IT TOOK ROB WASSERMAN A LITTLE MORE THAN A DECADE to make Note of Hope, on which he and a dozen collaborators set passages from Woody Guthrie’s journals to music. Wasserman has never been a fast worker when it comes to making albums—his four previous discs came out at six-year intervals—but because he was putting out this one himself, he didn’t have the pressure of a record company to set a deadline or push the project to completion.
“I could have gone on forever with this stuff ,” he admits. “That’s the problem with creative freedom, I guess.” Eventually, it was Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, who got Wasserman to start wrapping things up. “She reminded me that his 100th birthday was happening, and we certainly didn’t want to take another 100 years for it to come out.”
The idea for the album dates back to 1998, when Wasserman took part in a Robert Johnson tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had just finished a solo performance when Nora Guthrie approached him. “She started talking about journals her dad had written that weren’t lyrics, and she had an idea to give me words to do a bass/spoken-word record.”
This wasn’t the first time Nora had asked other musicians to put music to her father’s words. A few years earlier, she had recruited Billy Bragg and the band Wilco to write and record music to lyrics Woody had written out but not recorded. (Guthrie couldn’t notate music, so the melodies he composed were lost if they didn’t get recorded.) That project resulted in two albums for Elektra, Mermaid Avenue in 1998, and, two years later, Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II. Wasserman’s project was different, though, because the words he was working with were journal entries. “A lot of them seemed to be written in coffee shops and parks, where he’s just observing life, and reminiscing about his life,” Rob says. “Things he didn’t write about before. It’s very personal. It’s for people to get to know Woody Guthrie, basically.”
Wasserman brought in a wide range of vocalists, some of whom he had worked with before—Ani DiFranco, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Van Dyke Parks—and some of whom he’d never met. “I wanted it to be very collaborative. For instance, Chris Whitley; that was one of the first things I did. We just went into the studio and turned on the tape recorder—and since that was about ten years ago, it was real tape—and started playing, and that was the song. A lot of them started out as duets, like Michael Franti. That was just me and him and his drum machine, and we added everything else later.”
Wasserman admits that he’s forgotten what he used on some of the tracks. “Some of them are basses I don’t use anymore. I used acoustic bass as much as I could, but whenever I was traveling I had to bring an electric upright. But back when I started it, I really felt like the electric upright, especially the NS Design one, was so unique it would be good to use on this record. And then for the last few years of this project, I was more interested in going back to the acoustic.” In some cases, that meant the relatively new bass he picked up in Germany a few years back. “It was originally called Paesold; then Höfner bought the company, and told me they wanted it called a Höfner.” Wasserman visited the company’s shop and picked out the bass himself. “They showed me their process; they age the wood for ten years or something, so it’s really good. But it’s still tight, really good for cutting through.” Wasserman also used his old German bass. “It’s around 100 years old, and no one knows who made it. Whenever I pick it up, I’m like, Wow—I can’t believe how great that sounds. It’s more complex, like a fine wine. Of course, it comes down to your strings, your
action, and all that stuff. I used to have really low string height on my basses, but as I’ve been going down the road, in Woody Guthrie’s words, I’ve been raising the action and getting more into the higher, punchier sound—the old fashioned, bigprojecting sound.”
Rob uses the older bass on the album’s title track, which was originally intended as an unaccompanied solo. “This friend of mine, Don Heffington, a drummer, engineered that for me in his living room. He had some good microphones. He mentioned he was working with Van Dyke Parks. I had worked with Parks on some Brian Wilson stuff a while back, and I thought it would be fun to see if he would take that and orchestrate it.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Wasserman’s NS Design 6-string bass, which he helped create with Ned Steinberg. “I was using some upright electrics from Clevinger, but Ned wanted to design a bass with me from the ground up, totally not trying to emulate the acoustic bass, except for the scale. It was a great experience. We kept trading ideas, and he kept sending me chopped up pieces of wood to try until we came up with the bass.
“It actually has roundwound strings,” he adds, a feature that most upright bassists would consider either sacrilegious or impossible. The strings are a total custom job, Wasserman explains. “Ned and I went to this professor who consults with D’Addario, and we hung out for a couple days. He came up with a formula for that bass to create a new sound. It’s not supposed to bow, but somehow I can—it shreds hair, but it can still bow. It creates a sort of endless sustain, but it also has a sort of funk thing going that none of my other upright basses have.
“Ironically, I just did a tour with Lou Reed, and he just did an album with Metallica, which I didn’t even know I was on,” he says, laughing. The tune is “Junior Dad,” the last track on Lulu, and it originally had nothing to do with Metallica. “It started out as me in Lou’s living room, bowing, with this effects guy, and apparently that track got built on that. And that’s exciting, because I never thought I’d be on a Metallica album. But going from that, what’s really funny—I don’t even know if I should mention it, but what the hell—Lou had just been jamming with the bass guitarist in Metallica, Robert Trujillo, who I met on this tour in Europe. A great guy. So Lou was all inspired, and he has this old, vintage Fender Jazz Bass. We were rehearsing, and he goes, ‘Can you try the song on this?’
“I officially don’t play bass guitar. I have them, but I don’t use them. So I just said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it.’ And he loved it so much I ended up playing 90 percent of the tour [on the Jazz Bass]. And it was great. Even though I was standing up with this thing around my neck, feeling really stupid, I really got into why people like bass guitar, because that thing had so much punch.
“So now I have to go out and find a bass guitar.”
Various Artists, Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie [429 Records, 2011]
Basses Custom NS Design electric upright, Clevinger Messen- ger electric upright, Höfner double bass, German double bass of unknown origin
Rig Ampeg B-15, A-Designs REDDI Tube Direct Box
Strings NS Design Round- wound Bass Strings
Mic Neumann U 47, with Fishman Full Circle Upright Bass pickup as backup
Other French-style An- drew Glasser graphite bow