Last night we played the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania, between Lauren Alaina and Kellie Pickler… Sweethearts, both. It was a standard late summer show, outdoors and chilly, a few thousand folks seated in chairs on the horse track up front and the bleachers beyond, ferris wheels and funnel cakes off in the distance. One of my exes was there, a middlewoman who works between a record label and all the country format radio stations in the Northeast, one of those people who sends new songs up the charts by seeming witty, cool, and agreeable to radio program directors. Interacting with people I used to date mortifies me, and I was not thrilled to see her. I’d been content with forgetting her existence. When it becomes clear to me that a person is not the right person, it’s hard not to discard that person emotionally. But when the tables are turned and I’m the one who gets discarded, it’s doubly hard for me to feel anything for that person beyond standard empathy. So after my ex and I hugged and wished each other well, I disengaged from all the people and the noise to think about my work, which is playing. To be observed without emotion. And that’s just what I needed last night, a respite from awkward feelings, and for me there’s no better comfort than pure cogitation.
Let’s start with some math. We’ll probably end with some and disperse some more throughout. On the average year, I play about 150 shows at about an hour a show. In addition to show hours are the hours of preparation—rehearsals, soundchecks, and writing charts—which amounts to another 100 hours yearly. So with 250 hours of labor a year, my average work week is about five hours. This is pretty sweet considering I now make three times as much as I did when I was driving cabs, waiting tables, or peddling porcelain action figures to grandmas at Hallmark. You’d think that such a good hourly rate would inspire a guy like me to work more, but there are two things to consider: 1) demand for such specialized labor as playing popular music (say, music that is likely to push more than 100,000 units) is scarce, which perhaps illuminates the phrase “good work if you can get it”; and 2) I’m just one guy, and I’ve no need to hoard the world’s wealth.
Some of my musician friends ask me how I add up to only 100 hours a year of prep time, and my answer is simple: I’m lazy and efficient. For a player, the average soundcheck takes three hours from load-in to the point when everyone’s bored and decides to quit noodling on their goddamned instruments. This time may be spent changing guitar strings, drum heads, and amplifier tubes; practicing licks, fills, and grooves; asking the monitor engineer for more high hat, less B3, and a 2K boost in star vocal because it sounds really dark right now; and, of course, learning new songs. I don’t do most of these things. I change my strings maybe once every couple of months, I practice with my ears and not my hands, and I rarely bother the monitor engineer because he’s working way harder than the rest of us.
And that leaves learning songs, my speciality. I look at this like a game, and the object of the game is to learn a song as accurately as possible in the least amount of time. First off, memorization is for suckers. A year’s work consists of learning about 300 new songs for at least ten different artists, but as a rule I memorize only the music for the artists who pay me in W-2s, which is usually no more than two artists and no more than forty songs. Even then, I won’t play a show without charts until my third week out. It’s in the artists’ best interests really, because no matter how big the crowd or cool the show, my mind can wander to rainbows and unicorns really quickly if the music isn’t sitting under my eyes.
But the real secret to saving time is in making the charts themselves. Imagine listening to a song while playing along with instrument in hand. Whatever chart you scribble out is now influenced by your hands at the expense of your ears, and that’s no good. To learn a song is to absorb a song. I listen with pen and paper, and like a psychologist I paraphrase what the song is trying to convey. On the first listen, I write the harmonic analysis on a blank white sheet in Sharpie, and I also memorize as many lyrics as possible. On the second listen, I transcribe the bassline (if it’s not a work tape) note for note between the numbers of the analysis. And now I’m done. A week later, I can look at that chart and recall ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of the recording, other instruments included, because I’ve established a critical connection between sound and vision. That is how to learn any song in ten minutes. Lots of players, particularly the ones straight out of music school, get into the business because they think they can do clever things with their fingers. To those people I say: you’d make a lot more money as a plumber. When dealing with something that ain’t rocket science, everyone’s as clever as the next guy. That’s the liberty of being a sideman: you hardly have to think at all. I’m up here shaking my ass and painting by numbers, and Pennsylvania doesn’t seem to mind.
So now that we’re all lazy and efficient, let’s talk about the actual work. As previously mentioned, a large percentage of people play guitar or whatever else as a hobby, and many carry around a bag of “what ifs” with regard to their careers; that is, folks who woulda coulda shoulda been a real player but didn’t. I call these people sideman failures, and there are three types: 1) people with no facility; 2) people with facility but no musicianship; and 3) people with facility and musicianship but no respect for what they’re playing. The first kind are easy. They’re everywhere, they’re delusional, and fuck ’em.
The second kind are the folks you might find teaching in colleges. Not all teachers lack musicianship, of course, but many soulless musicians become music teachers—they certainly don’t get gigs. Why not? Consider the following story: a kid picks up the bass at an early age, she takes lessons for years, she transcribes every bassline by every great bass player there ever was, she goes to college to major in playing bass, she gets a tattoo of a bass clef, she buys all the great bass guitars and bass amplifiers and bass gadgetry… What’s wrong with this picture? An instrument is but a tool for making music. Have you ever seen a construction worker with a jackhammer tattooed on his ass? No, because this is a man who fixes roads, and the jackhammer is just a thing to help him do that. So many bass players spend too much time asking these questions: What kind of distortion pedal should I use? Flat wound strings or round wound? How much compression is too much compression? These people don’t get work or don’t work well because they aren’t interested in fixing roads; they’re too busy filling out their tool sheds.
But then there’s the most tragic case—the third kind of failure—and I was one of these for years. How a musician can lack respect for what they’re playing is a question of taste—not taste in music, but taste in associations.
It was around middle school when I started to distinguish between musical doggerel and music more substantial, and it took me until five years ago, when I started playing country music, to understand that the difference between these two sides of the same spectrum are quantitative and not qualitative. The doggerel is less complex, less ambitious, and less serious than what’s on the other side. It’s also more immediate, more entertaining, and far more lucrative than what’s over there. Because the pop market is more lucrative, the better players tend to flock to it (it’s very difficult to make a decent living in indie rock, and those who do are mostly dressing up doggerel in pretentious clothing, i.e. Grizzly Bear). But the beauty of doggerel is that it can still be just as good as the heavier stuff! On my desert island, the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Bee Gees live on the same street as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
But the third sideman failure refuses to recognize beauty in simplicity, freedom in equality, and joy in stupidity. These things are beneath him, and you can hear it in his playing and see it in his face whenever he does land a pop gig. Well, I can anyway—I’m very sensitive to it. And there are lots of different examples of these cynics. Over here is a great drummer who will play music she hates just to get to play her drums, and she’s never listening to the other musicians, much less the song she’s playing. There’s a mandolin player who refuses to listen to anything made with an electronic instrument, and his time always sucks. And look at this guitarist singing the praises of this other band, yet they haven’t played a real song all night. When you hear HIM play, you’ll wish he’d spent as much time on his tone as he did on his hair. These people aren’t musicians, they’re sociologists (along with almost every current music writer). To rise above this third failure is to master the art of music appreciation.
The best sidemen ask first: what am I playing? Then, with whom am I playing? And finally, what am I wearing? The proper answer to the first question is about appreciation, and it always requires vast musical knowledge: generic categorization, musical analysis, lyrical analysis, etc. The second question is about facility and recognizing the facility or musical tendencies of other musicians: the singer sings flat on these lines, the drummer kicks way ahead of his snare, the keyboard player’s left hand needs to be cut off, etc. The third question, as superficial as it sounds, is really about considering the individual with regards to the ensemble—what role do I play in this musical drama? And it’s different for every song.
And it’s different for every show, and it’s different for every job. But it’s always the same process. What am I doing? With whom am I doing it? And what am I doing about it? I wonder if relationships could be so cut and dry. When I look back on the ones that didn’t work out—whatever that means—it’s tempting to think about them like an old gig, a list of songs to chart and dates to play, or a list of personality traits to tolerate and gifts to buy. But even I know that sounds awful. As a young woman recently told me, I’m no Tin Man—I do have a heart. As another beautiful young woman recently suggested, maybe relationships are not meant to be analyzed, as if they were nothing but pure expression. That must be the thing called love. Some people say the same thing about music, that it is or should be pure expression, but those people are certainly not talking about the kind of music that makes money. They must be talking about those weird things that enter into the canon of great works, those pompous tomes and opuses that most people don’t like or even understand. I only allow myself 8,510 hours a year to think about such frivolous things. The rest of my time is spent playing.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.