Steve Bryant Getting Back to Bluegrass

Steve Bryant was already thinking a lot about all the fun he had in bluegrass a couple of decades ago. A trip to IBMA’s Fanfest this year sealed the deal.

“I’d like to get reacquainted with bluegrass,” Steve told me over the phone after the quick-stop visit to IBMA found him rehashing old war stories with pals. “I have a lot of fond memories of doing that.”

It’s easy to have fond memories, of course, when they include joining Ricky Skaggs, Terry Baucom and Jerry Douglas in the now legendary Boone Creek, playing bass for J.D. Crowe and the New South, and rooming with Keith Whitley – speaking of legends – on the road.

Steve has been a go-to session player in Nashville since 1994, mostly in country music. His electric bass groove can be heard on countless hits over the last two decades.

But while he left bluegrass, bluegrass never really left him – in part because of his ties to the late Mr. Whitley.

“Some of the best singers in country have a bluegrass background,” Steve said. “They know of Keith Whitley” through videos and old songs. “He’s like a super legend.”

Many young bluegrass pickers know about Keith and Steve, too. “I was talking to Sierra Hull, and she knew who I was, and I was thinking, ‘Man, she wasn’t even born” when Keith and Steve played with the New South.

Steve’s interest in returning to bluegrass is the result of what might be a perfect storm of circumstances – a 30 percent falloff in the session business coinciding with the examination of one’s life that takes place as more birthday candles get squeezed onto the cake. “I’m in the season of my life where I’m looking at broadening what I do,” he said.

For now, that involves getting the word out that he’s available for bluegrass session work. He might even put together a band, although he notes that he’s not actively recruiting members.

Steve has been following the recurring “is it bluegrass” debate with great interest. He got so much grief for playing electric bass with Boone Creek and the New South that fellow bassist Mike Bub joshingly introduces him as “the guy who ruined music.”

Today, of course, Steve wouldn’t be the only bluegrasser plugging in to play bass. But given the reaction back in the day, his career might have taken a different path without his bandleader’s backing. “Crowe would stick up for me,” Steve recounted. “He’d say, ‘Man, I like what you do.’ Some people were offended, but, man, I was into it. Maybe some people thought I was making fun of their music, but I wasn’t.”

Referring to the newly rekindled debate about bluegrass, he said, “Any kind of good music is flexible.” But, echoing others from the Big Tent camp, he added, “The traditional thing, I think, is not going to go away.”

Steve can be reached, for session work or Skype lessons, at sadtyler@comcast.net. The email handle sounds like a jumping off point for a sad old bluegrass tune, but it’s actually a combination of his two favorite bass guitars – a Sadowsky and a Tyler.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.

  • Joe P.

    I enjoyed Steve’s work many times in the Boone Creek days. I look forward to seeing him again one day soon.

  • Mike Bub

    Just to be perfectly clear, I did say jokingly to Steve when I met him, “the guy who ruined bluegrass bass forever!” I said it with a smile and followed by telling Steve it was an honor to meet him….I have always been a big fan of his and he was someone I had listened to since I started playing and had never laid eyes on. He truly was, and is, an innovator, changing the sound of the electric bass in Bluegrass music forever….so much so that his influence is heard in much of contemporary bluegrass to this day. I know back in the Boone Creek days he took a lot of heat for his innovations, something that is a recurring theme in Bluegrass that has spanned decades. Looks like it all worked out for Bluegrass and Steve! Great guy and it was nice to see him at WOB being recognized by so many fans he didn’t know he had….including me.
    Favorite Steve Bryant Bluegrass record: JD Crowe and the New South, My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame with Keith Whitley. One of the albums that probably helped launch Keith’s Country career.
    Always have loved One Way Track with Boone Creek, too!

    • Steve Bryant

      Mike, It was such a pleasure to meet you too! Thanks for your kind words and great sense of humor…I spoke to David via phone for about 50 min. and we had a lot of fun talking about Bluegrass and my involvement in it..we covered a lot of ground! I was just stunned with the warmth and down to earth spirit of everyone.. and to make new friends as well…
      I will say I was very fortunate to work with these wonderful musicians in those times….and I did some shows at Winfield and recorded with Pat Flynn also….He was so receptive to what I was doing and it turned me to thinking about doing this music again…..So I am open to it!
      To get such complements from top musicians such as yourself makes me very grateful and humbled to be appreciated….. I only played what I felt…I look forward to seeing you at the Station Inn sometime ( my favorite club in Nashville)
      Warm Regards,
      Steve Bryant