IN MY NEVER-ENDING SEARCH FOR BLUES bass performances that break the mold, it was only a matter of time until I returned to the work of Jack Meyers, the iconoclastic bassist featured in the March ’13 Blues You Can Use. In that column, we examined some of Meyers’ scary/crazy ideas over a slow Buddy Guy blues called “I Had a Dream Last Night.” To this day, his playing on that track haunts and disturbs me to the core. From my own experiences playing the blues with artists such as Johnny Adams, Mighty Sam McClain, Robert Junior Lockwood, Delbert McClinton, Paul Rishell, and Annie Raines, I can’t imagine getting away with that. In my attempts to make sense out of Jack Meyers’ playing, I reached out to his old employer and drinking buddy, blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. I asked him a few questions, and while I didn’t get much insight on his musical approach, I did get a sense of the man behind the notes.
Charlie couldn’t confirm or deny my theory that Meyers was an upright player who found the Fender so easy to play that he indulged himself with chops. “I don’t recall him ever mentioning the upright,” Mussel-white says. “I remember him saying he learned C clef, so I’m pretty sure he studied music at some point.” When asked if Meyers practiced much, Charlie told me, “Maybe a little—seems like we talked about music a lot, and since we were gigging all the time, that would take the place of practice. Practice on the gig.” I asked what his (and others’) reactions were to Meyers’ unorthodox approach. “I don’t remember anyone complaining about his playing. Everybody thought he was way cool. Here’s a story—we’d sit around the kitchen table in the mornings and drink, and for some reason, Jack got a kick out of watching [kids ’ television show] Captain Kangaroo, to the point where he would throw in the theme song on his solos. I’d give Jack solos just to see what he’d come up with, because there was always crazy, twisted stuff coming out, with great humor.” Charlie ended by saying, “I loved to give him plenty of room to do what he wanted.” While I still don’t know the “why” behind Jack Meyers’ musical concept, I’ve resigned myself to simply accepting it for what it is—a shining example of originality, backed up by a whole mess of nerve. (If you remember, I elected Meyers to the presidency of the 5B club—Blues Bassists with Big Brass Balls.)
This month’s example, which came to me via reader request (keep those cards and letters coming, folks), is way more straightforward than our first look at Meyers’ playing. The track is “One Room Country Shack” from the 1968 Buddy Guy release A Man and the Blues. While Meyers does stick to a repetitive line on this classic G minor blues over a slow 12/8 groove, it’s a doozy! Right from the first notes of the intro, Meyers’ bass is in your face, playing this persistent, jagged part that continues throughout the entire 5:35 performance. The rhythm has a stop-and-go feel, with the quarter-note on beat one providing a solid launch and landing pad for the activity that follows. Make sure to take the musical breath during the eighth-note rest; it’s the only one you’ll get. Reading this line in 12/8 is deceptively simple once you grasp that each group of three eighth-notes represents one beat of the main pulse. It could also be written in 4/4, with each group appearing as an eighth-note triplet, but not this time.
The line’s angular nature makes it tricky to play, and Meyers’ execution is about 95 percent spot-on, with just enough slop to make it “so funky you can smell it.” The fingering I prefer starts with the tip of the middle finger on the low G; then you roll that same finger across to play the F (b7) on the D string. It’s a jump that can be refined to minimal movement with practice, and you’ll be getting quite a bit of practice in this tune! The key is to play the F more toward the middle of the finger instead of the tip; this string-crossing finger-roll will also set you up for the return trip. Fret the E with your index finger. Your wrist will be more active with this fingering—use it or lose it! Another fingering also starts with the tip of the middle finger on low G, but brings the ring finger underneath to play the F at the same fret. The advantage is less wrist movement, no finger roll, and the finger never leaves the low G, so the root is always there—it’s virtually foolproof, if you like that sort of thing. The E is once again played with the index finger. I like the slop of the first method, but during a long night, I might just opt for foolproof.
The pattern (1–b7–1–6–b7–1–b7–6–1–b7) is consistent throughout, and is simply moved through the blues form, with one chromatic passing tone from the V to the IV, and a stock turnaround phrase in bar 12. From a melodic perspective, the 6–b7 movement in the line establishes the Dorian mode over the Im7 and IVm7 chords, and the V7 occasionally jumps up to the bVI during the solos. While Buddy’s impassioned vocals and guitar work are the focus and Otis Spann’s piano is well featured, Jack Meyers defines the song with this unwavering, imploring, and ball-busting line. I suspect this is not the last we’ll see of Meyers’ playing in this column—his work seems to be an endless trove of surprises and fun.
Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas. edfriedland.com
Buddy Guy, A Man and the Blues [Vanguard, 1968]