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Leader of the Old School

Brett Bass is back, with a new band and a new album

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Brett Bass, 32, is built like a football player, with large hands and thick fingers that span his guitar’s frets with little effort, but he plays with a startling speed and dexterity that’s been known to leave even seasoned guitarists in a trance-like state. At any of the many gigs he’s playing around the area at any given time, you can always see a couple of them staring. In the tight-knit, cynically insular local guitar-playing scene, Bass is one of those players who commands near-universal respect.

“I feel like confidence is just something that builds with time and experience,” he tells Folio Weekly. “It’s hard to put an exact timestamp on when I felt like I had a little bit of swagger on stage, versus being nervous. But it was certainly several years of performing before nervousness swaps itself out with confidence.” Bass has spent more than a decade on stages across the Southeast, first as a sideman and later as the leader of his own groups, most recently Melted Plectrum. Either way, he has made a distinct impact on the region’s bluegrass scene.

Bass is now promoting the new band’s debut album, which will be unleashed on the general public this Friday night at Mojo Kitchen. It will be the 21st show the band has played since May, and the 40th this year (not counting the leader’s solo sets).

Brett Bass was born Oct. 21, 1986 in Naples—the closest hospital to Immokalee, where his family was living at the time. He started playing guitar at 11, training for three years under Al Bermudez while living in Miami. He moved to Jacksonville at 17.

His musical style is sometimes branded as revivalist, or even retro but, in reality, the style has stayed fresh, steadily evolving over its eight decades in existence, all the while remaining faithful to certain fundamental concepts. “There’s definitely a set of criteria that people have to meet to fit into the bluegrass genre,” he says, “especially in terms of instrumentation. Bluegrass instruments are acoustic, mostly encompassed by guitar, mandolin, banjo, upright bass, fiddle and dobro. Those are the typical instruments you’ll hear in any bluegrass configuration. And there’s a lot of harmony singing. There’s usually a lot of virtuoso melody-playing of the instruments—they’re not just there
to strum. People actually play
their instruments.”

His skills always kept him steadily employed, but he really began to make his name as the leader of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, the group that did more than any other to establish the viability of serious bluegrass among hipsters, millennials and the like.

“Grandpa’s Cough Medicine was the first band that I actually ever made money playing with,” he says. “When I first started with them, we weren’t busy enough to merit that being my only band, so I played with a couple other local bands.” These included a jam band called Late Night Transfer and an acoustic project called Hoffman’s Voodoo, both of which were based at the Beaches. Bass has since worked hundreds of gigs all over Northeast Florida. “I think the first place that ever gave me a gig was the Ocean Club, back in the day,” he says. He figures he probably played at Fly’s Tie more than any other venue, in part because it’s in Atlantic Beach, where he spent his formative years as a musician.

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine distinguished itself by winning the inaugural One Spark event in 2014. Bass and co. somehow managed to play more than 19 hours of music in the course of four days, losing nary a lick of speed or intensity. If anything, they only gained in power, like a distance runner who turns up the heat in the final stretch. Within his peer group, Bass is known for his work, but he’s notorious for his work ethic. His punishing performance schedule sometimes leaves his hands bloody and his tires as bald as his head.

“Grandpa’s Cough Medicine” is a euphemism for bootleg liquor, packed in Packards and Dodges that dodged the law. They made their bones playing authentic, old-school-style outlaw bluegrass, coupling digital fidelity with a 78rpm vibe. They were a throwback, killing it with murder ballads that belied their youth. And then it was over.

After several lucrative years together, two well-regarded albums, and multiple tours of the Southeast, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine disbanded. For Bass, the decision was as much about aesthetics as it was about logistics. “I think the whole outlaw thing was closing more doors for me than it was opening, in a lot of ways,” he says. “I did feel pigeonholed, like everything I wrote had to fit within the confines of what outlaw bluegrass is. I don’t know … I just wanted the ability to be myself, and going out under my own name was my way of doing that.”

He did a bunch of solo gigs while he plotted out his next move. Everything clicked a few months later. “I knew it was gonna be another bluegrass band,” he says, “because
it’s what I love to play.
I just didn’t know who was gonna be in it.” This new group has coalesced around Benny McDowell on banjo, Joey Lazio on mandolin and Rex Putnam on upright bass. The three share backing vocals behind Bass’ lead. “We’ve been together in this configuration since around Christmastime.”

His new band is called Melted Plectrum. “The name came together pretty early, because you gotta have something to tell people,” he says. “I wanted to imply that there was some bluegrass picking going on, but I realize now that I used a three-dollar word in my band name that most people don’t know, and people have to look it up.” A plectrum is more commonly known as a guitar pick, and while he’s never actually melted one on stage, he’s broken enough of them to fill the deepest of pockets. “All the stuff that most bluegrass bands do has something to do with breaking strings, or bending strings, or whatever. I didn’t want to use a string reference, so I went to a plectrum instead. Now I get to spend the rest of my life explaining it, I suppose.”

The new band’s debut album, Lost in the Fog, was recorded at GatorBone Studio, run by Lon and Liz Williamson in Keystone Heights. It’s the first album on which he wrote all the songs himself; it features eight songs proper and three instrumentals. Longtime fans of Bass’ music will detect some differences in the sound, mainly the addition of mandolin. They’ll also note vast changes in the lyrical content: “Most of the stuff I’ve written about is fiction, because I’m a law-abiding citizen. So the new project is more me. It’s not pretend, it’s not fictitious. There’s a lot more honesty, me being myself with more of my own true thoughts and feelings, and not some outlaw gimmick.”

Recently, too, Bass landed his first endorsement deal, with Preston Thompson Guitars, a boutique luthier outfit based in Sisters, Oregon. Bass joins a roster of nearly 20 top acoustic artists from around the country. The company was a perfect fit for Bass, whose imposing stature belies a lightning-fast picking style that’s almost as compelling to the eye as it is to the ears. Preston is building a custom model for him, handmade, like all their products.

Bass has always viewed himself as a sort of ambassador for the style, bringing bluegrass into social circles it might otherwise never reach. He’s noticed subtle growth in its wider profile over the years. “I think it’s expanding,” he says, “but it’s still very much a niche genre of music, like jazz or classical. It’s not on everyone’s radar, because it’s not on the radio. One of the compliments you get a lot, playing in a bluegrass band, is ‘Oh, I never knew I liked bluegrass until I heard you guys!’, but that’s probably because they’ve never been exposed to it, beyond a superficial level.” There’s nothing superficial about this music. It runs as deep as the river, and the sound is almost as refreshing.

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