Bass Fishing, by Shelton Clark
from Bassics Magazine
IN 1976, Keith Grimwood was playing in the bass section of the Houston Symphony, a fan of music who, after symphony concerts, would “hang up the tux,” he says, and check out a five-piece rock band called St. Elmo’s Fire. A serendipitous turn about a year later put him and his acoustic bass on the streets of Santa Cruz, California, with St. Elmo’s guitarist Ezra Idlet, playing for tips.
“That was more or less the birth of Trout Fishing in America,” says Grimwood, who together with Idlet has formed a musical partnership that has endured for more than two decades and an audience which, like Grimwood and Idlet, appreciate the fact that TFIA speaks in a language not only of love songs but of parent- and childhood.
Two singers, acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, Trout Fishing in America make it look easy only because they’ve worked hard at it for 20-plus years. Their insistence on keeping everything self-contained, so to speak, has sparked each man’s musicianship and allowed them to make the kind of records they want to make without outside interference.
It’s paid off, too. Trout Records (P.O. Box 914, Prairie Grove, AR 72753-0914; 888-439-8342; troutmusic.wpengine.com) has sold close to 200,000 copies of the Trouts’ eight releases over the past eight years. Their most recent work, Family Music Party, was also filmed for video release at the TV studio where the PBS show Austin City Limits is filmed. Many PBS stations, in fact, showed Family Music Party during spring fundraising programming.
“I started playing bass when I was 11,” says Grimwood, on a break from recording in Nashville. “I seem to have gotten into some kind of trouble my first day or two at junior high school. I wanted out of this one class pretty bad, and they needed volunteers for the school orchestra. I was assigned to play the string bass. I was a little kid, too, around 4-foot-7 at the time. I started playing bass, and I just loved it. Absolutely loved it.”
So much for the assumption that it takes a big man to be able to handle such a massive instrument. Grimwood and Idlet spoke with me from the air-conditioned comfort of their van, which recently replaced pickup truck that had taken them a half-million miles. Grimwood, perked up by a cup of coffee, and Idlet, stoked from having bought several old Nat King Cole albums he found in a bin at a hardware store, were also buoyed by the news that their 1996 release My World had just won an Indie Award as Best Children’s album over releases by such stalwarts as NRBQ and Arlo & Woody Guthrie.
The Kerrville Folk Festival has honored both their adult music (Over the Limit, Who Are These People? and others) as well as their children’s music. Kerrville enshrined the duo into the festival’s Hall of Fame in 1996. “I have always admired his playing,” says Idlet, speaking of the days when Grimwood joined St. Elmo’s Fire. “Besides having symphonic chops, he had good rock, jazz and pop chops. But the thing that was really cool was when he joined our band, he had a Bogen amplifier. He paid a dollar a watt for it. His motto at that point was, “If you can’t play it on a Bogen, you can’t play it!”
“Equipment wasn’t real important to the time,” Grimwood interjects.”We were playing some bar in Corpus Christi, and this kid came up with a big grin on his face. He said he’d bought a Bogen so he could sound like Keith! And Keith said, ‘I’ve got to do something about this. I cannot play with a Bogen and inspire people to play them-they’re awful!'” Idlet laughs loudly at the memory.
“I was more interested in the notes than the equipment,” Grimwood says, growing slightly more serious. “Still am, actually. Lyrics, notes, songs, form. I like that stuff.”
In addition to his upright playing, Grimwood also knows his way around a Fender Jazz. The Trouts do a live cover of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” on their CD Reel Life, and the energy put forth by the duo-especially Grimwood’s solo-embodies the spirit of Little Feat’s original. “That’s one thing to be said about the duo: When you’ve got two people and it’s time for a solo, it’s either the guitar or the bass, Grimwood says. “You’re going to find more bass solos at a Trout show, because the format requires it.” Not that the audience (especially bass players) seems to mind.
Grimwood travels with a 1950’s-ear Kay upright (with a vintage Barcus-Berry pickup), a Fender Jazz and a Clevinger upright electric. His primary bass is a German bass from the 1870’s, played with a French bow. “Our real strength is ensemble playing,” says Idlet. “I wouldn’t put us on any upper echelon in the world of soloists, but in the world of ensemble I think we’re really strong. All these years of playing together, we’ve developed a major sound. With two people, we can play a rock club as well as a folk club and provide all that’s necessary to move an audience musically.”
“The solo on “Dixie Chicken,” it’s OK, but it’s with what’s backing it up at the same time,” adds Grimwood. “If you listen to it with that in mind, I think it’ll click right away.”
All the classical training isn’t lost on Grimwood. “I’ve got tons of sheet music at home,” he says. “I get up, I read, and I go through my exercises.” Lots of people play upright; not many have the chops or the taste for a proper arco solo that Grimwood does.
“Ezra listens to music constantly. He just surrounds himself with it,” Grimwood adds. “His record collection is so diverse, it’s unbelievable. And I listen, too, but not like he does. He’s obsessive. I need more silence in my life. I need silence for thoughts to form.”
One of the best examples of Grimwood’s supportive playing is in the song “Lullaby” from Family Music Party. Like many of TFIA’s songs written for children, the wellspring of emotion touches all generations. Grimwood’s solo flows beautifully and unobtrusively.
“Adults recognize similar things that they’ve experience,” Grimwood says. “I think that’s why we appeal to a lot of generations. I’ve got a picture in my bag of a family. A woman was celebrating her 98th birthday, and five generations of her family were there. Five generations, and they were all digging it for different reasons.”