By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The success of Missy Raines’ 2018 Grammy-nominated Royal Traveller album, hailed by the Bluegrass Situation as “an open and honest telling of the realities of a life in transit, a life in flux, in constant motion,” added yet more luster to the already sterling credentials of the bassist, singer, educator, and songwriter. As a bassist, Raines has won eight International Bluegrass Music Awards for Bass Player of the Year, and was the first woman to do so when she received her first in 1998. In 2011, she began teaching bluegrass double bass online through ArtistWorks.
I spoke to Raines from Nashville, where she’s been living throughout the pandemic, “trying to maintain as much of a schedule as possible, working on my craft, writing new music,” she says, “thinking about the future and how I fit into it: live-streaming, trying to create my own personal presence online.”
They say there’s always a story behind a double bass.
My main instrument is a 1937 Kay bass. It’s a plywood instrument, not a carved bass, with a D neck. It was made by a company that doesn’t exist anymore. It was one of the first basses this company made and it’s a special, higher-end model. It has a three-piece neck, engraved tuners, and real purfling around the sides of the front—as opposed to later when they went to decals.
They made this bass in the in the late ’30s and ’40s for road touring bands—jazz bands, country bands—that were doing hard touring, and people were strapping their basses on top of their cars, literally. These basses were made to endure. Later, by the ’50s, the same concept used to produce basses like this was used for student models. So again, there’s the idea that it’s gotta put it up with less than accommodating surroundings.
How did you get your bass?
The bass that I play stumbled into my life when I was about ten years old. My parents were big fans of live bluegrass and early country music, and they went with friends who played instruments. One day my dad bought this bass as a fun hobby—for him, not me. I was playing guitar and piano at the time but when I picked it up out of curiosity, I fell in love with it.
I have other basses, but I totally bonded with this one. It’s the kind of plywood bass that’s highly sought-after these days. It has a really small little neck and it’s sort of dried out a lot. It’s my baby and it belonged to my dad. So, of course, there’s tremendous sentimental value to it as well.
Did you hear your dad play?
He probably played it way more than I remember but I only have two pictures of him playing it. He died young and I didn’t find out what he was thinking. I wish I could ask him today: Why did you buy that bass? Who showed you how to play it?
How did you become a pro?
By the time I was 12, I was getting gigs, playing on the weekends in bars I wasn’t old enough to be in. All with parental guidance, of course.
Is it true that touring bass players sometimes strap their instruments to the tops of their cars?
I can honestly tell you that I have never put a bass on top of a car. In fact, I was driving in East Nashville a couple of years ago and I saw an old school-bus band bus and they had a bass tied to the top of it. I was outraged! I wanted to report it to an emergency number.
I will say that when I was still a young teenager and hadn’t learned how to really take care of an instrument, I didn’t have a case for it and was playing in a gospel band, which had an old-style school bus. We were traveling maybe 30 miles from home, never spending the night. During one trip, the bass was lying down on a big pad on the seat next to me when we went around a curve and it fell off and broke the neck. My dad fixed it and we went on. Then I got a case for it and now the bass gets better treatment than I do.
Do you ever have to play someone else’s bass?
I’d completely rather not, but I can. The action can make or break you and usually, in the case of a bluegrass bass, the action is going to be super high. That’s going to limit how both hands get around the strings. And there are different-sized necks. I play a D neck, which means when I go up with my thumb to where the body meets the neck, it’s going to play a D. Basses with E-flat necks play E-flat. You can see the challenge.
What’s your case?
I have a Messina case, custom-made for me, with about 50 handles on it. It’s a soft bag—but still provides protection—and is very light. The reason that I have all the handles is I’m only five foot four so I know how I might have to pick it up in every situation. The guy said it’s the most handles he’d ever put on any case.
If I’m flying I use a huge fiberglass David Gage case. It weighs just under 100 lbs when fully loaded and I check it as luggage. Sometimes I travel with a fold-up bass.
I’ve used D’Addario strings for years. These days I’m using their Zyex hybrid string. It’s got a synthetic core that’s meant to feel and sound like gut, and then a steel covering. I love the string because it fits my world a lot.
I do a little bit of slapping, depending on which band I’m playing with.
What’s in your backpack?
I haven’t dealt with it since March 13th. I have a pack of tissues, four Southwest drink coupons, insect repellant, a thumb drive, a mini book light, a hotel key, a rain poncho, a travel straw and knife and fork set, bandaids, and my security Cliff bars. The rule is that you cannot eat a bar unless there is absolutely nothing else that is available and you will pass out from hunger otherwise.
How’s your segue to the future looking?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I approached it organically—reclaimed my backyard, grew things. Then at some point I returned to working creatively and it’s been a road I’m extremely grateful for. I’m working on a new record and trying to figure out how to get it out into a world that will be without touring until it’s safe to do so.