No boundaries for this game-changer: Victor Lemonte Wooten. Photo by Steve Parker
In the religious world, it would be
referred to as “illumination” or “enlightenment.”
I call it the spark. You may call
it something else altogether, but there is
a moment in our musical lives—like an
instantaneous flash—that opens up our
souls and minds to the realization that
there is a particular path we need to follow.
It’s the sudden experience of purpose
and comprehension of how we can best use
our hands and ears. When the electric bass
hit my hands, I didn’t really understand
the power behind the instrument at first. I
could play the notes that fit together with
other instruments—in badly named pickup
bands that lasted about the length of the
school year—but I had no idea what the
bass could really do at that point.
I was a high-school freshman when I
went to see a local music store’s contest
called the “Thump-Off.” This was held at
the now-demolished Boathouse in Norfolk,
Virginia, and one of the contestants in
the event was from my school. While he
didn’t win or even place, the guy who did
win had this incredible playing style I had
rarely witnessed before called “slapping
and popping.” And not only was his playing
lightning fast, he did a backflip during
his set! I left the show with a strange sense
of both happiness and sadness. Sadness
because I was thinking I’d never be able to
play that fast, and that I’d certainly never
pull off a backflip onstage.
About five years later while attending college
in Mississippi, I caught a video on VH1
for a quirky banjo/harmonica-heavy tune
called “Sinister Minister” by the band Béla
Fleck and the Flecktones. When unexpectedly,
right in the middle of the song, there
was a bass solo. A friggin’ bass solo! As I was
asking myself who would have the cockleshells
to pull this off, I suddenly remembered
where I had heard that playing before.
This bass-soloing Flecktone and the winner
of the contest from years earlier were one in
the same—Victor Lemonte Wooten.
When I moved to Nashville, I was able
to see Victor playing in town at a number
of Béla Fleck shows. I silently studied him
at live shows while trying to soak in as
much as possible, I read all about him in
trade magazines, and bought every release
he put out. I also saw him at countless
NAMM booth appearances, and once, I
actually got up the nerve to say hello.
I eventually joined a band and as we
toured the country, I started to really push
myself harder musically. But I was finding
that as soon as I learned something that
Victor recorded, he would release something
new that pushed the envelope even further,
and subsequently further away from my skill
set. In time, this made my fingers not want
to attempt the music he created, and all of a
sudden, a huge influence was no longer an
influence. Instead of having fun by creating
music similar to Victor’s, my attempt to
mimic him seemed more of a chore.
So I decided to go back to the beginning
and determine the core of why I was playing
bass and what I really wanted to be. To do
this, I had to get my head around a few things.
The first was that Victor was not the only
game in town. Though he liberated the bass in
a number of ways and needs to be thanked for
that, he’ll cite a lot of other people who have
influenced him. Like the great bass players
before Victor—and the ones after—everybody
borrows bits and pieces from everybody else.
By getting so wrapped around one
particular style or player, you can easily
lose yourself in the equation. We should
appreciate, borrow, and learn from all the
good players, not just one. Victor (or Flea or
Fieldy or Pino) certainly doesn’t want you to
be a carbon copy. So borrow what you want,
but then make each note your own. There is
only room for one—one of them and one of
you. And being the best one of you is how
to become the best at anything.
Musically, our goal should be to constantly
be moving forward. It’s been said that “a sensible
man knows his limitations,” but there
are no limitations in music. The same goes for
Victor’s playing—there are no boundaries—but he’s trying to share the infinite power of
the bass rather than his every move to others.
John Lennon sang: “There’s nothing you can
sing that can’t be sung.” And just like Stanley
Clarke, Cliff Burton, and Jaco changed the
game before him, Victor will one day hand
the torch to yet another game-changer.
I attended Victor’s most recent CD-release party in Nashville and, as usual,
he blew me away. He continues to inspire
and create magic in an effortless and
unpretentious manner, but watching him
now brings a new kind of happiness and
appreciation. Maybe one day, he and I can
sit down for coffee and talk about all the
good times we’ve had together.
has been fighting his rock-star frontman
urges for decades, holding down the low
end for such artists as Steve Cropper, Sister
Hazel, and Phil Vassar. Join in his “touring
therapy” on Twitter @shinybass.