We wanted to take the bluegrass sound out of the country and bring it to the city…
Interview with Tom Gray legendary Bass player
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly
In September 2013 during IBMA’s annual conference in Raleigh, NC I met with legendary bass player Tom Gray. He played with the bands Seldom Scene for 16 years and with The Country Gentlemen for 6 years. Tom started his career back in the 1960s and continues to play today with Eddy & Martha Adcock.
What do you like about bluegrass music, why do you play it?
I just love the sound of it! It is fun to play it. It is based on simple melodies and chords, but there is the opportunity to improvise. So, it becomes like jazz. It is easy to start playing bluegrass, but it is hard to advance and play it well. It has soul. John Duffy used to say “Bluegrass is white people’s soul music”.
Did you hear bluegrass from your family?
No, I discovered it on my own. My mom wanted me to play classical music. Instead I became a hillbilly.
So, you are not a classically trained bass player?
No, not at all. I started playing accordion, then piano, then ukulele. Later guitar and mandolin. I always wanted to have a bass, to touch one. I was listening to the bass lines of the music. It intrigued me. it registered in my brain somehow that I wanted to play that bottom line.
Besides bluegrass, what other genres did you play?
I did some rockabilly, some early country music.
Tell me about The Country Gentlemen years?
We were a radical band for its time. We were taking songs from rock and roll, pop and jazz. The other bands were playing only traditional bluegrass. This was back in the 60s. The next two decades (70s and 80s) I played with The Seldom Scene. That band included John Duffy with whom I played in The Country Gentlemen.
Who was the first lead singer of The Seldom Scene?
John Starling. His voice is so smooth and velvety. Basically, we wanted to take the bluegrass sound out of the country and bring it to the city. I lived in DC, John Duffy was born in DC and raised in Maryland, Charlie Waller also lived in the DC, although he was originally from Louisiana.
We played our music to entertain city people. That was a different outlook. We played urban bluegrass.
You play often a walking bass?
Oh yes, they let me walk! My hero in playing bass was George Shuffler. He played walking bass on some of the early Stanley brothers’ recordings.
My favorite Seldom Scene song is “Open Up the Window Noah”!
Oh really? That was sung by Phil Rosenthal who came in the band after John Starling.
Is The Seldom Scene still active?
Oh yes, but I am not a member. I left in 1987. The only original musician left now is banjo player Ben Eldridge. They are a great band and continue to play the original Seldom Scene songs from 30 years ago.
Could you make a good living back then?
Yes, we played a lot. John Duffy had a good business sense. He did the booking and negotiating. I had also a day job with The National Geographic Society. I worked with maps.
Ok, thanks Tom!