Morning Shift: An Interview with Barrett Smith

Barrett Smith

Photos by Joey Seawell

North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers have returned with their 14th studio album, Morning Shift, which marks a sort of new beginning for the group. It’s the first record since the departure of longtime guitarist/vocalist Woody Platt and also the first to include new member Aaron Burdett, who joined to fill out the lineup. One of the things that has remained steady for the last five years is the rock-solid bass playing by Barrett Smith.

Smith began his musical life as a guitarist, studying classical guitar in college, where he originally met the members of Steep Canyon Rangers. He purchased a double bass for a good price and quickly found work with the band Town Mountain, proving that if you have a bass, you have a gig. He threw himself into studying the instrument and its physicality to become a go-to player.

Steep Canyon Rangers: Morning ShiftSince joining Steep Canyon, he’s recorded and toured extensively. Morning Shift is his fourth album with the group. Although the band has its roots in bluegrass, their sound has just as many rock and Americana influences. Rather than a traditional studio, it was recorded at the Inn Bat Cave in Bat Cave, North Carolina. The week-long recording session in such a comfortable yet unusual location set the mood for the music.

Things got geeky as we got in-depth with Smith about his bass gear and how he can play small clubs up to giant festivals without feeding back. We also talked about moving on in a band when losing a member, how his classical guitar background affects his approach, and the recording of Morning Shift.

Morning Shift is available now on CD, vinyl, and as a digital download (iTunes and Amazon MP3).

What’s your origin story as a bass player?

I think it’s pretty typical. You might be able to actually tell it for me.

I’m a lifelong guitar player and was really into it. I studied classical guitar in school and played all different kinds of styles and was really devoted to it. Then I purchased an upright bass because a cheap one came along and I just had some money in my pocket. I kept it in my house for a while and just kind of fiddled around with it here and there, but didn’t play it much. Then, basically, just an opportunity came up for a band that needed a bass player. This band Town Mountain from Asheville. They’re still around, and they’re great.

Right when the band started, they needed a bass player and I had a bass, so I jumped on for a run and learned bluegrass. It was a bluegrass band, bluegrass style bass, really on the fly. I quickly realized two things. One, you’re just infinitely more employable as a bass player than a guitar player. That was important. Two was that I actually really enjoyed being a bass player. And so, while I’ve still played guitar in bands, I’ve played quite a bit of bass. I play more bass than I play guitar, that’s for sure.

What was the process of really digging into becoming a bass player for you?

Well, I’m purely an upright bass player. I’ve not played electric basses much and I don’t own one. The most characteristic thing about that process is the strangeness of playing an instrument that’s so physically impactful. You know, like getting those calluses on the finger and wearing my fingers out. When I really became a bass player on my first run with that band Town Mountain, we were gigging and playing a lot. I just jumped into the deep end and had to get my various body parts in line with playing that big honking thing.

Especially to classical guitar, it takes so much force, just so much resistance, I should say. The strings wore me out physically. Conceptually, it was relatively easy, because I was a guitar player and I had studied so much and really geeked out on different kinds of music theory. I was really… pretty nerdy about music. So figuring out what notes I could play was not as hard as figuring out how to just survive playing the instrument.

And then, of course, the notes that I figured out to play were not being thought of from the mind of a bass player. They were being thought of from the mind of a guitar player. That was a big curve to realize. OK, this instrument conceptually is pretty easy to play and get by on, but to do it in a way that’s respectable and makes sense is where I can serve the music as a bass player instead of as a guitar player who just picked up the bass. That became the challenge for me: changing my mind and becoming a bass player.

I think that’s a hurdle that a lot of people don’t get over.

I think so, too. Maybe in some ways, I still haven’t, you know? But I’m way more of a bass player now than I was then, that’s for sure.

How does your classical guitar training inform you’re playing on Upright?

I’d say, first and foremost, just as a practicer. I became a big practicer because of classical guitar. I had a series of really great teachers who taught me to practice well, so that’s the first thing that comes to mind. When I when I decided, “Oh, yeah, actually, I don’t want to be like bullshitting this thing. I want to actually play the bass and be good at playing bass and be a bass player.” The next stop there was making time to practice, and when it became time to practice I was ready. I was poised, laying out all these exercises and ideas as to how I can actually wrap my head around this and do it right. With the theory stuff, that just helped me solve problems about how chords and harmonies could be approached.

When you were practicing, did you use the Simandl book or just learn scales and arpeggios? What was your method?

I have the Simandl book, and I’ve never like really dug into it. In my opinion, not really knowing that book is a big missing piece of my whole musicality. At the time, what I needed from my bass playing was such a practical and particular thing that my practice involved more approaching bluegrass music and listening to bass players playing bluegrass music. I played along with bluegrass music and worked on wrapping my head around the idiosyncratic way that they played and what was expected of me in those settings. Inevitably, because I’m just nerdy about that kind of thing, I thought, “If I were to get a job in like a guitar trio or jazz combo, how would I do that?” Or if I played in a rock band or a rockabilly band. So a lot of the practice was also just really fun exploration as well.

I believe having big ears and being able to adapt to a bunch of situations is what makes a great bassist.

Yeah. So that and then being a bass player provided opportunities to do that in a new way.

I was very heavily into those concepts coming into it and then caught off guard. I knew conceptually that it was important as a bass player, but then how that actually played out was surprising and enlightening. And then I joined this band, Steep Canyon Rangers, and it just so happens that the drummer for Steep Canyon Rangers can play really anything. He’s good at all instruments, but he’s a really good bass player. Really good.

He’s great for me just because he’s a drummer and I’m his bass player, so we have a really special relationship, musically. We are really, really in touch with each other and sensitive to each other. It’s kind of doubled down because not only that, he’s really experienced and also a really good bass player. He has ideas that he expresses to me, which has been very fortunate for me. It’s made me a better bass player, for sure.

What’s a specific example he gave you? I think the interesting thing about Bluegrass bass is that the concept is simple, but there is a lot of nuance, and if you mess up just a bit, it will throw everything off.

So to be fair and clear, it’s like Bluegrass bass… not that I’m like the master Bluegrass bass player, but at this point, I’m really experienced with it and have played like a million pickup gigs and in different bands and stuff. Coming into this band, I felt really good about playing bluegrass bass, and I agree with you. Sure, in a lot of ways, it is very simple compared to other things. It’s not like I’m playing bebop trumpet here, but it’s nuanced, and if you don’t do it the way you’re supposed to do it and put the note where it’s supposed to be, you can have a really negative impact or positive impact on the music.

While Steep Canyon Rangers has been a traditional bluegrass band through a lot of its development, at this point in the game, anybody who comes to a Steep Canyon Rangers concert expecting to hear a traditional bluegrass band is going to be really surprised. We have a drummer, for one thing, but beyond that, that has really morphed into very little of what the band does in any given show. It hardly feels like any kind of traditional bluegrass at all.

So that is all to say that the drummer, Mike Ashworth, he didn’t have insights that helped me be a better bluegrass player so much, although I’m sure he could. It was more like as a jam band bass player, kind of. He had done that a lot. And as a rock and pop and R&B bass player, because those elements now are more in the band, like jam and rock.

Back to the original question of an example. Here I am playing bass in a band that had really long improvisational sections that were like jammy, you know? It’s not like the band does that all the time, but when the band does it, we really like to do it – especially the drummer and I.

I remember one of the first things that he said to me was, “As a guitar player in a jam, things get higher energy and more intense when you play higher notes. You’re doing that as a bass player, but you really need to consider that your power lies in the lowest notes that you can do. At the moment where there’s a lot of tension released, and you peak out in some moment, why would you, as a bass player, be playing some high note like you’re a guitar player? No, that’s the moment that you drop the bass and play the lowest thing, and it’s gonna make everything else pop.”

At the time, I just hadn’t played bass in bands like that, and now it seems silly. Of course, that’s the case. It’s silly that I would not have thought of that, but he’s full of little bits of advice like that. Not that he throws it around because he’s not like a very pushy guy at all, but when I want it or when it’s really appropriate, he’s got some really good tidbits of wisdom for me.

Steep Canyon Rangers Performing

It’s good to have a guy like that on your side.

Yeah, I got a bunch. I mean, the band is full of smart guys who are really experienced and wise in different ways. So yeah, I guess we’re all fortunate in the band. But I can just speak for myself. I feel pretty fortunate that I got five other people in the band who are, yeah, they’re smart. And I’m just so happy. Really good skill sets and perspectives and wisdom that I don’t have. So yeah, I’d be fortunate in that way, especially with the drummer, though.

I respect that you travel with a full upright instead of an electric upright. Can you tell me about your gear setup?

It’s an upright base, but it’s electric just because I’m playing with a pickup and running it through an amp and through a DI and all that. I run through two pickups, and one of my pickups is just like a magnetic pickup like you’d find on an electric base. If I only used that pickup, then in a way, I might as well just be playing an electric bass because that’s what the thing sounds like for the most part.

I like playing upright bass, and I prefer it really from my own personal feel for what I play for one thing. Secondly, I prefer it tonally. I don’t want the band to lose the woodiness of the upright bass.

We’ve moved from traditional bluegrass substantially, but the instrumentation is usually like a bluegrass band plus a drummer. That’s our typical MO. There’s a mandolin, there’s a banjo, there’s a fiddle, and there’s an acoustic guitar. So, I don’t really want to be playing an electric bass. With that in mind, tonally anyway, I have a [Fishman Full Circle pickup] also on my bass, and I blend the two signals between the magnetic and the Full Circle. I blend them into one signal and then run that to a DI and then run that to my amp as well.

Can we get geeky? What is the magnetic pickup you’re using, and what preamp?

It’s the Krivo pickup, and it’s the only one I have experience with. I don’t know if there are different or better ones out there or what. It’s just the one that I have, and it does what we want it to do. Our sound guy, Zach, and I are doing what we want.

The idea behind the magnetic pickup was always that the band plays in lots of different settings, from small theaters to giant festival fields. When we watch a band that’s really bringing it in a giant festival field, the bass is really rocking. It’s really present and powerful. With just a Full Circle or the Realist or whatever – I was using all those things – if I got it really rocking, then it would start feeding back. I was like stuffing the F-holes with things to keep it from feeding back and going into a bunch of trouble. Then, Zach, the sound guy said, “What about just putting a magnetic pickup on it? Then you can do it just like an electric bass player.” So we got the Krivo.

And I actually, for a while, just ran only the Krivo, so it was just like I was playing an electric bass – it just looked like it just was in the form of an upright bass. It sounded like an electric bass. But then that was not so satisfying tonally for the reasons I said before. So it’s the Krivo. It’s the Full Circle.

I’ve done some different preamp models, but right now, what’s really working is running both of them into the EBS Stanley Clarke pedal, but we haven’t perfected it. And I say we because it’s Zach and me working together, plus Mike Ashworth, the drummer. Right now, we have it stabilized, and it’s like a tiny bit magical, but not really that magical, so we work on it constantly.

The idea is that basically like, it’s got two channels, and they both have a decent EQ. The Krivo – it’s like all of the highs are taken out of the Krivo channel, basically. It’s just for thunder; then the Full Circle goes through a different channel where basically a lot of the bass is taken out of it. And it’s got the high end. So, I have a high-end pickup and a low-end pickup. And then the mids, I just put them as low as I can to still get the sound of the note out.

That goes to the DI, which goes straight to Zach to use in the front of the house, but I’ve been running a line to an amp because I’m just used to playing with an amp. I have my own signal coming out of the amp that I can listen to, then in my monitors, I can blend if I want what he’s doing, his DI signal, or if I want just my mic that I have on my amp. Usually, I like to control it a lot, so I listen only to my mic that’s on my amp. Then I can change the EQ on the amp and change the sound to whatever I want, and it doesn’t affect what he’s doing out front. He can sculpt it however he wants to, and I have a lot of trust in him.

That sounds pretty awesome.

Yeah, we’re having fun with it. And look, we’re like going on offense now. It’s not like a bunch of like troubleshooting like things aren’t working, things sound crappy, or we need to fix it. It’s more like, yeah, it sounds fine. It sounds pretty good sometimes. So let’s go on offense and try to see if we can make it sound really, really good tonight. And then maybe will go too far. It’s a bunch of tweaking like that.

Well, that’s a good place to be. I think that most of the time, when you’re amplifying an upright, you’re playing defense because it’s always feeding back.

Oh man, I’ve played so much defense. Putting the Krivo on there and just doing the Krivo that simplified everything. A lot of the troubleshooting went away because it wasn’t feeding back anymore. It just was what it was, but it wasn’t great. It’s only in the last, I’d say, few months of my life, really, that we’ve started going on offense and trying to make it sound really great. So you caught me at a really, it’s a pretty exciting time.

What is your actual bass?

It’s made by Upton, and it’s cool and kind of weird. I don’t know. I’m not really an expert on upright basses at all. I’ve had this bass for a long time and strangely, I don’t know how accurate all this is, but it seems to me that I caught Upton at a good time where they weren’t making a lot of basses, it seems. When somebody from Upton sees my bass, they’re like, “Oh wow, where’d you get that thing? We don’t make those.”

So it’s old. Which is also to say that I kind of want to get another bass. And this band flies a lot, which is a problem for an upright bass player. I took this bass back to them. They have this magical barn up there, and they sawed the neck off my bass and turned it into a bass that you can take apart and fly with.

So my bass comes apart, which is cool. It’s very convenient but also pretty problematic because, inevitably, the sound post falls out, and the bridge gets moved around. I’m no scientist when it comes to the bridge placement and the sound post. In a way, I am because I have to fiddle with it so much, but it would be awesome to have a bass where it just stayed in place.

Right. You have to set it up every time you play it. That’s kind of a drag.

Oh yeah, it’s a drag. I mean, I don’t have to. The bass is in one piece right now and has been for three weeks, and that’s typical because we don’t fly everywhere we go. Next week, we’ll start a series of events where I take it apart and put it back together every time I play for three weeks. So yeah, it’s a drag. But then again, I’m amplifying it, so it’s not like I’m in a recording studio with some super nice mic, and we’re hearing the pure qualities of this amazing bass that I have.

It’s all being processed with all these other variables, these pickups and blending in, sending the signal and EQ, and all that. By the time it’s been fussed with so much, it sounds like an upright bass. It’s got the woody thing, but it’s not like I’m really celebrating the beauty of this instrument in some pristine environment. You know, it’s like a processed fake thing that I’m creating Frankenstein-ing a sound.

So, for the bridge placement, I don’t sweat it that much. The only place it comes into play really distinctly is the band plays a lot acoustically. We rehearse acoustically, and we play a lot of music backstage before the show. Often, in that acoustic setting, I’m thinking, “Oh man, my bass is not in good shape. It’s not loud, and it doesn’t sound as nice as it should.” So, I hope to get another upright bass at some point that stays in one piece all the time. That’ll be my primary bass, you know, and then the one I have right now would just become one that I use for flying.

Switching gears to the band, Morning Shift the first album without Woody. What has the whole process been like?

It’s been a lot of things. Fortunately, it’s a great relief to say that it’s been a positive thing overall. We’ve landed in a really good spot, and the band is really strong in all kinds of new ways now. That’s, I’d say, the most important thing. But then to say, what has it been like? It’s hard to answer because it’s so many things.

The band’s been together for so long, and the relationships are really old and deep. Suddenly, not having Woody around, there’s a lot to that. It’s been an interesting year and a half. It’s not a change that any of us wanted, really, but like a lot of those changes that come your way, it’s amazing how much silver lining there is with it. First and foremost, I would say for me personally, Woody, who I love and who is a really great old friend, is doing what he wants to do with his life. He made some big changes that I think have been really positive for him. So that’s great.

Even though it was kind of a scary transition for the band, we fortunately made good decisions. And Aaron, the new guy, fits in really well and contributes in a really great way to the band. Everyone else in the band had to step up in new ways and fill some voids that were left in the wake of Woody. That made everybody stronger in different ways individually, and then it certainly made the group stronger in whole new ways that we didn’t have before. And now we have a whole new human in the band who culturally fits really well with the band and musically contributes a lot. So again, it’s not a change that we asked for or would have wanted, but we’re pretty happy about where we are right now, I’ll say that.

Change is inevitable, so I suppose it’s just how you deal with it.

Yeah, I think we got lucky, but it’s a good group that functions really well. I say lucky, as in Aaron has worked out really, really well. While we knew that he sounded really good and he had a lot of things going for him that seemed like they would work out, you don’t really know until you actually live with a person and work with them for a long time.

Yeah, there’s so much to that. You have to spend so much time together. It’s more than just a musical fit, right?

I mean, I guess it is for everyone, but certainly for us, yeah, yeah. It’s a lot. It’s a dynamic. It’s a group, yeah, with a lot going on.

So when did the process for this album begin? When did the writing start?

We’re always writing. I was just at Graham’s house yesterday, and one of the things we were unintentionally doing was… I’m not saying we’re working on the next album, but we really were, actually working out some songs and talking about what the next album will be like. We don’t have any plans to record an album anytime soon at all, but the writing and arranging of songs is a constant thing. It’s writing and arranging of a lot of songs that may or may not be recorded and may or may not make the cut for any particular album. But the next album and truthfully the album after that are probably being worked on right now.

Rewinding for Morning Shift, those songs had been in the works for quite some time, certainly before Woody left. Some of the songs on the album were songs that Woody was singing at some point on stage even.

I was wondering if Woody was involved in the process or if, after he left, you all had this collective decision to just say, “We’re still going, and we got to write more music.”

Now, Woody writes, but he wasn’t one of the predominant writers of the band. He didn’t leave a huge void in that way, writing and arranging-wise. So he contributed to the album in that there were songs that were in process while he was still around. Quite a few, actually. We were always working on it. When he left, for one thing, just the lead singing responsibility then got dispersed among different people.

Aaron is a writer as well, so we took on a whole new dimension. He writes a lot more than Woody ever did, for sure. He’s a writer who is just as prolific, I would say probably, as Graham is. So we took on a writer. While we don’t have a ton of Aaron’s songs on this last album because it was all kind of new, that will probably change. He writes constantly, like Graham, and they work well together and write together. So it’s a whole new kind of writing machine going on.

How would you describe the sound and feel of this album versus the rest of the catalog?

When it’s all said and done, some years from now, somebody going back and digging into this band, Steep Canyon Rangers, it will just be the next step in how the band changed. You can go album by album and see, “Oh, this one is different than the last one.” The band is always changing into something.

This one, in particular, is the first one that Aaron is on. So that’s one of the real hallmarks and the first one that Woody is not on. So that’s a big deal.

The other thing about it that really is a characteristic is that it was a real location thing. We picked a location that wasn’t a recording studio that was remote and interesting. Then we went there and built a studio in the space and then lived in the space. until all the tracking was finished, and then we left. So it all happened in one fell swoop. And in that way, the album is a real snapshot of what that reality was like. When we hear tracks from the album, any one of us in the band, it’s an immediate transport to that space that we were in because the space was strange. It was unique, and it happened so fast. It was about six days we were there, seven days maybe. While it was happening, it was the only thing happening.

I would say that’s the biggest, for us anyway. I don’t know how that’ll hit listeners because they weren’t there with us, but for us, the thing that’s most characteristic about it is how intensely it reflects that space and time. Since we built the studio in a place that wasn’t a studio, the place itself kind of became a character sonically in the deal. We recorded a lot of it live, so it’s kind of just guys in a cabin-ish place playing songs in a live-in-the-moment way.

That’s getting back to real deal recording instead of flying parts in from across the States.

Totally. And we like that approach as well. There were some overdubbing things that happened on this album, like some harmony vocals here and there, and maybe some part got redone here or there, but very little. For the most part, it’s very much live, and we like that. It’s got its pros and cons, but we like the spirit of it. We like the feel of it more to do it live. It’s a little scary. You end up with some stuff that you don’t like individually, and you’ve got to deal with it. That’s my experience anyway. If there’s some part that I don’t think sounds so good, but everybody else says, “We don’t know what you’re talking about, it sounds fine,” you’ve got to kind of swallow it and say, “Okay, I’m not going to like fuss over this and try to like obsess over some little detail if it’s actually – not important to anybody else except me and my ego.”

It’s hard to leave your ego at the door when you’re recording.

Yeah, and that was a thing about this process. As we were all in that space, everybody was having to do that and do it together and support each other through that. It was a whole living, breathing thing. I think everybody in the band would say that same thing, and it would mean something different to all of them. But we were all doing it together, and we had a producer who’s like a mystical guide that we had through the whole process.

Darrell Scott is… I don’t know what to say about Darrell. He’s a very interesting guy, very experienced and wise and deep thinking, feeling, super mega-talented dude who we respect and love as an artist. He was leading the charge, and his sidekick, the engineer Dave Sinko, who is this guy who is just a great engineer, built the studio. He was like the rudder through the whole thing. He was always there throughout every moment. He is the only person who was there for every moment of everything for the album, Dave. And he was just like the glue and the champion of the whole thing.

The place is kind of mystical. After it was all done, we felt like, “Did that translate?” Darrell sent everybody a text maybe like 24 or 48 hours after we finished, and it just said, “Did that just happen? Was that a dream? What just happened? What did we just do?”

That extended to, “Does that sound good? Are people going to like that?” We weren’t really thinking about that very much. We were just really going for it, what seemed right, all of us, and going pretty hard and tunnel-visioned about it without any outside input. Now the album is here – there are physical copies of it right now. People seem to like it, which is encouraging.

But whatever, that’s what we did, what felt like was the right thing to do. And that seemed like a good thing.

If the band is always writing and creating, is the collective feeling of finishing a record like, “Ok, we have to support that but now we’re already thinking about the next thing?”

Definitely, yeah. Definitely moving on. Part of moving on is supporting it because those songs, once they’ve been on stage a number of times, they start to change a lot and take on some other life of their own. Sometimes to the point where we say, “God, I wish we had recorded this song now instead of then,” because now it has taken on all these new parts and these new dynamics and has now been road tested. But yeah, I’m very much moving on.

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