The year was 1996. Bill Clinton was president (again), Tiger Woods had just turned pro, and eBay was this experimental new website on the internet, which, by the way, you accessed via a phone line and paid for by the hour. There was no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or iPhone. In the world of music, Alanis Morissette was pissed and made sure everyone knew it via her chart-topping Jagged Little Pill CD. Albums that showcased the bass guitar were few and far between, and solo bass records were almost unheard of. But that was about to change.
A few years prior, a young bassist, banjo player, futuristic drummer, and otherworldly harmonica player had gotten together to start a band, getting widely recognized for their unorthodox approaches to their instruments. Formed in 1988, the Flecktones quickly demonstrated to audiences that creative musicians need not be confined by convention. In fact, many people’s introduction to Victor Wooten’s impeccable groove and mind-blowing techniques came as a result of his solo segment at Flecktones concerts.
In 1996, the Flecktones released their fifth album, Live Art, which captured the energy of their live shows and featured the inspiring bass tunes “Sinister Minister” and “More Luv.” In that same year, Victor released a ten-song solo record that featured only one track of bass, with no overdubs. It was gutsy, to say the least. Titled A Show of Hands, the innovative album blew the minds of bass players around the globe. Tunes like “Classical Thump,” “Overjoyed,” “Me and My Bass Guitar,” and the album’s title track had players locking themselves in the woodshed in order to figure out his technique. Between 1996 and 2011, Victor released seven solo albums, three compilations with partner-in-bass Steve Bailey, two projects with the Vital Tech Tones trio, and nine additional records with the Flecktones, plus he spearheaded a historic album and tour with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller as SMV. Additionally, he has appeared as a guest bassist on an insane number of records, live shows, and videos, led countless clinics across the world, successfully launched a ever-expanding music camp in Nashville that now resides on 150 acres next to the Duck River, and given talks on creativity and music at prestigious colleges and universities. Victor’s 2008 novel, The Music Lesson, has been translated in four languages, and in 2010 it was released as an audiobook complete with original music.
Such hard work has not been without its rewards. Victor is the recipient of five Grammys and was voted Bassist of the Year by BASS PLAYER readers three times (the only person to have won the award more than once). The Music Lesson was recently named a finalist for the Audio Publishers Association Audie Award. In short, over the last 15 years, Victor has been very busy, and hardly ever busy doing the same thing the same way twice. Case in point: his various solo albums.
A Show of Hands was a huge success, and while lesser artists might follow such initial success with like-minded projects, Wooten has continued to stretch the boundaries of his art. In true “been there, done that” fashion, Victor went on to produce five more bass solo albums, each substantially different from its predecessors. What Did He Say  offered multi-layered bass compositions that featured the “Groove Regulator,” Mr. JD Blair on drums. The Grammy-nominated Yin-Yang album , which featured two discs—one with vocals and the other all instrumental—showcased the two sides of Victor’s compositional mind, while the double CD Live in America  gave audiences a taste of the dynamic energy and improvisational skills of his band. Soul Circus  brought us back to the roots of Motown and introduced us to the silky smooth vocals of Saundra Williams, the bass chops of Anthony Wellington, and the rockin’ hip-hop of MC Divinity, and Palmystery  showcased Victor’s jazz chops a bit more than previous albums.
And that brings us to 2011, the year that the original members of the Flecktones got back together to release a new album, Rocket Science, and Victor decided to launch his own record company, Vix Records, and re-release A Show of Hands. Thanks to Skype (something else not available in 1996), BP recently sat down face-to-face with Victor as he was just hitting the road on a tour with the reunited Flecktones to talk about the past 15 years, where he’s been, and where he’s going. As usual, Victor proved thoughtful and reflective as he pondered his remarkable journey since the release of that first solo bass record.
It’s been 15 years since you released A Show of Hands. What was your intention with that original release?
In 1996 I was ready to make a statement as a solo artist. I had been playing with the Flecktones for quite a few years and had been kind of making a name for myself— being asked to do clinics and things like that. I felt it was just time to record something. I wanted to try making a solo bass record, which I knew would be different. So, I set out to record something that pleased myself, to see if I could make a solo bass record with no overdubs, no other instruments, that you could listen to for 30 or 40 minutes. When I first started recording, I didn’t know whether it was going to be released or not. I was just doing it to see whether or not I could.
In the end, once I got the record done, I was happy. I knew that bass players were going to love it, and I also felt that other instrumentalists would accept it, because most musicians know what it takes to pull off something like that. But I also wanted to go beyond musicians. I wanted a nonmusician to be able to listen to this record and enjoy it and not have to know that it was done with just a 4-string bass.
Is that one of the reasons that groove is featured so strongly on the album?
Absolutely. I knew a display of technique would only go so far. I didn’t want technique to be the showcase, although that’s what ended up being the focus for most bass players who heard it. That’s not what I wanted, so I took every record after that in the opposite direction. After A Show of Hands, I wanted to make bass players take a step backwards—or, more accurately, take a step forward.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that bass players focusing on the technical aspect of my playing started learning all my techniques and attributing them to me. But anyone can claim techniques— they are available for everyone. I didn’t hear bassists becoming more musical with the techniques. Players were displaying more technique, but not more feel or groove. I didn’t want to be to blame for that, and I didn’t want people to look at me in only that way.
When you really listen to A Show of Hands and take the technique away, the groove is still there. When you listen to the songs, they feel good. It takes technique to pull off a song like “More Love,” but that’s a song that anybody can groove to. It feels good—there’s a nice melody, and you don’t have to pay attention to the technique. As another example, take Michael Manring. You can close your eyes and just listen to his music; you don’t have to look up and see that he’s flipping tuning pegs. You can close your eyes and dig the song. When I listen to A Show of Hands, I hear it in that way.
Bass solo albums were rare back then. Did you think it was a good time to release an album like A Show of Hands?
I didn’t know if it was a good time or not—I just knew that this was the statement I wanted to make. I didn’t know if anyone would put it out, either. It wasn’t a time when a lot of people were self-releasing records. So, my first focus was to record a project that I would be happy with, and once that was done to shop it around. I didn’t know whether it was really the time for the public, but I knew it was the time for me.
How did you shop it around?
I was able to get a cassette tape to Marcus Miller, Anthony Jackson, and Stanley Clarke. Fodera was making a bass for Marcus, and I happened to be in the shop when they were just about to send it, so I stuck a cassette in his bass case. At the same time—and I can’t even remember how—I got a copy to Stanley, and from there I was able to get one to Anthony Jackson, as well. I heard back from all three of them. I also sent one to Chick Corea, because he had his label Mad Hatter. He almost put it out, but in the end it wound up being some friends of mine who put it out—Garry West and Alison Brown, two musicians in Nashville who were just starting their own record label. I’ve always thanked them for taking a chance on a solo bass record.
A Show of Hands kicked off your venture into full-time touring as a solo bass artist, something you continue to do today. What was that initial adventure like?
It was a struggle, because there was no money in it. I knew right away that I didn’t want to tour with just a bass. I felt that a good, grooving drummer would make a live concert much better. So I brought JD Blair along, and then I brought on my good friend Kurt Storey as a soundman. We borrowed a friend’s van one tour and operated on a low budget. I think we might have made $25 or something like that the first gig.
What was that like?
We drove from Nashville all the way up to North Hampton, Massachusetts to a club called the Iron Horse, where we were to open up for Medeski Martin & Wood. The Flecktones had played that club a lot, so there were a lot of Flecktones fans there, and when we got there they had two acts going on that night. There was a whole other show—a jazz piano player. That show went long, which meant Medeski Martin & Wood was going to start late. So the club owner was going to cancel us, and I said, “Look, we just drove all the way from Nashville, and you’re not going to let us play? Most of these people are Flecktones fans, and they’re not going to be happy.” He says, “Okay, I’ll give you 15 minutes.” JD and I looked at each other and said, “Well, for 15 minutes we’re going to rock this place. We’re just going to tear this place to pieces.” So I think we played “You Can’t Hold No Groove…” and “Me and My Bass Guitar.” That was when I was young, man, when I was hanging a cymbal from the ceiling and jumping up like Bruce Lee to kick it.
After that gig I remember Kurt walking up and handing me $25. I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe this is for us to get food, maybe this is gas money.” When I found out that was the pay for the gig, man was I upset. I was partially upset at myself for not knowing what was going on, businesswise. I was just happy to play a gig, but I had not paid attention to any of the business, and I realized that the manager I had at the time had booked a gig for hardly any money. It was a lesson I learned right away. I remember calling him on the phone, ready to cancel the tour, but JD said, “Look man, I just want to play. Let’s just play.” That was a wake-up call for me. I said, “Yeah, we’re musicians—let’s play.” In the end, it wound up being a great tour, and every tour after that has gotten better.
What motivated you to re-release A Show of Hands?
I had told myself when I released A how of Hands in 1996 that I was going to record another solo bass record ten years later. But when 2006 came along, I knew it wasn’t necessary, at least not for me. I didn’t need to make that statement again. There were other people making it, and I was happy about that. So, 15 years later a few things coincided at the same time. I was getting tired of dealing with record labels and started thinking of putting my music out myself, which meant starting my own label. I also realized, in looking at all of my records, that A Show of Hands was still the top seller. And so I thought, You know what? I recorded that record on an ADAT and I now have Pro Tools. I can re-master this record, make it sound better, and then maybe I can add a few tracks in the same vein as my original recording.
JD Blair has always been a part of A Show of Hands, mainly because we always toured together. Re-releasing it with bonus tracks was actually a chance for me to include him—to have him come and add drums to a couple of the tracks. Here was a chance for me to re-release this record to my younger fans, who are now used to hearing music at a higher quality. It was also a great way of starting my own record label without having to sink a whole lot of money into doing a whole new record.
What’s new on the album?
First of all, we re-mastered the whole thing. We took it in the studio and added more EQ, raised the volume, and made it hit a little harder and bigger, and hopefully better on both ends, top and bottom. We also added three new tracks, performed solo bass style with no overdubs, except that the final track, “Bass Solo #2,” which is performed with a looper. Also, we released the album on CD, MP3, and LP.
Why an LP?
That was actually my manager Danette’s idea. She realized that LPs are making a resurgence. DJs are still spinning them— LPs are huge in Japan. When it came out, I put the vinyl and a CD on at the same time at my house and kept switching back and forth between them. The vinyl sounded so much better, so I’m glad she recommended it.
Since the release of A Show of Hands, a lot has changed in terms of recording, listening, and learning. In what ways has the Internet and the digital revolution changed your approach to music?
Everything comes with its good side and its bad side. A lot of times we are reluctant to the change, but I look at it more as growth. The downside is that most young people nowadays don’t expect to buy the music— they expect to get it for free. And the people who do buy it don’t buy entire albums; they buy songs. But the upside is I have fans in India, Morocco, and in faraway places that I’ve never been. So you have to weigh these factors, too. And I think the fact that I have these fans all around the world that I can reach, and talk to, and make happy, outweighs the fact that maybe I’m not selling as many records. But who knows—maybe I’m selling more records because of the fact that people around the world know about me. But the cool thing about the Internet is that now, at the touch of a button, I can be in touch with the world.
You’re all over YouTube, as are hordes of young players playing your tunes with amazing precision.
For the most part, I’m happy to see that, because it’s like these younger players are starting at a higher level. What I’m not hearing most of the time, however, is the feeling. For example, I hear people who have learned “Amazing Grace” or “You Can’t Hold No Groove…,” but what they’ve focused on is the technical aspect. It’s almost like they are playing it more perfect technique-wise, but the song is not in the technique. The song is in the title— groove. That seems to be the part that is missing from a lot of these young technical players. But I’m an optimist, and I know that it’s coming. The feeling, the groove, is a part of maturity, whereas technique is not. A kid can learn technique in a day, but feel and groove, a lot to times, comes through maturity.
How has the face of bass changed in the last 15 years?
It’s become more recognizable to the general public. Nowadays the bass is out front. More and more, as Stanley Clarke would say, the instrument has been liberated. We have bandleaders that are bass players, leading tours. There are bass players all around the world doing solo concerts, there are more albums out there by bass players, and people are starting to know bass players by name. Who doesn’t know Marcus Miller’s name? Who doesn’t know Stanley Clarke’s name? Everybody knows Flea, and everybody knows Les Claypool. It’s like a different day and age. I think that people are starting to recognize the bass as a comprehensive instrument like the piano or the guitar, and I think that’s a good thing.
Where do you think you’ll be in 15 years?
I think I’ll be doing more teaching, focusing more on the camps and things like that. Maybe I’ll be managing my kids’ band and careers [laughs]. I’d love to be in a place where I could be retired if I wanted to be, but I love touring so much that I hope that I can continue to tour, just not as much. I plan on having a few more books out, maybe doing more movie scores and things like that. I really like helping out other people. I feel like I’ve already had a great musical career, so if something happened and I didn’t get to play again, I think I’d still be happy with what I’ve been able to do and accomplish. Of course, there’s more I want to do, but I think that even if I couldn’t play anymore, I could still help other people, and I’d be perfectly happy with that.
What advice do you have for future generations of bass players?
Groove! You don’t hear James Brown sing and think about his technique or his theory knowledge. It’s only wellstudied musicians who pay attention to that. The general public doesn’t. So what do they care about? What makes a million people want to listen to you? Is it your technique? Is it your theory knowledge? No. If you want to appeal to the masses, you’ve got to touch them in their hearts— you’ve got to make their heads bop and their feet move. You gotta leave them feeling something. You have to touch them on the inside.
Basses Fodera Yin-Yang Deluxe, Fodera Monarch, Compito Fretless 5, Fodera NYC 5
Strings Fodera Victor Wooten Signature Nickel
Rig Hartke LH1000 head, Hartke Hydrive HX410 and HX115 cabinets
Effects Boss GT-6B, Rodenburg Distorition/Clean Boost Pedals, Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Bass Distortion
Solo A Show of Hands [Compass, 1996]; What Did He Say? [Compass, 1997]; Yin- Yang [Compass, 1999]; Soul Circus [Vanguard, 2005]; Palmystery [Heads Up, 2008]; A Show of Hands—15 [Vix Records, 2011]. With Bass Extremes [Cookbook, 1998]. With SMVThunder [Heads Up, 2008]. With Béla Fleck & the Flectones [on Warner Bros., except where noted] Béla Fleck and the Flecktones ; Flight of the Cosmic Hippo ; UFO Tofu ; Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ; Live Art ; Left of Cool ; Outbound [Columbia, 2000]; Live at the Quick [Columbia, 2002]; Little Worlds [Columbia, 2003]; The Hidden Land [Sony, 2006]; Jingle All the Way, [Rounder, 2008]; RocketScience [eOne Records, 2011]