all-rounder who did time with the legendary Johnny Cash

Dave Roe is a lucky man, as he is the first to admit. His anecdote about auditioning for the late Johnny Cash is proof of that. “I got the gig with him because a friend of mind lied to him and told that I was the best slap rockabilly bass player that ever lived,” Roe laughs. “I didn’t have a clue what that was! So there was no rehearsals or soundchecks at that gig: I just went out and did it, and he busted me on it. He was the most magnanimous guy, though, and he saw something that he liked in me and he gave me six months to get the style down. It was amazing. That can’t happen! Most people would have just let me go. There were a lot of other great bass players around, and he could easily have got one of them. In fact, some of them were a little miffed at me for a while. It was fascinating. It gave me a place to go, and it really saved my career.”

Although Roe has been a resident of Nashville for years – the obvious place to be if you’re a session musician in the country field – he was born and raised in what is probably America’s most un-country and western state. As he explains, “I grew up about 40 miles away from Honolulu in Hawaii. Back then you mostly had Led Zeppelin cover bands and whatever playing there, but I studied jazz and funk, and I was really deeply into it by the end of the 70s. I also liked roots music, though, much to the chagrin of my fusion friends – who were among the most close-minded people I’ve ever known! – so I moved to Nashville, and the first week I was here I got a gig with [country legend] Jerry Reed. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I walked into it. The timing was just right.”

Although Roe describes himself back then as “just another guy who banged around on an electric bass”, this didn’t stop him playing with Chet Atkins and others before scooping a place in Cash’s Tennessee Three. “I did 10 years with Johnny Cash,” he notes. “He was absolutely the nicest guy I’ve ever worked for or met. I never saw him raise his voice to anyone.” Since then Roe has manned the bass behind artists of the stature of Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Faith Hill, Dwight Yoakam and John Mellencamp. Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t pick the instrument up at all, as he explains.

“I was originally a drummer, and and back in those days you had to wait six weeks for gear to arrive in Hawaii because it came by ship. The craziest thing ever happened: I walked into the store, waiting for some drums to arrive, and I just starting fooling around with a Fender Jazz bass that was there – and I walked up to the counter and said, ‘Could you change my order?’ I can’t tell you why I did it because I have no idea. It just grabbed me. I was already 19 and most players are already moving along by then. Everybody in the neighborhood said ‘What are you doing?’ because I’d played in the high-school marching band and everything.”

This turn of events led Roe to where he is today, with his background in percussion helping him along the way. As he tells us, “Being a drummer helped me when I became a bass player – I knew how to lock into a groove and pay attention to the kick drum. I started gigging pretty much immediately in a rock’n’roll trio. Almost everything we did sounded like Chuck Berry, and it was a good training ground.”

Nowadays Roe has a packed schedule, continuing to ply his trade despite the loss of almost all his gear in 2010. “I’m playing with a few bands at the moment and doing a few sessions. There’s too much going on, I’m too busy…” he chuckles. “I’m a Fender guy, I have a lot of those. I lost almost all my basses in the floods last year, but fortunately for me the companies that I endorse stepped up to the plate and replaced a lot of the stuff. I only salvaged one of my six vintage Fenders. It was a nightmare. Warwick have also been very good to me, they make incredible basses. I also use two uprights, a King and a Hofner.”

He adds: “I have a bunch of different stuff for amplification: I have a couple of Fenders and I use a Peavey 500 for really loud applications, with a couple of 4x10s. I also have a couple of Warwick combos and three or four different rack rigs that I use in the studio. One of my favorite bits of gear is an old obsolete Ampeg SVT preamp, a little direct box. It’s only three years old and I’m hunting high and low to get some more. But most of the time I don’t take any gear to sessions: if you walk in and you see a combo with some good compression, you’re all set.”

Asked who his bass heroes are, Roe explains: “I always go back to John Paul Jones, although I admire James Jamerson of course. He was so funky and so good: I saw Them Crooked Vultures and just killed it. His playing was so musical and so effortless. His chops were all there. He’s the guy for me. I love Anthony Jackson and Alphonso Johnson, too.” 

As a student of fusion, we assume he was a fan of the great Pastorius? “Oh yeah!” he enthuses. “I actually got to hang with Jaco for a couple of nights back before his problems emerged. He was a sweetheart, the nicest guy. The band I was playing with had some history with him back in Florida. In fact, one night he came out and played drums while I played bass, which is probably the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done in my life…”

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