This bass belonged to Music City legend Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance (1926–2005), and currently resides in the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville. Chance was one of the top acoustic bass players in the Nashville from the early ’50s until his retirement in 1988, and he played on records with everyone from the Everly Brothers to Marty Robbins to Hank Williams, Sr., including Hank’s final recording session in 1952 that included the classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
A unique feature of this Kay C-1 is the homemade “drum attachment” on the upper treble-side bout. Why would anyone want such a thing? Well, it seems there was a serious prejudice against drums in country music back in the day. In fact, Ernie Newton, who played in the Les Paul Trio and on records with Bill Monroe, is credited as the first bassist to put a drum head on his bass to help cover the role of the “outlawed” snare drum. On this bass, the head was mounted with a modified tension rod from a screen door. A metal brush, which is pictured here between the strings, was held between the first and second fingers and the strings were plucked with the thumb, creating a round tone and the opportunity to play “percussion” in between notes. Lightnin’ eagerly adopted Newton’s idea and made it his own, and in doing so helped bring drums to the Grand Ole Opry. He was the house bass player on the Opry, and used this technique before the ban on drums was finally lifted in the early ’60s. Crazy stuff in hindsight, but it speaks volumes about the innovative spirit of players like Newton, Lightnin’, Bob Moore, Junior Huskey, and Joe Zinkin, who did whatever they could to move the music forward.
This bass has a beautiful burnt amber sunburst fading to a dark chocolate on the edges. The gut strings have a much looser tension and higher action than steel strings offer, and playing just a few notes give you that old-time country and bluegrass vibe. The tone is deep and mellow, and with a little practice with the brush, the “bass n’ drum” technique lies within reach. Lightnin’ used a smaller Kay bass for most of his later sessions (due to its tighter, more controllable tone), but he played this particular instrument on the road an on hundreds of hit records. Thanks to Kent Blanton and Ray Edenton for historical info, and to the Musicians Hall of Fame for allowing access to this piece of bass history.