Holding the Raines: Missy Raines on the bass, bluegrass and belting it out
October 18, 2013
Missy Raines found her instrumental voice a long time ago. She was already a bluegrass fan, and slowly developing some skills on piano and guitar, when her father lugged a double bass to the family's home in rural West Virginia. The bass was intended for Raines' dad — Missy was just 11 at the time, and the instrument, which also goes by the name "bull fiddle," probably was seen as too big for a preteen girl. But Raines gravitated toward the bass and basically shoved her father aside.
"It was an odd act for him. He wasn't a spontaneous person. He didn't allow much time for his own recreation," Raines said of her father, who worked in a tire manufacturing plant, and his buying the bass. "But you look back, and it looks like it was all meant to be. He played it for fun, but I think he enjoyed more me having fun with it. I was his little girl. It allowed me to be in situations where I could play with other people. When I decided to really pursue music, he was the one who said, 'Go for it. I'm behind you.'"
Raines believes the bass arrived at just the right time. She had some small command of music from her earlier endeavors, so the learning came easier on bass. The modest knowledge she had of guitar transferred well to bass. But here was also a bigger connection with the instrument.
"It felt natural," she said. "I enjoyed the feeling, the groove that happened with other musicians. I never got that feeling with guitar. Feeling that groove, from the bass perspective, it felt like something I wanted to do forever."
“I was uncomfortable with singing and didn’t do it for years and years. I’d do it under duress. I didn’t think I was a singer. I was playing real bluegrass, straight-ahead bluegrass, and felt my voice wasn’t a bluegrass voice. That made me back up from singing it.”
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Raines remains a bassist — and a prominent one. She has been named bassist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association seven times. When she appears tonight at PAC3 in Carbondale, she will be leading her band, the New Hip, from behind her bass.
But Raines has added another voice to her arsenal — a singing voice. After some years of assiduously avoiding the microphone, Raines, who is 50, has stepped into the role of vocalist. "Inside Out," the 2009 debut album by Missy Raines & the New Hip, featured three vocal tracks by Raines, alongside instrumental numbers with Raines' blend of bluegrass, jazz and more. With "New Frontier," she emerges fully as a singer. The album, released in August, has 10 tracks, all with Raines on lead vocals. Raines puts the album firmly in the Americana category, where the emphasis is on singing, songwriting and production.
"With this band, I sing all the time. It's become a whole thing," said Raines, whose current touring group includes drummer Cody Martin, mandolinist/guitarist Jarrod Walker and Ethan Ballinger, who plays electric guitar and co-produced "New Frontier."
Early on when she was learning music, Raines was interested in singing.
"I wanted to be like Lester Flatt and Mac Wiseman. I'd sing their songs," she said from a tour stop near Santa Cruz, Calif. "The earliest mentors usually were men."
When her passion for bass took hold, Raines stopped singing. Much of it had to do with musical style: She was playing bluegrass bass but didn't feel her voice was suited for bluegrass.
"I was uncomfortable with singing and didn't do it for years and years," she said. "I'd do it under duress. I didn't think I was a singer. I was playing real bluegrass, straight-ahead bluegrass, and felt my voice wasn't a bluegrass voice. That made me back up from singing it."
A first step toward singing was discovering female vocalists who interested her: Bonnie Raitt, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams.
"It was a whole new world," Raines said. "I could relate vocally to the way they interpreted songs. Things started clicking in my head."
Things started clicking onstage around 1997, when Raines formed a duo with singer-guitarist Jim Hurst. With just two musicians in the combo, she saw a need to step up to the mic.
"I knew I had to push forward, out of the comfort zone," she said. "And I knew I wanted a band of my own that I would sing in. The duo was a great starting point."
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As unlikely as it is that she has become a singer, it might be even more unusual that Raines became a picker in the first place. Bluegrass had been dominated by men; Raines says that for the generation just before her, it was "stereotyped as all-male kind of music." Some of it didn't have much to do with music but more to do with the realities of being a touring musician.
"It was borderline scandalous if a woman traveled with a bluegrass band," she said.
But as Raines was joining that world, in the early '80s, those stereotypes were breaking apart. She considers herself fortunate to have experienced relatively little resistance to the idea of a woman in a string band.
"There were many women who had it way worse than me," she said. "I definitely encountered some of that. There was a job or two I didn't get because I was a girl. And there was a job or two I probably got because I was a girl. But it never worried me much. Those closest to me were not that way. It was a nonissue. You keep your mind on the art, and eventually it doesn't matter anymore."
In the first touring band Raines was in, Cloud Valley, there was too much to learn to bother with gender issues. Raines had no formal schooling, and Cloud Valley was stretching out as far as the occasional Bach Invention. Raines never did get a proper education in music; instead, she learned by listening to a wide range of bassists — string-band players such as Todd Phillips, who made his mark with the groundbreaking early versions of the David Grisman Quintet and the Tony Rice Unit, and Tom Gray, of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene; and jazz stars including Ron Carter, Ray Brown and her favorite, Dave Holland. Relatively late in her career, she got around to focusing on Roy Huskey Jr., known for his work with country acts — Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff and others.
"I was in Nashville and started appreciating the early country stuff that he was so famous for," said Raines, who also plays in a bluegrass quartet, Helen Highwater, that includes top-notch pickers Mike Compton and David Grier. "When I play that music, that's what I'm thinking of: What would Roy Huskey Jr. play?"
Not many of Raines' bass heroes are women, but that's not because there were no female bassists to look up to when she was learning the instrument. While there weren't many notable women in bluegrass back then, a disproportionate number of the female pickers were bassists. This was not because they fell in love with the bass, though.
"There would be the family band — 'OK, you're on fiddle, you're on guitar' — and the only instrument left was the bass. There were a lot of those stories going on," Raines explained. "That has changed. People are coming to the bass because they want to."
Raines, too, is ranging where she wants in her music. Her shows these days with the New Hip feature all the sounds she loves — jazz instrumentals, straight-ahead bluegrass and the song-oriented material spotlighted on "New Frontier." Raines feels like it's a natural evolution.
"I don't feel like a new musician," she said. "It's a new chapter, for sure, for me. It's an extension of where I've always been headed."
She can already envision the next chapter ahead: songwriting. "New Frontier" features just one song written by Raines. But she already has begun writing for her next record, and she promises the album will feature more original tunes. Otherwise, she is allowing herself room to experiment.
"The direction of the next record?" she said. "It will probably be very similar to 'New Frontier.' But I want the freedom to let it become whatever it will become."
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