There’s something special about overturning the rocks of musical history and revealing the identity of a bass player to know. It’s a treasured moment of discovery, a series of lines connecting the dots, and a great reason to be inspired by our instrument and those who have played it best. This Bass Players to Know column features Norbert Putnam, a player who got his start in the Muscle Shoals scene before moving to Nashville and becoming a first call session musician, producer, studio owner, and publisher. With a resume including Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, The Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett and countless others, Putnam is one of those under-the-radar bass players that is absolutely worth checking out.
So Who Is Norbert Putnam?
A native of Florence, Alabama, Putnam came from a musical family where his father played bass in a string band. He took to the instrument as well and played with a band that would soon become the first rhythm section at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. FAME owner Rick Hall hired them to play sessions for an upcoming R&B artist, Arthur Alexander, and the songs quickly became hits. After the success of these recordings and singles by Jimmy Hughes and Tommy Roe, Putnam and the other Muscle Shoals players entertained the idea of relocating to Nashville.
After moving to Nashville in 1965, Putnam began getting calls for a variety of sessions, from country singers to pop, folk, and soul artists who wanted to infuse their records with the R&B feel associated with Muscle Shoals. Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, Putnam played on records with Tony Joe White, Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt, The Monkees, Ray Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, J.J. Cale, and Area Code 615, a group of the “Nashville Cat” session players. In 1971, Putnam and David Briggs, another player who had moved from Muscle Shoals, opened up a publishing company and Quadrafonic Studios near Music Row. They began producing records and Putnam had his first single as a producer with Joan Baez’s album Blessed Are…. After the success of that record, he went on to produce Eric Andersen, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Dan Fogelberg, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Jimmy Buffett. A brilliant bass player, string arranger, publisher, and producer, Putnam has had a miraculous career and continues to reside in Tennessee.
Let’s Talk Style
During the late 1960s, music in the American South underwent an incredible transformation, with the studios in Muscle Shoals and Memphis churning out groovy soul music to the Nashville scene becoming a destination for more than just country. Putnam’s moved turned out to be a fortuitous one, as it gave him the opportunity to bring his R&B style to the folk, pop, and rock artists that decided to start recording in Nashville. His overall career as well as his playing style can be summed up in one word: fusion. As a businessman, he knew how to assert himself into multiple roles, be it studio owner and producer, publisher or player. As a bassist, his ability to fuse genres gave him a fresh approach to more “traditional” music.
Putnam easily combines the groove and blues elements of R&B with the straight-laced and pristine recordings coming out of Nashville. His bass lines are simple, often anchored in the root-five moves and diatonic walking lines of country music, yet they’re slightly hip. His use of dead notes adds a bouncier and percussive edge to certain records and his approach is a bit busier than the other country players. He frequently toggles between the octave and the fifth or adds a move of fifth-sixth-octave, a common fill in traditional soul and R&B music. On many of the rock’n’roll and blues records, those by J.J. Cale and Elvis Presley, Putnam isn’t afraid to rock the one, either by punctuated eighth notes or a fluid, open feel with slight slides into the root to add grittiness.
His ability to play with genres is subtle yet welcome; he produces in a way that plays to the integrity of the song but doesn’t solely rely on what has been done in the past to “make a hit.” His producing style brought the instrumentation of soul and country records to folk music, taking what would be a guitar and vocal track to another level with the help of brilliant and versatile session players.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Steal Away” (Jimmy Hughes: Steal Away)
Before moving to Nashville, Putnam cut his teeth in Muscle Shoals at FAME Studios. This soul classic features a simple, yet distinctive bass line that toggles between the root and fifth of the chord. He uses scalar-based walking lines and traditional blues patters (1-3-5-6) to guide the band through the chord progression. His decision to emphasize the flat 7th of the dominant chord creates tension that makes the progression more “hip” and bluesy than it would be otherwise.
“Polk Salad Annie” (Tony Joe White: Black and White)
Beginning with a driving pedal on the root note that doubles the guitar, Putnam then breaks into a groove that jumps up the octave and then descends to the third, fourth, sharp fourth, and fifth. This particular pattern has been used time and time again on classic soul records, often with a bit of note or rhythmic variation. Putnam’s soulful yet energetic execution of the line induces foot tapping and hip shaking with the help of dead notes and quick fills.
“Help Me Make It Through The Night” (Joan Baez: Blessed Are…)
Featuring Putnam as both bass player and producer, this record includes a selection of covers and originals that have been reinterpreted for Baez’ country-folk-pop style. A composition by Kris Kristofferson (who Putnam also worked with), this version is slightly faster than the original, with a traditional country bass line of root-five in the verses. Putnam leads the players through the progression with diatonic, eighth-note phrases and opens up during the choruses to a more soulful, swing-based feel. The song gets progressively bouncier, with a few melodic fills and percussive dead notes to provide a catchier, groovier vibe.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Norbert Putnam? Please share with us in the comments.