John Howard on Bringing Your A-Game
You can count Nashville-based bassist John Howard among the hardest working, most versatile and sought-after low-enders in the business. Since he began playing professionally 20 years ago, John has toured with music stars such as Faith Hill, Richard Marx, Randy Owen (of the country supergroup Alabama), Randy Travis, Phil Vassar, Lee Greenwood and Chely Wright, played with Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, Cliff Richard, Kenny Rogers, Jewel and Hank Williams Jr., and appeared on dozens of TV shows, including the Grammys, David Letterman and The Tonight Show.
In 2000, John and his best friends formed Sixwire, named after the six wire strings on a guitar. The five-piece band (guitarists Andy Childs, Steve Mandile, Robb Houston and drummer Chuck Tilley with John on bass) all did their share of touring and session work before coming together. But far from being a session band, the group writes and produces all their own material, serving up memorable songs and monster hooks with strong vocals, big guitars, and superb musicianship.
Sixwire signed with Warner Bros. in 2002 and released their first CD, “Sixwire.” But when sweeping changes at WB resulted in the band’s departure in late 2003, they turned their attention to writing songs for a new album. It was nearly finished in the fall of 2007 when Sixwire was chosen to compete on the Fox TV show "The Next Great American Band.” The band appeared on all 10 episodes and was one of three bands that appeared on the final episode finishing as first runner-up.
John, who resides in Nashville, currently plays with Sixwire and tours with Randy Owen and Richard Marx. He contributes to a variety of recording situations and is also a songwriter.
Tell us a little bit more about your musical history, influences, and heroes.
First, I feel fortunate to have always been able to play music for a living. Lakland makes it easier. I’ve had a good career. Not everybody gets to do what I’ve done.
I started playing bass in the seventh grade, and I never played anything else. My brother Fred is a drummer, and together we were a rhythm section. I didn’t want to be a guitar player; I always liked the groove part. I had a lot of bass heroes: Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, and James Jamerson. Mark King, Jaco and Stanley. Carol Kaye was also a hero.
As a young person, I went to see Return to Forever. After that, I went through a phase where I thought the only things worth listening to were bebop and fusion jazz. On Pat Metheny’s record Bright Size Life, I heard Jaco Pastorius on upright, and then went through his entire catalog.
Then bands like the Cars came on the scene and I said “I like this!” I still liked Return to Forever and Weather Report, but I liked the Rush too, and Boston, and vocal bands like The Doobie Brothers, Kansas, and The Eagles. Then, in the mid-80’s I heard Level 42 and it was another watershed moment for me.
After I graduated from college with a business/music degree, I got a gig at a recording studio where my brother Fred worked. He and I became the house rhythm section, and we had carte blanche to cut whatever tracks we wanted. That’s where I learned what works live doesn’t necessarily work on tape!
The studio was owned by Michael Henry Martin; he had a profound impact on me as a musician – I owe a huge debt to him. I remember one of my first sessions with him. It was stone country and Michael wanted me to add something. I was still in my Stanley/Jaco phase and I’d been studying modes and stuff. I laid something down; I think it was A over D Dorian or Phrygian. He said, “That was nice, and I know you can tell me what you did, but where was the music in it?”
Up to that moment I was concerned about how good a player I was technically, but not how good the music was, what the music did. That conversation changed the course of my playing from that day on.
Michael also connected me with Steve Mandile (guitarist and producer for Sixwire). He called me three times with different touring offers before we finally got together. The last time he called he was in Nashville with Lee Greenwood and Lee’s bass player had given notice. He wanted me to send in a tape or video. My wife said, “Are you crazy? Let’s get on a plane!” We flew there on Friday, jammed with the band the next day, and shortly thereafter (with no rehearsal) I was touring with Lee Greenwood. Two weeks later, we were moving to Nashville.
I played with Lee for several years and then in 1998 got the call about the Faith Hill gig. She was already a big country star but I was there to see her become a big mega star. And she was great to work with. All the tours, TV shows, arena’s, Grammy’s, all that cool stuff, I am so fortunate to have had those experiences. After touring with Faith for four years, she decided to take some time off so I went on the road with Randy Travis.
A lot of people don’t realize that when you have a gig like this, you can’t “call in sick.” After all of the hours you put in, you become part of what makes the overall sound and so someone can’t just step in and be you. That means you must play the show, no matter what.
I’ll give you an example. In the fall of 2001 I was playing a venue with Randy in Las Vegas. I’d gotten terrible food poisoning, and all that entails. I was so weak I couldn’t stand up. The wireless had interference so they bought a 100-foot cord that went from the stage to the tour bus and ran a monitor into the bus. I played the show from the front lounge of the tour bus – while laying flat on my back.
How did you get on Next Great American Band?
When we submitted the DVD to the show, we never thought we’d hear from them, much less make it all ten weeks to the runner up spot. We were treated so well – it was a blast.
It also was as stressful a musical situation as I’d ever been in. We’d all done live TV before, but the added element of being judged on our performance definitely turned up the pressure to do well. It built mental fortitude. We had to be confident in our craft and go out there and deliver.
We also had to be confident in our musical decisions. For Rod Stewart week, we were slated to do 90-seconds of “Maggie May” and one of our original songs, “Now I Know”. On Monday, the last day of rehearsals, the producers told us they were cutting the original song and that we had to lengthen the cover song. So instead of Maggie May, we decided to do “Hot Legs” – from memory. We went back and forth on whether or not to include the bass solo, even though it was part of the original recording. It was just a few bars, a little poppin’ thing. Nothin too fancy or over the top. We did it in the exact same spot as the original recording.
The judges ended up making a pretty big deal out of it. You can see it here. Then they ended up using part of the solo in the opening footage of the finale. We just took the comments in stride. We decided as a band that no matter what was said we were just going be gracious and humble, and I think that really played to our favor.
What advice do you have for players who aspire to make it in the business?
Always bring your “A-game.” No matter if you’re playing the songs in front of three people or 100,000 people. You never know what it will lead to. Also, there are many things besides being able to blaze on the bass that make a great player and one that people want to work with time and time again.
Also, always play for the music, not for your ego. Be easy to work with and roll with the changes, its not always going to be smooth sailing and how you handle adversity goes a long ways towards whether you keep the gig. LISTEN to the other players and interact. And remember what you don’t play is as important as what you do play.
Who introduced you to Lakland?
A friend of mine began playing them on sessions in Nashville in the mid 90's to rave reviews, so I had to check one out. I bought the first one and I was hooked.
What Lakland basses do you play?
Fretted 55-94 (very early model) brown sunburst, with quilted maple top and birds eye maple fingerboard; a 1998 fretless 55-94 gold top with ebony fingerboard and a 2001 Skyline 55-02 cherry burst with a quilted maple top and a rosewood board.
What do you think most distinguishes Lakland basses from other brands?
Two things: versatility and quality. The basses have such a wide range of sounds, they can sound at home in any setting. And the workmanship is top notch; they are very well crafted and are rock solid on the road. They play and sound like buttah!
I have a ‘62 P-bass if a situation or someone demands it, but I’ve found I can do everything I need to do with the Lakland, between the front pick up, back pick up and splitting the coils of the back. If I’m in the studio, and I want P-bass sound, the Lakland on the front pickup absolutely nails that sound. There’s a reason I don’t need to pull that bass out except for show!
What’s next for Sixwire and John Howard?
Right now I’m touring with Richard Marx and with Randy Owen. I love playing with both of them, and I think we’ll do quite a few dates. But most of the focus is on Sixwire. We’ll see what happens in next few months. If nothing happens, it doesn’t mean we’re out of the game, we know from experience things can move very slowly, or incredibly fast. We’re all very hopeful, and a lot of good things are happening. Bands that create their own music seem to be coming back into favor and Sixwire exists for that reason – and that’s exactly what we plan to keep on doing.
For more information about John Howard and Sixwire, and to hear the music, please visit:
John Howard’s MySpace: www.myspace.com/64275211
Sixwire’s MySpace: www.myspace.com/sixwire