Dennis Crouch: From Mailman to Top Bassman – Part One
By John Terrence
I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with one of my favorite bass players, Dennis Crouch. Dennis is currently about the most in-demand upright bass player in Nashville. Versed in many music styles he’s worked with the likes of Johnny and June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Sting, Elvis Costello, Randy Travis, and others way to numerous to mention here. He can be seen and heard just about every Monday night at the Station Inn with the Time Jumpers. If you want to hear Western Swing the way it ought to be played, be sure to catch one of their shows. Dennis, a Postal Service letter carrier in a past life back home in Arkansas, hit the ground running the minute he arrived in Nashville, and it didn’t take much time at all for the good gigs to begin coming in. He’s one of the most humble musicians I’ve ever met, and he considers himself to be extremely lucky and truly blessed to be able to do what he does. After getting to know him, you can’t help but see why good things have happened to him. In the short time I’ve known him he’s become not only one of my favorite bassists, but also one of my favorite people.
JT: So Dennis, when did you begin playing the upright bass, and why did you choose that instrument?
DC: I was nine years old, and in the third grade. In fact, when I started I could tune only the E and G strings because I wasn’t tall enough to reach the A and D pegs. I chose bass because when listening to music I always heard bass parts. In many cases it’s hard for me to listen to a lot of those old “hillbilly records” for a couple of reasons. For one, thing you can’t really hear a lot of the bass parts. Also, as far as the playing went, a technique hadn’t yet really been established. You hear a lot of mystery notes in many of the early bluegrass recordings. I think the quality of bass playing in those styles of music really began to evolve more in the late 1940′s and 1950′s for the hillbilly stuff. All the while the bass playing for the big band music was incredible. For example, you had guys like Oscar Pettiford, and just about anyone who played bass in Duke Ellington’s band was great. But when I was growing up in Arkansas we didn’t listen to a lot of that stuff. As a kid I was always very intrigued by the instrument, and the way it sounded. My dad was a huge bluegrass fan, and big fan of what we now consider traditional country music. He was always listening to people like Mel Street, Faron Young, Tammy Wynette, and those people. They were who you were hearing on Country radio in those days. Fortunately there was someone in my house who was into that stuff. Of course there was also Swing music. My brother was always into that. In addition, the area where I grew up hosted a lot of fiddle competitions and such, where I heard a lot of Western Swing. I should say that both my dad and brother were two of my greatest musical influences in general.
JT: So you growing up where you did, you were exposed to lots of traditional American music styles for which you developed an affinity.
DC: Yeah, there were some great fiddle players too. When I was about twelve I was playing behind some of these fiddle players at the fiddle contests. It was wonderful training, which involved a lot of learning on the spot. There was no time to prepare, and we weren’t reading any charts. You had no choice but to learn on the spot. A lot of the fiddle players who participated in those contests are doing really well now. Jimmy Mattingly is playing with Dolly Parton, and Steve Wariner. He also had a good run with Garth Brooks. Randy Howard, who has since passed away, was a big influence on me. Monty Gaylord, who’s out with Clint Black was also one of them. We were all kids growing up together. It was pretty much the same group that would get together every week for fiddle contests.
JT: In addition to those great learning opportunities, did you get any formal training?
DC: Well, during those years I learned a lot from the older players, many of whom would take me aside and show me stuff, I learned a lot from a guy named Wild Bill Lyle, who taught me about guitar chords. Once I gained a working knowledge of that I could relate it to what I was doing on the bass. As far as studying, I didn’t do any of that till I moved here, and sometime in 1998 I enrolled in a class.
JT: I think a lot of the better players do it that way. After you’ve been playing for a while, and you acquire some training, you learn the theory behind what you’ve been playing intuitively. We learn why it works. It also enables a player to communicate more effectively in a working situation. So you did that when you got to Nashville. What led you here?
DC: Well, my ultimate goal was to do sessions. I had always dreamed of doing a session with Pig Robbins on piano… and Lloyd Green… I’d always wanted to play with Lloyd. There was also Buddy Harmon. I’d always wanted to work with the guys of that era. I also wanted to get to play with the Opry staff band. I’ve been fortunate to have gotten to do all that stuff, so the way I look at it from here on in it’ all free. Those were the standards and goals that I’d set for myself. There’s a singer/songwriter named Shawn Camp, whom I’d grown up with in Arkansas. We’d played in a Bluegrass band in MacAllister Oklahoma when we sixteen or seventeen years old. We lived in our tour bus because we didn’t make enough money to come home. Anyway, Sean had come to Nashville and was playing with the Osbourns, and eventually he’d landed himself a record deal. Well, one thing led to another and in 1995 he called me, and we reconnected and I went out and did some gigs with him, as it turned out he lost his record deal, and then signed with Four Runner Music. It was with Alan Reynolds, Jim Rooney, Terrel Tye, and Mark Miller. I had just gotten into the band when he started cutting demos. That was my first experience doing country type sessions here in town. I remember coming in one day to do a demo, and I had stayed overnight. I got a call the next morning asking if I’d come in to do some overdubs. When I came in Mark and Sean said “Hey we think if you move to town you could do pretty good.” Well, that was on a Friday. I got home on Saturday, listed our house for sale that next Monday, and it sold on Thursday. My wife and I came to Nashville that Friday and found the place where we now live. Sean was actually the guy who pushed for me to move here. You know how you can be reluctant abut such a big move, especially when you’re married and have two kids. That can be scary. I don’t think I would have ever moved had Sean not given me that push.
JT: And that push changed you life.
DC: Yeah, he pushed me over the edge. Man, I remember pulling in at Jack’s Tracks to do that first session, scared to death…
JT: I know that feeling.
DC: …and I pull around back in my little truck, and when I get out I turn around and Kenny Malone is standing here getting ready to go into the session. When I approached he looked at me, extended his hand, and was the nicest guy in the world. Russ Paul was on the session and he was incredible, as was Barry Walsh. That was it, in addition to Sean. For me…getting to break in and do my first sessions in town… I couldn’t have been with any better people. With Alan Reynolds…and with Mark Miller engineering, I mean it was such a great experience getting to work with those guys. I thought…man…this is it…I thought it was all like that. Sean had sort of gotten me into the Country sessions, and Butch Baldesari had gotten me into the Bluegrass sessions. Right off the bat I was getting established in both worlds.
JT: And from gigs come gigs.
DC: Yeah, I met Aubrey Haynie on one of those sessions…and David Grier. I remember those two guys, and it was Butch Baldassari’s record. Here I am, new in town and I’m thinking why is this guy hiring ME? That’s around the time that I met Bryan Sutton who has since become a close friend. It was very unfortunate that shortly after I got to town, Roy Huskey Junior got sick. I did get to meet Roy, and about a month later he become ill. Probably, about 80% of my accounts now were Roy’s. He was wonderful. I remember the night that I first met him. He asked me where I was from and what instrument I played. I told him I was an upright bass player. Well I guess he was a bit eccentric and he talked with his eyes shut. He turned to me and with closed eyes he said: “Well that’s good because there needs to be more of us in the world.” Man, I thought…what a great guy…he could have been all defensive about another bass player moving to town. He was definitely an influence on my playing.
JT: Yeah, I guess in addition to being a great player he was a really good, likable guy. Who are some of your favorites?
DC: Yeah. When I think about my favorites, there are Junior Huskey, Roy Huskey Jr., Billy Linneman, Bob Moore, and Ray Brown, and oh, Joe Zinkin. He played the Ray Price 4/4 shuffles. That’s when the bass parts started making a lot of sense. He was an incredible slap bass player. Those are my major influences. Each of them has a big tone. I’m a fan of big tone…not so much notes as I am to tone. Bob Moore is about the biggest influence of all. I guess you could say he was a mentor to me. His friendship and guidance is something I’ll always treasure. There have been so many great people here who have been such a tremendous help to me.
JT: Dennis, even if you weren’t the fine player that you are, I’m sure your positive and enthusiastic personality would help open a lot of doors.
DC: When I got to town and started to look at the people who had the good careers, I wanted to get to know them and learn from them. I though that if they’d endured 20 or 30 years of playing here… then they knew something. I was fortunate… I mean Hoot Hester was the first guy who hired me on one of the big sessions that wasn’t a demo. It was with a guy from Texas named Joe Paul Nichols. It was all Texas music…a lot of shuffles. It was at Bob Angelo’s studio, and Hoot was band leading, the late Randy Hardison was drumming, and at one point while we were setting up, I looked up and there was Pig Robbins. I remember standing there thinking… man, this is my first goal! Then Pete Wade comes in, and then Doug Jernigan comes in carrying the steel. All the time I’m thinking…Wait, I don’t know if I’m prepared for this.
JT: It sounds as though the stars were aligned for you when you got to town.
DC: Well, I just remember Hoot telling me…There are lots of guys in town who are great players, but attitude is way more important than ability. Players want to enjoy hanging out with you. At first I didn’t quite understand that, but now since I’ve been here it makes sense…I mean no one wants to spend a lot of time riding on a bus, or spend several hours in a studio with someone they don’t like. You also need to be able to take suggestions or direction from a producer. I’ve been in sessions where a producer will make a suggestion, and a player will get hot under the collar. You need to remember the producer is always right. If you want to work, you’ve got to do what you’re told. One of the reasons why I enjoy playing with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, or the Time Jumpers, is that I can go out and do what I want to do. But there’s a clear difference between doing that and playing on a record.
JT: Speaking of the Time Jumpers, now they’re one of the best shows in town. The gigs are always a lot of fun. You won’t find tastier playing anywhere, and you never know who’s going to drop in. Why do you think the band has gotten so popular?
DC: Well, the Station Inn is a good place to come and hang out, and it’s a great place for musicians to network. It’s a popular place for the session players as well as the road guys. A lot of gigs are gotten there. Hey, I got tons of gigs from networking at the Station Inn when I first got to town.
JT: As I mentioned, you never know who’s going to show up at the Inn. Who in your recent memory, has stopped by to either watch or sit in?
DC: Let’s see man there’s been a bunch of ‘em. I always like it when the Opry guys come out. I remember the first time Jack Green came out. He sang Statue of a Fool, and Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me. Mel Tillis stopped in a couple months ago and did a few tunes. Vince Gill has dropped in. Hey, I got an Amy Grant gig thanks to Vince stopping by. That’s sort of how it works. I got a Terri Clark session from doing the Time Jumper gig. All the guys in that band are great players and great guys. Man, I’m one of the luckiest, most blessed guys in town. I’m so lucky…like recently I did a Nashville Bluegrass Band gig, where here I am standing on stage among that incredible bunch of guys on Sunday, and then I fly back to town and do my Monday recording sessions with whomever, then there I am later that same night on stage with the Time Jumpers. Man, how many guys get to do that. From this point on this is all free.
JT: What’s going on with the Nashville Bluegrass Band? Are you guys sort of winding down?
DC: Yeah, we’ve got a few gigs coming up into 2004. We had a lot of fun doing the Down From the Mountain tour. Most of those guys, (NBGB), were the Soggy Bottom Boys. I was out with them and with Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris.
JT: I don’t know one musician in town who wouldn’t drop whatever they were doing to work with Emmylou. What was that like?
DC: Oh man, Emmylou was wonderful. It was absolutely wonderful. It was all a dream come true…I mean Rodney Crowell…I’m standing there behind Rodney…and Ralph Stanley. You know, every night I’m standing there thinking: Crud! (Dennis’s favorite expletive), It doesn’t get any better than this! Yeah, but Emmylou…I remember my brother and I getting her Luxury Liner record and just wearing that thing out…and we’re doing some of these songs during this tour, and like I said it was a dream come true. She’s just one of the essential singers of all forms of music.
JT: What gigs, live and studio, stand out as being most memorable or special?
DC: As for a live gig it would be the first time I got to sub with the Opry Staff Band. I mean there’s nothing that could ever replace that. Just seeing that red curtain come up from the stage was a thrill. I wasn’t nervous until I heard Eddie Stubbs give the radio ID: “…Six-fifty WSM…the Grand Ole Opry Staff Band”. Man, I’m listening to that, and listening to Buddy Harmon count the first song off…shoot… I didn’t think I was going to be able to pull the first note. That’s one live gig memory that I’ll never forget.
One of my greatest studio memories is getting to play on Johnny Cash’s last session. We did sessions on Thursday and Friday up at Cash’s cabin, and he went into the hospital on Saturday. I walked in…and man that guy was larger than life. They shut off all the lights in the studio because he had glaucoma and lights would bother him sometimes. I was beside him in a booth where I was facing him, and all I could see was a silhouette of Cash…you know, because of the glow from his music stand…I remember just sitting there doing an overdub on one tune, which was Johnny and June doing a duet on If I Could Only hear My Mother Pray Again, for the Carter family tribute album. That’s one of my greatest memories. I also played on June’s last record before she passed. That’s something I will never forget.
JT: You’re very fortunate to have gotten to town in time to perform with some people, the likes of whom we’re never going to see again.
DC: I was thinking about that just last week. It’s like what I said about everything being free from this point on. I was going back over the calendar, since it’s getting close to the end of the year, and I was just thinking how I’ve gotten to play with June and Johnny, I just did Randy Travis’s record, and Ralph Stanley’s. I just finished up Ralph’s last record, with his band…I mean I got to be a Clinch Mountain Boy, you know! I did sessions for Sting this year, for Elvis Costello, and Ricky Van Shelton. We cut Mavis Staples a few months ago. I got to do a couple of tunes with George Jones, and Rosanne Cash. There are a lot of great upright players here. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. I love it! I wake up in a dream every day…I mean this is a dream right here.
JT: Hey, a lot of players, upon arriving in Nashville, think they have to do those Broadway gigs. Did you ever do that?
DC: Man, my first gig was in Tootsie’s, with a band called the Tennessee Tuxedos. Our claim to fame is that we’re the band that got fired from Tootsie’s. Man, how do you get fired from Tootsie’s! It was a wonderful band. Eddie Stubbs had recently gotten to town, and was working part time at WSM, so he was playing fiddle. Ernie Sykes was the lead singer, and he wore a tuxedo. Mike Bubb was playing rhythm guitar, so you had three upright bass players in the band. It was a great little band…and we got fired!
JT: You should be proud.
DC: Man, we’re tickled to death.
To be continued:
In our next installment we’ll pick up with Dennis’ more recent musical adventures, including The Time Jumpers Grammy nominations, working with Allison Kraus & Robert Plant, and much, much more.
About John Terrence
A rocker at heart, Johnny T is an exceptionally versatile freelance road & studio bassist who is versed in a variety of styles, such as traditional Country, Americana, Folk, Blues, Jazz, Bluegrass, and Swing. JT has been a full-time Nashville resident since 2002. He moved here from New York’s Greenwich Village, where he lived for twenty-two years on the legendary corner of Bleecker & MacDougal. “I think I made the move about 25 years to late.” In the late 1970′s, and after having played bass for several years, he enrolled in college and studied Jazz & Contemporary music. “I studied just enough to learn the theory of music, learn my instrument, unlearn bad habits, and to enable better communication in musical situations, not ruin my playing by doing countless hours of scales and arpeggios and end up playing like a robot.” He kept busy in the then thriving NYC club scene supporting an assortment of acts and artists like Miss Saigon lead Joan Almedilla, Lerrick Santos and Alibata, in addition to a stage production of Pump Boys & Dinettes. He was also co-founder of the Concrete Canyon Cowpersons with CJ Masters. “There was a lot more, but much of that time remains a blur.” He has worked with acts such as Country Music Hall of Famer & Grand Ole Opry member the legendary Charlie Louvin; Georgia Music hall of Famer Billy Joe Royal, Walter Egan, & World Finger-Picking Champion Richard Smith, to name a couple of his personal top favorites; an assortment of Bluegrass acts including The Roland White Band, Traylor Parker, & George Clark and Dixie Flyer, & Country acts new and old, sharing the stage with people such as Tanya Tucker, Lynn Anderson, Josh Gracin, Buddy Jewel, Lorrie Morgan, Catherine Britt, Little Jimmy Dickens, R&B legend Clifford Curry, Hammond B3 master Moe Denham, Gary Talley of the Box Tops, and more. All in all, working in Nashville has provided the pleasure of working with some of the finest musicians and nicest bunch of people on this crazy planet. Trying to not be pigeon-holed in this town is the biggest challenge. He is a CMA member, an ASCAP member, and a member of the Nashville Association of Musicians, AFM Local 257, where he is currently an elected Hearing Board member. He has been a regular teaching electric bass at the highly acclaimed Kids on Stage Summer Academy program at the Hillsboro School in Leiper’s Fork, on a staff with the likes of Bonnie Bramlett, Gene Cotton, Walter Egan, Gary Talley, Alex Harvey, Pete Wasner, and many others. He’s also conducted bass clinics at Battleground Academy in Franklin, Tennessee. With a passion for writing, he has had articles published in Bass Frontiers, Allegro, The Nashville Musician, Bass Inside magazine, and Take Country Back. In 1995 John was hired to write James Earl Jones’ commentary script for a major national event. John has dual US & Irish citizenship, the former of which is a tour manager’s dream as he can travel and work freely anywhere in the European Union, without limitations or restrictions. One less person to worry about when it comes to a work visa. To have him do your bass tracks at his home studio just send an email to: [email protected], along with your phone number, and your needs and the pricing can be discussed. You can also hire him by clicking on the eSessions link,where he is listed as an eTalent. John and his wife, Pat, are passionate animal lovers who donate their time as volunteers for the Nashville Humane Association. John is also a credentialed volunteer Tennessee D.A.R.T, (Disaster Animal Response Team), member.