An Interview With Legendary Nashville Touring & Session Bassist, Michael Rhodes

It was Sunday morning, and Nashville was finally due for precipitation and cooler weather. Around 10:00 AM as the dark rain clouds had settled in, I rang Michael Rhodes, one of Nashville’s most acclaimed and seasoned bass players.

Since moving to Nashville in the 70s, Rhodes has established himself as a top tier touring and session bassist, having played with a laundry list of stars including Steve Winwood, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Joe Bonamassa, and just about anybody you can think of and then some.

Rhodes has been a fixture in the Nashville music circuit for decades, and has witnessed first hand the many changes brought to Music City. He’s witnessed the transformation of Broadway and its evolution from seedy and sleazy, to prominent and profitable.

He will be performing at the 25th Anniversary of Dancin’ in the District, which has been said to have helped the revitalization of downtown, with a sonic stew of other notable performers this Thursday, October 10th.

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I had the privilege to speak with Rhodes on the phone, and before the interview, I informed him of my plans for the day, which entailed going to the Bills v. Titans game down the road at Nissan Stadium.

“Well let me tell you a quick story about the Bills, and about the Music City Miracle. My wife and I were right there when it happened. But previous to that play, there were some Bills’ fans that were heckling, thinking the game was over. They were kinda rubbing it in. So the play had happened right in front of us you know, they had made this incredible turn around, and right after, we get a sense of some commotion going on behind us. We look back, and there were the heckling Bills’ fans getting the shit beat out of ‘em. (he laughs) They’d taken it too far.”

Yep, sounds about right. And for those who don’t know, Bills’ fans are a notoriously rowdy, reckless bunch. May I advise you to Exhibit A.

After football talk, we got down to brass tacks.

Music Mecca: So I see you are from Louisiana and lived in Austin, then Memphis, and of course Nashville. Did you ever consider New Orleans for your music career?

Michael Rhodes: No, not really. It was just circumstantially I found myself in Austin, which was a really friendly place to live in the early seventies. It was just a better fit than New Orleans. New Orleans in the seventies was pretty closed off. It was pretty click-ish. Frankly there wasn’t a whole lot going on. You were either in Alan Toussaint’s group,  or The Meters, or The Neville Brothers, or a traditional jazz player sentenced to play on Bourbon Street, and that was pretty much it. There wasn’t any money down there. And it was a pretty rough place to live unless you were from there and dialed in. Anyways, Austin was just wide open and friendly, and cheap! It was cheap. So I messed around down there for awhile in all kinds of bands. The outlaw thing had started to happen there, and it was just a big stew of stuff going on. Then I got a gig with Alan Rich, Charlie Rich’s son, and I moved up to Memphis for about a year and a half or two, got a gig back in Austin, went back down there, then I found myself in Nashville visiting friends. Then I met somebody who knew somebody, and then all of a sudden I was doing sessions at Tree Publishing, before it was Sony Tree. There was a whole group of us that rode that wave, and we were kind of a demo staff band. Then one thing led to the next. It was a fortuitous move.

MM: How long have you been in Nashville then?

MR: Since ‘77.

MM: What about the Nashville music scene did you like best that kept you here as opposed to the other cities?

MR: Well there was more money here. More opportunity. There’s a glass ceiling in pretty much every other city in the country. Back in the day in Austin there was actually more live music then there is now.  Although they call themselves live music capital of the world- I’m not so sure about that anymore. Point is, there is a glass ceiling, there’s only so much money you can make down there.This is an industry town. The opportunity to do sessions was exciting. I always liked being in studio. The challenge of everyday, you don’t know what you’re going to come up against. It’s just a much more creative space to be in, other than sloggin’ it out in the bars and the road. And that’s what I did for years. I had a couple live bands I played with here, a lot of places to play, there still are. It was just fun, all kinds of people from all over the world here playing music.

MM: And what drew you to the bass guitar as opposed to guitar, drums, or other instruments?

MR: I always heard bass. Even the first guitar I got which was a cheap airline acoustic guitar, but I always played on the bottom four strings. I was more into the rhythm. I was more bass cleff than treble cleff. I tried to stay out of treble. (laughs)

MM: Do you recall your first big break that really kickstarted your music career, and was there someone in particular who kind of took you under their wing?

MR: There were a number of people. As we go through life, we meet people who are influential. There was a guy in Austin, in one of the first original bands, that was called Conqueroo, that back in the sixties had gone from Austin to San Francisco and consequently back to Austin. And there was a guy Ed Gwynn, who was a formidable character. A huge, huge guy, who used to be a bass player. Anyway, I was playing in a little band and he came up during the break and said “hey do you want to be in our band?” So that was my first stint in an established band that had a following. It was original music, and I got to bring everything I’d learned up to that that point and apply it to somebody else’s material. So that was a step. And working with Alan Rich too, because he had a record deal. And from Alan I got to work with Charlie Rich, which was completely an awesome experience. And getting to Nashville later, and being in the studio and being under the influence and getting to play songs by Harlan Howard, and this was at Tree, cream of the crop writers, and I’m getting to play songs that are just demos of just a guy and an acoustic guitar, so you get to build something from the ground up. Then I met Tommy Cogbill. He was a bass player from Memphis, and part of the American Studio Band. Reggie Young, Tommy Cogbill, Gene Chrisman, and all those cats who had played with Elvis on songs like “In The Ghetto,” and also played with Dusty Springfield and many others. They were incredible musicians. I met Tommy and he sort of took me under his wing, and showed me more by example by tutoring, but how to be in the studio. It was the next level of how to play a song. And for anybody who doesn’t know who doesn’t know Tommy Cogbill is, check him out. He was a southern James Jamerson. There’s always someone around. There are teachers everywhere. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll find someone.

MM: Would you say it’s easier or harder nowadays as opposed to 30-35 years ago to get your foot in the door as someone trying to make it in the music industry?

MR: Well I think the avenue approach is different now. It used to be a fairly narrow path one had to travel on to have any success. It was fairly prescribed what with pre-existing situations with record deals and touring and the whole thing. The opportunities to self-promote now is more wide open now in some ways. But it’s also diluted by the volume of people doing it now. It’s a little bit harder for the cream to rise to the top- and to stay there.

MM: Obviously how the public obtains music has changed over recent decades. But do you think it’s better or worse for artists as a whole with how easy it is nowadays to both stream people’s music, and for anybody to just pump music out there?

MR: Well whether I’m on board with it or not doesn’t matter. It just is what it is. I wish the money was a little more equitable. The deal now is that they’ve taken advantage of the situation as far as revenue streaming. They got kind of a chokehold on it now. There’s some progress being made, but it’s more difficult to get paid. I think that’s the most egregious example of what’s wrong with it. I wouldn’t have any problem with streaming other than it’s kind of communized. I don’t think people are as invested in an actual piece of music anymore. It’s just so easy to listen to it now. It takes so little effort, so people aren’t as emotionally attached to music as they used to be. But hey, it’s the world we live in Paul.

MM: This Thursday we’ve got the 25th Anniversary of Dancin’ in the District in Downtown Nashville. Who will you be playing with?

MR: What I’ll be involved in is essentially an hour set. Tom Morales, the man behind the event historically, and this 25th anniversary, wanted a segment that represented Old Nashville, and he was talking to me about it. And I said well nobody’s Old Nashville like Pat McLaughlin. So he said we’ll get Pat on board, and he asked who else, so I called Rodney Crowell, and so he’ll do a couple tunes also. We’ve got The McCrary Sisters who will play a few songs, and then I work with Joe Bonamassa on the road, and so I knew he’d be in town, and asked if he wanted to do a couple of tunes, and he said yeah sure, so we’ll play for about an hour so.  

MM: Did you attend and/or play the previous Dancin’ in the Districts when they first got going in the 90s, and if so who with?

MR: Yeah I did a handful of them for sure. And man I wish I could remember the total itinerary, I know I’m going to miss some people. I played with lots of different people, I know I played with Jonell Mosser. There was a band Gary Nicholson put together with a bunch of studio guys. I think I played with Ashley Cleveland once or twice, and plenty of other people but honest to God I can’t remember. (laughs)

MM: From what I read, they say that Dancin’ in the District arguably led to the revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville. Can you attest to that, and can you talk about what the Broadway scene was like in the 80s and 90s versus today?

MR: Well there was hardly anything going on down there. Lots of empty warehouses and/or warehouses that were repurposed for storage or whatever. There were a couple antique stores down there. Some people had converted some second and third floors into residences, but as far as goods and services it was pretty seedy down there. There were a few bars, and about three restaurants. I lived downtown on 2nd in the early nineties. There was also a club, The Ace of Clubs, which was pretty happenin’, but other than that man it was pretty dead. Peep shows and rough characters. (laughs) I’d say safely it began its turnaround, a slow turning, but twenty years it started to pick up. The Chamber of Commerce got involved, and to answer your question Dancin’ in the District did bring people downtown that previously wouldn’t have been downtown. And it was conceptually a marriage between people who were beginning to set up businesses down there and to bring locals downtown, because they previously wouldn’t. The irony of that is be careful what you wish for, because now it’s so crowded with tourists and it’s so difficult to get down there, and now we’ve come back around to where the locals won’t go back anymore. Unless it’s a destination specific thing like a concert, it’s exponentially difficult and its catering to a completely demographic, which gets us back to the anniversary of Dancin’ in the District, which is to try to bring the locals back downtown at least for an event, and celebrate what used to be.

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