CALLING MIKE HUCKABEE America’s most famous weekend-warrior bassist requires, to borrow a word, audacity. But consider: The former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate’s Fox News TV show, Huckabee, attracts four to six million weekly viewers nationwide; his radio show The Huckabee Report (Citadel Media) airs on over 500 stations three times daily, reaching 3.4 million listeners; he’s a best-selling author of eight novels … and he is a bona fide bass geek.
Want proof? How about the Fender Custom Shop Jazz Bass he got to replace the one he sold 40 years ago: “I had it rebuilt like the one I had when I was a teenager,” says Huckabee, now 55, “exactly like the sunburst 1968 model, with a tortoiseshell pickguard, the finger-rest on the bottom, and the pickup guards over the pickups. I looked for it, and the only thing I could find that was authentic cost upwards of $14,000, and I didn’t want to go there.”
Or how about when he was on NBC’s The Tonight Show in 2008, and Jay Leno cajoled him into sitting in with the band, and he broke out a mean blues shuffle, complete with fills and passing tones? In Eb, of all keys? “People have me so stereotyped,” says Huckabee. “It’s so funny—because they know some political view I hold, they assume they know everything about me: that I’m very straight-laced, and that I only want to play in a church band with musicians that wear crew cuts and narrow ties. Are you kidding me?”
Raised in a middle-class family in Hope, Arkansas, Huckabee’s teenage musical aspirations took a backseat to the economic realities of raising a family. He learned mostly by ear, listening to players like Paul McCartney, Peter Cetera, Carol Kaye, and Mel Schacher of Grand Funk Railroad. Now he wants kids to have opportunities he didn’t have, and works with the NAMM Foundation’s “Wanna Play?” Fund to do just that. A recent charity release, I Wanna Play, features Huckabee’s bass on tracks by Aaron Tippin and Louise Mandrell, and also contains contributions from Neil Sedaka, George Jones, Ronnie Milsap, Darryl Worley, and others. All of the profits go to buy musical instruments for kids who can’t afford them.
Now, Huckabee is making up for lost time as a player. A band he started with friends in Arkansas—Capitol Offense— opened for Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels, and played gigs at major venues, from Red Rocks to the Republican National Convention. Now he’s playing on Fox News’ Huckabee every week with his band the Little Rockers (a pun on the Arkansas capital), made up of fellow player/employees—“sound, lighting, and camera guys, floor directors, graphic artists”—from inside the Fox News studio building. Artists who have used either the Little Rockers as a house band or just Huckabee on bass include Aaron Tippin, Lee Greenwood, Andy Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Meat Loaf.
“For an amateur guy who has never been able to play professionally, to get to play every week with some of the greatest artists of all time—it’s just pretty heady stuff.” It took a while, but it looks like Mike Huckabee went pro after all.
How did you first discover playing bass and music as a passion?
I started playing guitar when I was 11. I got my first guitar, which was one that I had begged for for three years, and my parents really couldn’t afford a guitar. But one Christmas I said, “I want a guitar or I want nothing.” My parents ordered an electric guitar from the JC Penney catalog. The whole rig—which included the amplifier, the bag, everything—cost $99. It took them a year to pay for it. They pretty much did not have a Christmas for themselves that year so they could get that guitar for me. I played that thing until my fingers nearly bled.
By the time I was 12 I realized that there were a lot of people starting to play guitar, but virtually nobody at that age was playing bass. I loved the sound of the bass and the power of it, so I decided that I would take up bass guitar. I listened to every bass player I could. I started playing in bands in junior high, country and rock bands, whatever I could sit in with.
Did you study music formally in school?
No, I didn’t. I wanted to play rock and be in bands. At that time my high school did not have a great music program. It later would—in fact, it had one of the best ever. But at the time, it wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so passionate about music and arts programs for kids, both as governor and through projects like the “Wanna Play?” fund.
As you got closer to graduating high school, was there ever a moment when you seriously considered being a full-time professional musician?
I would have loved to do it. If someone had come along and said, “Kid, you’re good enough, we want you in our band,” I would have been on the next bus [laughs]. I tell people to this day, instead of running for president, I would have gone on the road with a band. You know, I’m a pretty good ham and egger—I can hold my own for the most part. But nobody’s calling me to sit in on Nashville sessions.
Considering the demands on your time from being in politics and media, how do you find time to play bass?
I think that’s the real issue—by making time. If I waited until I found time, I’d never play. One of the good things about having the music section on my show is it gives me a good excuse to play. The other thing is people know that I play … a lot of professional bass players don’t get near the exposure that I get playing bass in front of several million people a week. So one of the things that happened is now everybody assumes that I’m capable of walking in and playing anything. So when I make a speech, 75 percent of the time if they’re doing any music as part of the event, they’ll say, “Come out and play with us!” Sometimes it puts me in some very awkward positions, and I try to tell people, “Look, I’m not that proficient where I can just walk up and play any piece of music you guys have ever known.”
What does bass playing provide for you?
For one thing, it’s therapeutic. I need something to take me away from the world of conflict, competition, and confrontation that I sometimes live in. Politics and media are both very tense, high-pressured environments. When I’m immersed in a piece of music, there’s nothing Republican, Democrat, left, or right about it. It’s a civilizing influence, and, for me, one of the purest ways to relax and reconnect with my human self.
One of the coolest things about music is that I can go into any pawn shop and start playing around on instruments. I may see somebody there who’s tattooed, and who’s got more metal piercings than the grill on a Buick. Generationally, we’re worlds apart— maybe politically, too. But people don’t size me in that scenario, saying, “Oh, you’re a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian who works at Fox News and therefore I don’t like you.” Music allows people to bridge all the gaps and deal with people on a footing that is absolutely equal.
How do you view the role of music in education?
Every little kid draws pictures, playacts, sings, and beats on things to rhythm. Somewhere between ages five and fifteen, we beat the ever-loving creativity out of that kid. It’s as if our educational system is geared toward taking away that which is most natural to us—that which doesn’t have to be begged for and encouraged when we’re little. What a shame!
This is what irritates me so much about today’s education system when people take music and art out of the schools, because it’s taking something that is vitally important to our total educational capacity, and especially for kids who are right-brain-dominant. One in three kids drops out of school, and it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re bored. And often, it’s the right-brain-dominant kid who is by his nature creative, which means he’s artistic, musical, thinking about dance or acting or visual arts. And we tell him, “Sit down, be quiet, look at the board, put your face in the book, put both feet on the floor.” It’s ridiculous.
I put it this way: Music and art programs are not extraneous, expendable, or extra-curricular. They’re essential. They ought to be as much a part of an education for children as math, science, history, and language. When I was governor, Arkansas became one of the few states that mandated music and art instruction for every kid in grades K-12. Arkansas is not a rich state, and people said, “You can’t afford that.” I said, “We can’t afford not to.”
What’s the best advice you could offer a young aspiring musician?
Get a good instrument—sacrifice if necessary in order to have one that’s fun and good to play, and try to never be in a position where you have to sell it.
Music is one of the few things that you can start with as a kid and it can take you all the way to the finish line as a very old man. Nobody my age is playing tackle football anymore. But you never outgrow music. Even if you were to become so arthritic that you couldn’t play as you once did, you’ll never be at a point where you can’t appreciate and participate in some way. So it’s one of those few life skills. We can’t outgrow or outlive music—it’s timeless.
HEAR HIM ON
Various Artists, I Wanna Play [2010, Stroudavarious]
Basses Tobias Classic, Fender Custom Shop ’68 Jazz Bass Reissue, Rickenbacker 4003, Kala U-Bass
Live rig SWR 750x or Genz Benz GBE 750 head; SWR Goliath 4x10 and Big Ben 1x18 cabs
Effects Boss GT-10B Bass Effects Processor
Strings Curt Mangan FusionMatched Nickel Wound