Bluegrass-music great Missy Raines delivers the lowdown on holding down the bluegrass bottom
At a bluegrass festival in Camp Springs, North Carolina, a group of preteen children watched a performance by the Bluegrass Alliance, which included boundarypushing "new grass" virtuosos Sam Bush, mandolin, and Tony Rice, guitar. As documented in the 1972 film Bluegrass Country Soul, West Virginia native Missy Raines was one of those children. And even though she didn't play bluegrass at the time, the music resonated within her and inspired her.
"Even as a little girl, and not understanding so many things, I did understand that they were playing something different from what I was hearing other bands play-and it really registered," Raines says.
Though she'd started on piano and later gravitated to the guitar ("I wanted to be Lester Flatt or Mac Wiseman," she says), Raines discovered the bass at age 11 or 12 after her father, an amateur musician, had purchased one to play at local get-togethers. "I just picked it up," she says. "Once I started playing, I probably got pretty good real fast, and then my dad stopped playing and just carried it for me," she adds with a laugh. After that, the family continued going to concerts and festivals, where Missy continued to hone her craft throughout her teenage years.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Raines has carved out an enviable career, winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's Instrumental Performer of the Year, in the bass category, seven times between 1998 and 2007, both as part of Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band and in a duo with guitarist Jim Hurst. In recent years, she has continued to stretch as a bandleader with Missy Raines and the New Hip, whose aptly named recently released sophomore recording, New Frontier (Compass Records), not only shows off the ensemble's instrumental skill, but ventures further into Americana territory, while showcasing Raines' vocals on every tune.
In a full-circle turn, Sam Bush guests on vocals and mandolin on the tune "What's the Calling For?"
Raines still gets her bluegrass fix in an allstar side project, Helen Highwater, which includes guitarist David Grier, fiddler Shad Cobb, and mandolinist Mike Compton. She also teaches at festivals and camps and online via ArtistWorks' Academy of Bluegrass.
"Bluegrass music has its own unique feel," Raines says. "Bluegrass bass is not about how many notes you play, it's where you put them. Some say, 'Oh, bluegrass doesn't have drums,' but we do-it's called a mandolin. That feel between the bass, the mandolin and the guitar, that's like the Holy Trinity.
"I do a lot of teaching, and I try to get my students to start thinking not just as bass players, or not just about what notes to play, and that one- and three-beat," Raines says. "You've got to feel the two and the four as much as anything, and that the two and the four have everything to do with your one and three.
"In bluegrass, or any genre, bass playing is more about support than anything," Raines adds. "So you're playing to support and be the foundation under what's going on. To really understand it, you have to listen to a lot of the traditional artists-Flatt 8i Scruggs, [Bill] Monroe, and all of those. You have to listen to what's going on around you. Listen to where the 'chop' (the percussive, staccato mandolin chord) is. Within the micro-climate of a band, in a bluegrass setting, that particular mandolin player is going to put that chop in its own unique place. If I'm playing with [mandolinists] Roland White, Sam Bush, Alan Bibey, or Doyle Lawson, each of them will play his chop in a unique place.
"And how do you play with that?
"That starts to get into the real fine tuning of playing a bluegrass groove." *
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