Mavis Staples, Jeff Turmes, Soulful Simplicity

THERE’S A MOMENT BETWEEN songs on Mavis Staples’s Live: Hope at the Hideout when the singer declares her mission about as succinctly as any musician can: “We’ve come tonight to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration, and positive vibrations,” she purrs in her signature sandpaper growl.
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THERE’S A MOMENT BETWEEN songs on Mavis Staples’s Live: Hope at the Hideout when the singer declares her mission about as succinctly as any musician can: “We’ve come tonight to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration, and positive vibrations,” she purrs in her signature sandpaper growl. “We want to leave you with enough to last you for maybe the next six months.”

For bassist and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Turmes, who was part of the three-piece backing band on that gig, the inspirational ride is still going strong. Staples’s latest studio romp, You Are NotAlone, features her core trio of Turmes, guitarist Rick Holmstrom and drummer Stephen Hodges. The three have logged many miles together, and the experience shows in Jeff’s easy hold on the pocket and the woody, foam-muted sound of his bass—a throwback to the dusty tones of Muscle Shoals session legend David Hood on such Staple Singers classics as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”

“I love that old soul sound—the Fender bass with flatwound strings and that dry tone in the low mids,” says Turmes. “You don’t even need to get all that loud; if you dial your tone back with just the right amount of low midrange on the amp, and you’re using the mute, it has a quality that really works for this kind of music.”

Produced by Jeff Tweedy and recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio, You Are Not Alone is built on the gospel and soul foundation that underpins Mavis Staples’s legacy, but takes a few unexpected turns into the meditative, alt-country sound Tweedy cultivated with Wilco. The title track, a mournful Neil Young-style ballad, leaves plenty of room for Turmes to lay out on whole-notes during the verse, until he slips a sweetly ascending quarter-note line into the chorus, providing just the right amount of lift for the song’s quiet mood. On “Only the Lord Knows,” a midtempo blues rocker, Turmes drives the song with a melody that shadows the vocal in all the right places.

Jeff’s preference to keep things simple extends to his fingering technique, which over the years has morphed into what he calls a “claw” position, relying almost solely on his index finger to play the notes he needs. “I found out later that James Jamerson played everything with one finger on those Motown records, but I don’t want to put myself in even the same sentence as him,” says Turmes. “I’m just able to articulate best with that technique. I also tend to play behind the pickup, rather than in front of it. Keith Ferguson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds used to play there and get great tone, and that’s definitely been an influence on me.”

As for what it’s like to play regularly behind an soul and gospel legend, Turmes breaks it down to its essence. “It’s amazing, man,” he marvels. “Mavis just drives you to play because she’s so powerful as a singer, and she gives herself to her audience. She’s the embodiment of everything that she sings about, and on top of that she’s a really loving person with a million great stories.”

HEAR HIM ON
Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone [Anti-, 2010]; Mavis Staples, Live: Hope At The Hideout [Anti-, 2008]

GEAR
Bass Late-’60s Fender Telecaster Bass with flatwound strings
Rig Vintage Ampeg SVT head with 8x10, 6x10 or 2x15 cabinet

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