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Bass Players To Know: Michael Rhodes

Michael Rhodes
Photo by Christie Goodwin

There’s nothing like setting foot in a new city. You open the door to an unchartered group of restaurants, find yourself meeting tons of new people, and most importantly, get the opportunity to discover a new music scene. Once you check off the touristy spots, it’s time to talk to some locals… it’s the fastest way to find the best tacos, the secrets to free parking, and where to catch the living legends on a local stage.

When I first moved to Nashville – a town with quite the reputation for musical excellence – I quickly learned that Broadway was home to the Honky Tonks, but that plenty of good music was played off the beaten path. A few bass player buddies mentioned some cats to check out and, by no act of coincidence, the name Michael Rhodes came up time and time again. Who is this mysterious Michael Rhodes – the man who apparently has enough recording credits to rival (and perhaps surpass) Chuck Rainey, Leland Sklar, and James Jamerson? Can I really go to the Bluebird for $10 on a Monday night and hear him throw down on some blues?

I went, I heard, and I returned home to practice. If you’ve never had a reason to check out Michael, now you do, as he is our latest Bass Player To Know.

So Who Is Michael Rhodes?

Hailing from Monroe, LA, Rhodes took to music at an early age, playing guitar and later picking up the bass. Before settling in Nashville, Rhodes spent time in Austin during the late 1970s and then Memphis, working with Alan Rich. His move to Nashville turned out to be fortuitous as he began doing sessions for publishing companies and major label artists. As country music began to boom in the late 1980s, so did Rhodes’ career as a session player. He established himself as a first call bassist, playing on records by Reba McEntire, Hank Williams, Jr., Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, and Kenny Chesney, among others. With an intuitive feel for blues and soul music, Rhodes’ resume also includes countless artists outside the realm of country, including Larry Carlton, Aaron Neville, Joan Osbourne, and Brian Wilson.

Three decades later, Rhodes continues to be an active member of Nashville’s music community, lending his bass lines to records by Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, Darius Rucker, and others. He currently tours with Joe Bonamassa and can be spotted playing around town with various side projects.

Let’s Talk Style

As I sift through the countless number of records that Rhodes has played on, I find myself thinking that every track, every chorus, and every entrance to a phrase simply feels right. His innate understanding of note duration is unrivaled; his whole notes breathe and resonate with the track. Rhodes doesn’t simply play eighth notes, he creates a bed of momentum that seems almost mechanically perfect, yet has the undeniably human element of a live rhythm section. His vocabulary of feels, from traditional country and blues to modern pop, soul, and jazz, is not only varied, but characterized by authentic execution.

While Rhodes certainly has “chops,” most of the mainstream records he plays on require the “less is more” philosophy. His constant musical innovation over common chord progressions continues to justify his reputation as a player. He skillfully integrates chord inversions, reaching for melodic lines that move from 3rd to 5th rather than root to root. His knack for sneaking in high fifth or dominant 7th chords is uncanny, as is the phrasing and placement of many of his fills. While his approach is often varied and surprising, it rarely catches the listener off guard, thereby enhancing instead of overplaying. He exudes the confidence of a master, the musical lexicon of a seasoned linguist, and the humility that comes from recognizing the power of a song.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Make A Liar Out Of Me” (Striking Matches: Nothing But The Silence)

Striking Matches: Nothing But The SilenceThere aren’t many players who can bring a fresh musical approach to a familiar chord progression. Thankfully, Rhodes can and does with this song. Harmonically alluding to “All Along The Watchtower,” Rhodes creates a specific bass line relying on a high jump to the 10th of the chord and descending arpeggios that cleverly outline the rest of the progression. He retreats to a beautifully simple part of long root notes during the verse and elevates the chorus with a slightly busier, yet undeniably natural rhythmic approach. The song later breaks down into a sparse chorus with Rhodes’ high melodic backdrop, only to fall with grace and build into the final chorus, original theme, and solo outro.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Spoonful” (Joe Bonamassa: Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks)

Joe Bonamassa: Muddy Wolf at Red RocksRhodes lays down a slow and gritty groove on this classic blues tune, playing notes that seem to sink the listener into the song. He creates a foundation as comfortable as an old living room couch, yet he puts you on the edge of your seat as he jumps up the octave and pedals with intensity during the solo sections. His use of dynamics is intuitive—he knows exactly when to dig in, when to retreat with a muted tone, when to drop out, and when to usher in the rest of the band.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“The Rhythm Of The Pouring Rain” (Vince Gill: These Days)

Vince Gil: These DaysThis 4-disc box set primarily features Rhodes on bass, bringing his subtle musical sensibilities to the lyrically driven songs and his confident and animated groove to the rocking numbers. “Rhythm” showcases his beautifully appropriate nature as he elegantly follows the chords yet adds his signature high-register accents when space allows.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Michael Rhodes? Please share with us in the comments.