Nashville is loaded with great bassists—as the old-timers say, “The woods is full of ’em.” At any given point, however, there are a handful of standouts, good players who inspire their fellow bassists by being able to cover lots of musical ground while also being generally cool people. Take, for example, Steve Mackey, a funky Southern gentleman and ace ensemble player whose resumé stretches from the R&B of John Oates and the stone country bands of Trisha Yearwood and Dolly Parton to the roadhouse grit of Delbert McClinton and the straightforward rock of the Wallflowers. As you might expect, Mackey has a unique backstory and an original-yet-classic playing style that is nothing but killer.
Is it true that you didn’t play in bands much before your 20s?
Yes. In my teens I banged around on guitar, sort of acoustic cowboy stuff. Jeff Bryant, my high school band teacher in West Virginia, was a recent Berklee grad, and he recruited me to play bass in the school jazz band. After high school, I enrolled at Berklee myself, but I never actually owned a bass until I got to Boston.
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals spoke at one of my classes, and he mentioned that he was moving to Nashville. He offered me the chance to audition for his band. The great Bob Babbitt had been playing with him, and I got the call when the Rascals reformed. I did that for a while, and after they stopped, I played in Felix’s band for six or seven more months.
It’s obvious that your roots are on the funky side.
Oh, yeah! I’ve always leaned that way. I came up listening to Kenny Edwards, Dave Dyson, and Donald Blackmon, and lots of P-Funk is in there, too. In my college days I was also influenced by Carl Carter, a cool bass player from Connecticut. A lot of my gigging while at school was along those lines—hip-hop and go-go funk. From the ’70s session guys, especially Bob Glaub and Lee Sklar, I learned about building song-oriented bass lines, and after I got here, Michael Rhodes drove that whole school of thought deeper.
You took drastically different approaches on two recent tracks, Delbert McClinton’s “Dead Wrong” and Seth Walker’s “Another Day.”
On the Delbert track, we were live, all in the same room, so we pretty much had our band thing going. It rocked right out of the gate. Before we cut the Seth Walker tune, we had a conversation about how the dude in the song was out walking, and he was in a good mood. That track was the first take, and Seth felt like it really captured a walking vibe. I thought I had played a little too busy, but it was pretty inspired.
How often does it all come together like that?
As session musicians, we come prepared to spend the day working our craft. We always want to be able to come up with something that’s appropriate and thoughtful. When these cool things come along, where everything is natural, clicking, and inspired by whatever is happening in the moment, those are the tracks that end up being the best.
Delbert McClinton & Dick 50, The Cost of Living [2005, New West]; Seth Walker, Sky Still Blue [2014, Royal Potato Family]
Basses 1972 Fender Precision, Fender Pino Palladino Custom Shop Precision, Senn Guitars P-bass, 1995 Vince Cunetto Custom Shop J-bass, Callowhill MPB5, various Kay hollowbodies, 1949 Kay upright
Strings D’Addario XLBTs, D’Addario Chromes, D’Addario Helicores (upright)
Amps ’70s Ampeg B-15, ’72 Ampeg SVT, Aguilar TH 500 head, Aguilar DB 212
Recording Millennia TD-1 preamp, Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, Oscartone Passive Bass Tone Filter, Music Valve DI
Effects Wren and Cuff Tall Font Russian distortion, EBS Valve Drive, Pigtronix Envelope Filter