When it comes to tracking big-time records, Nashville’s an old-school town. The few folks who get those calls have usually put in 20 or 30 years of groundwork and have credits lists a mile long, so when Taylor Swift’s Fearless won nearly every 2009 award in sight, many surprised eyes and ears turned to the 29-year old bassist who tracked nearly all of it, Michigan native Tim Marks. He might not look 29, and with his thick, earthy tone and well-developed throwback feel, he doesn’t sound it, either.
“I went to college for about two years, but the most important thing was just being in Detroit,” Marks says of his late teenage years. “There were lots of great musicians to watch and work with. I spent a lot of time playing blues and R&B.” Tim left for Nashville in 2002 without a gig or a backup plan, and roughed it hard before landing work with Wynonna Judd, Emerson Hart, and Delbert McClinton. Marks’s proclivity to stay in town and focus on recording paid off a jackpot when he fell in early with Taylor Swift’s studio band. “I just like making records,” he says, smiling. With a credit like Fearless under his belt, you can bet he’s already making a few more.
Who are your biggest influences?
It started with great R&B bassists like James Jamerson, Bob Babbitt, and Duck Dunn. After that it was Lee Sklar, Hutch Hutchinson, and all the great Nashville session bassists. Recently I’ve been really into dub and reggae, with players like Robbie Shakespeare and Flabba Holt. I could go on, but the list would be 100 names long.
How did you land the Taylor Swift session gig?
I was working with producer Nathan Chapman on publishing demos for Taylor in late 2005. She and her label liked the demos and hired Nathan to cut some tracks for her first record. That session led to more, and that core group of Nathan, myself, drummer Nick Buda, and engineer Chad Carlson have been involved with the bulk of her recording since then.
What’s your favorite thing about tracking Taylor’s material?
It’s done in a really organic way. It’s tracked as a three-piece with Taylor singing, and built from there. She always comes in with great ideas, and she writes hooky songs that make me want to play something distinctive that supports the music and the energy. That’s also the biggest challenge, but it’s such a great group of people that it all happens really easily and naturally.
What are you ultimately trying to deliver to a producer as a session bassist?
A great part, a great tone, and versatility. It’s important for me to be stylistically accurate, and to bring different sounds to the table. I often switch between roundwound and flatwound strings, and I like using hollowbody basses. It’s also nice to add some grit if it’s good for the track.
At this point we have over 50 years of recorded bass guitar to draw from, and a whole lot more of upright bass. That’s a lot of music to soak up, and I think all of those classic tracks hold great lessons.
HEAR HIM ON
Taylor Swift, Fearless [2008, Big Machine]; Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift [2006, Big Machine]; Will Kimbrough, Wings [2010, Daphne]
Basses Lakland Bob Glaub Signature, Joe Osborn Signature, and 55-94 basses; Gibson Les Paul Signature Bass; Guild Starfire; Jerry Jones Longhorn
Rig Mesa-Boogie Walkabout head, Mesa-Boogie Scout 1x12 combo, and Mesa-Boogie Vintage Powerhouse 2x12 and 2x15 cabs; Planet Waves cables
Effects Electro-Harmonix Black Finger Optical Tube Compressor; Tech 21 SansAmp VT Bass
Studio recording chain Clean: Universal Audio 6176 (preamp/ compressor); Dirty: DI with overdrive, or miked 1966 Fender Bassman
Strings D’Addario Nickels (.050–.105); various flatwounds