ONE MAN HAS BEEN STANDING BEHIND COUNTRY SUPERSTAR Blake Shelton, from the beginning of his musical journey, supporting him in all his musical endeavors: his bassist and music director, Rob Byus. Long before Shelton won CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year (every year since 2010), CMA Entertainer of the Year (in 2012), or became the most successful coach on NBC’s popular singing show The Voice, he and Byus paid their dues on the road, traveling across the country in a pickup to play small gigs at local bars.
How did you get into the country music scene?
I grew up a trumpet player, but in junior high I picked up a bass sitting in the corner of the band room, and I discovered that I was really good at picking out bass parts. Throughout high school and college, I put together various rock bands and got better on the bass. Although I later went to college on a trumpet scholarship, I knew I wanted to play bass for a living. I thought country music could make that happen, so in 1994 I moved to Nashville and started backing up songwriters, which I thought gave me my best shot. Blake and I met a year later, and I began putting bands together for him to take on the road. We’ve been together ever since.
How do your roles as music director and bass player inform each other?
A bandleader has to be familiar with all aspects of a song, tuning into each and every instrument to make sure all parts are being played correctly. A bassist has to listen to everything, too, from guitar chords to vocals to kick drum patterns. As a bassist, I see my instrument as a bridge between the rhythm and melodic aspects of the songs, so I’m used to listening to and feeding off both sides.
What are the challenges to being a road band for an artist like Shelton?
For one, having to learn a lot of new music fast. We have to do that a lot. For example, on the spur of the moment a while back, Blake hosted a live benefit on NBC for Oklahoma tornado victims. We essentially became the house band for all the artists who came to be part of it. It was a big sense of accomplishment to step up in that pressure-cooker type of situation and deliver good music.
What’s your strategy for learning music quickly?
I first put on my bass player hat before making sure the others have learned their parts. I learn the song’s form and then focus on the subtleties. I developed my ear over the years by playing along with records, and I think that’s the best training for this sort of thing.
How has Shelton’s success on The Voice impacted his band?
Over the past couple of years we’ve gone from playing 200 dates a year to maybe 40 now. Blake still loves playing live, though, so we’ll continue to play out while he’s on The Voice.
How have you been using that extra time?
I have two local bands I play with, and I do as much session work as I can. Being a session player has always been one of my main aspirations. I’ve also been doing a lot of songwriting. In 2012, I got a few songs on Blake’s Christmas album, and that same year I released my funk band’s instrumental album, Trypta-phunk, which I wrote all the music for.
Sounds like you stay plenty busy, even when off the road.
When your job is playing music, and you’re out there playing the same thing night after night, sometimes you can forget why you fell in love with music in the first place. Doing all these other things locally reminds me of why I do it.
What advice would you give someone looking to join a road band and make it in a music scene like Nashville?
First and foremost, you have to move to where the music is. If I had stayed in West Virginia 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now. You’ve also got to network with other musicians and with the people who do the hiring. There are tons of bass players who would love this kind of gig. To beat the odds, “you must be present to win.”
Basses Mike Lull M5V, 1971 Fender Precision
Rig Mesa Bass Strategy Eight:88, Mesa 4x12 Powerhouse cab
Effects MXR Bass Chorus Deluxe, MXR Envelope Filter, Dunlop DVP1, Boss OC2 Octave, Radial J48 DI