Bass Players To Know: Dave Roe
Nashville, a town that has become synonymous with country music, has evolved into something much more—a place for songwriters, producers, and people who simply want to make great records. Session players are career professionals; they’ve been making music with the best of the best for decades and continue to push their own creative abilities thanks to producers searching for a certain sound. One of the best examples? Nashville legend and session ace, Dave Roe. The longtime bass player with Johnny Cash and favorite of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, his list of credits reflects eclecticism, musicality, and a modern interpretation of traditional American genres.
Who Is Dave Roe?
Growing up in Hawaii, Dave “Roe” Rorick played drums in the high school marching band before picking up his first Fender Jazz bass. Eager to enter the world of ensemble playing, he formed a rock trio upon graduating high school and quickly began branching out into jazz and funk. With country records spinning at home and a heavy dose of west coast soul and British rock’n’roll, Roe’s early musical background served him well when he decided to move to Nashville. After instantly landing a gig with country legend Jerry Reed, Roe got the Nashville stamp of approval.
Reputably known as an electric bassist and vocalist, Roe got a call from Johnny Cash with a request to play upright. A crash course in the country/bluegrass slap style not only landed him the gig but served as a particularly useful, if not essential, skill in the Nashville marketplace. In addition to touring with Cash, he often found himself in the studio, contributing to records by Dwight Yoakam, June Carter Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Jack Clement, and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Throughout the mid-2000s, writers and producers in the rock and R&B world settled in Music City, infusing it with new blood and the ever-evolving spirit of Americana. Roe found himself working on “New Nashville” records with artists including Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark, Gretchen Peters, and John Mellencamp. Frequently called upon by writer and producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Roe racked up credits with Ray LaMontagne, The Pretenders, Nikki Lane, Marcus King, and Yola.
In addition to session work, Roe has toured with Auerbach’s solo project and is regularly spotted at Nashville venues. Well known amongst veterans and newcomers alike, his continued dedication to local gigs has resulted in a trio project, The Slobeats, featuring guitar slinger Kenny Vaughan and drummer Pete Abbott. With no evidence of slowing down, Roe continues to set the standard for what it means to be a working bassist.
Let’s Talk Style
First and foremost, Roe is a triple threat in just about everything. Vocalist, electric bassist, and upright bassist. Touring veteran, local hotshot, and session staple. Classic country connoisseur, pop music authority, and rock ’n’ roller through and through. His eclectic musical background, years of experience, and frankly, damn good taste, make for the perfect storm of a player.
After having the pleasure of seeing him live, there’s no doubt that he knows when to play it safe and when to take musical risks. With the daring and nothing-to-lose gusto of someone who knows exactly how and when to take a bold approach, he excels at executing adventurous fills without degrading the integrity of the song. Like any great rhythm section player, he’s keenly aware of his role within the ensemble yet confident enough to make his voice heard.
Much like the players we admire from the early days of West-coast pop music, particularly “Wrecking Crew” bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, Roe’s parts become essential to the musical aesthetic of New Nashville. An amalgamation of country, soul, and early rock, the genre deemed Americana allows for a long-awaited return to roots music and songwriting craft. Using Roe on this type of record means taking advantage of both an encyclopedic knowledge of these styles and a reinterpretation of the techniques and harmonic movement that marked the glory days of pop bass lines.
When called upon to play a supportive and traditional role, his playing alludes to masters like Willie Dixon and Bob Moore—two of the hallmark players on early blues and country records. Their styles live on through Roe, where attention to detail, superior tone, and supportive nature reigns supreme. If given the opportunity to infuse a tune with energy, he often harnesses the power of the arpeggio in a way that is reminiscent of rockabilly and early rock’n’roll records. He outlines the root, 3rd, and 5th to create the framework and supplements it with other chord tones to create a more specific and identifiable bass line. His nuanced sophistication, widely cast net of musical influences, and excellence as an upright and electric bassist has resulted in many killer records.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Shine On Me” (Dan Auerbach: Waiting On A Song)
Shining brightly with a front and center bass line, Roe anchors the song while providing energy and brilliant voice leading. Framed by a major arpeggio, his part alludes to the bounciness of early rock’n’roll while conjuring up memories of Beatles and Beach Boys records. His use of a diatonic descending line during the pre-chorus opens the song rhythmically and provides just enough of a respite before going back to the original part. This feeling is further highlighted when the bass drops out for a down chorus. Quickly realizing that the song is defined by the initial bass line, you yearn for its presence and feel relieved upon its return. If you’re searching for a particularly perfect nugget of bassy goodness on this record, look no further than the fill at the end of the final pre-chorus—a major third played in the highest register provides sparkling tension before the resolution of the chorus.
“Keep It Between The Lines” (Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide To Earth)
Roe anchors this Sailor’s Guide track with R&B greatness. Rhythmically, he takes a busy approach that locks in with the groove of the drummer’s hi-hat while navigating the space between Simpson’s vocal phrases. He highlights the essence of the blues by taking advantage of what that genre has given us—an acquired taste for the inclusion of both the major and minor 3rd. He playfully toggles between these notes to add character to his bass line, adding a sophisticated and funky embellishment to the “blues box” framework. Roe’s playing walks the line between being intuitive, reactionary, through-composed, and familiar enough for its essence to be replicated.
“Walk Through Fire” (Yola: Walk Through Fire)
There’s nothing like the beauty of a deep pocket and Roe could easy hold your wallet, your keys, and your phone in this one. A laid-back root-5th approach a la classic country transports you to the gospel-tinged fields of the South, adding an air of spiritual authenticity to the record. His tone feels like a warm hug—it is comforting and strong, wise, and weathered. Embodying the simple elegance of American roots music, Roe expertly serves the song with the restraint and humbleness of a master.
“Lead Me” (CeeLo Green: Lead Me)
Evoking the nostalgia of a Four Tops or Smokey Robinson record, this track instantly transports the listener to a modern-day Motown revue. Ceelo sings a message that is evergreen (yet particularly necessary to heed at this moment in time), and Roe provides the comfort of a warm, round bass tone. His rhythmic pulse relies on the beautiful simplicity of the root and octave, with a perfectly executed walk up to the five chord. Following the inspirational high of the chorus, Roe shines in the outro of the song, where pentatonic fills provide just enough interest to allow for the song to ring out gracefully while begging for a repeat listen.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Dave Roe? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!