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Nashville Scene Without Borders

Visionary Nashville instrumentalist Sandy Bull refuses to play by the numbers

By Bill Friskics-Warren

MAY 17, 1999:  Nashville is chock-full of studio pros whose paychecks depend on their ability to sound like someone else--guit-pickers who can cop a Chet Atkins lick, fiddlers who can supply a Tommy Jackson solo, steel players who can nail a Buddy Emmons run note for shimmering note. This self-referential approach to record-making is not without merit. Adventurous, though, it's not. And it couldn't be more foreign to multi-instrumentalist Sandy Bull, a Nashville transplant who has spent the past 40 years coining his own musical language--a visionary synthesis that encompasses blues, jazz, country, gospel, Latin, and Middle Eastern influences.

Bull, who moved to Music City from California in 1991, released his debut album, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, on the Vanguard label in 1963. The record was built around a guitar raga called "Blend," a 22-minute marvel of improvisation performed with Ornette Coleman drummer Billy Higgins. Bull has since amassed a small but enduring and singular body of work. Most of his recordings are deeply emotive; all are profoundly intuitive and tap roots-musics of various stripes. "There are small variations, but you can find a lot of the soulful stuff in American black music, or mountain music," Bull explains. "It's also there in Afghani, Indian, Arab, and Israeli music--in all the stuff that hits me where I live."

As these comments attest, Bull's facility with different song forms is hardly a case of dilettantish eclecticism. It is, rather, the best sort of ecumenism--an ongoing dialogue that fosters interplay among disparate harmonic and rhythmic elements. In this sense, Bull's work could be considered a precursor to the "world music" movement of the '80s and '90s. "I really feel the cultures, and where they're coming from, when I borrow from them," he says. "And at the same time, I'm seeing the similarities with stuff that's closer to home for me."

Take any of the selections on Re-inventions, Vanguard's recent reissue featuring some of Bull's best early recordings. His 1965 version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," for instance, weds Eastern modal influences with the call-and-response patterns heard in Southern churches and juke joints. Bull's recombinant approach is also evident on "Carnival Jump," a duet that features him on oud (a Middle Eastern member of the lute family) and Cecil Taylor Unit-alum Dennis Charles on drums. Recorded in 1972, the Caribbean-flavored track could just as easily pass for a medieval European dance tune. Bull's sublime meditation on bossa nova great Luis Bonfa's "Manha de Carnival" holds still other convergences.

Bull's early musical influences hardly suggested fusions such as these, but rather something more straightforwardly country. "My first role model was Gene Autry," he explains. "I was 8 years old in Florida and someone had given me some 78s--Gene Autry cowboy songs. I particularly liked 'Red River Valley,' 'Home on the Range,' and 'Get Along Little Dogies.' That was my big three."

Not long after that, Bull's mother got him a guitar and a friend gave him an instruction book. Soon Bull was picking out chords to Autry's songs, as well as to Frankie Laine's "Rock of Gibraltar," Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," and records by Ray Charles and Hank Williams. "Ray Charles was very inspiring to me because he did country stuff," Bull says. "When all the other black artists at the time, mostly in jazz, were putting down country, he was embracing it and making it seem like there weren't any boundaries."

Bull spent his teenage years in New York City living with his mother, a harp player who exposed him to the records of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and the Weavers. The '50s folk revival was in full swing, and after hearing Pete and Mike Seeger, Bull bought a banjo and started playing in Washington Square Park. He also worked in such folk groups as the Samplers and the Washington Square Singers. But it wasn't until he enrolled at Boston University's College of Music, and met Buell Neidlinger--then the bass player in pianist Cecil Taylor's group--that his playing took a more innovative turn.

"Buell and some other friends introduced me to a lot of jazz stuff, especially Ornette Coleman, who I saw in Boston in 1960, and Billy Higgins," recalls Bull, who also met Dennis Charles around this time. "That was an immediate eye-opener. I hadn't really gotten into jazz until I heard Billy play, and that turned my whole rhythmic approach around. Billy had a lot of church in him. And I feel a lot of my influence in my music has been from spiritual directions."

Foremost among these influences was Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers and the guitarist to whom Bull pays tribute on "Gospel Tune," a swampy Stratocaster and hi-hat workout included on Re-inventions. "It was a total mindblower when I heard Pops Staples in the early '60s," remembers Bull, whose playing, like that of Staples, is inspired as much by vocal models as by instrumental ones.

"There always seems to be a tradeoff between the number of notes you can play in a few seconds and the amount of feeling you can convey," Bull observes. "Sometimes you can make more heartfelt music with slower stuff and more vocal-oriented stuff than you can with mind-boggling pyrotechnics. I was always drawn to that feeling side of music rather than to the display side. Of course, I got trounced by the critics all the time for that. But it was more a choice thing than anything else. If I had really wanted to play that fast, I probably could have."

Bull has shown such perspicacity throughout his career--indeed, even as far back as 1960, when he was gigging at such New York clubs as Folk City, the Gaslight, and the Fat Black Pussycat. "I had been approached by Vanguard to record for them," he recalls. "But I said I'd come when I was ready, and I didn't feel ready until I'd gotten 'Blend' together. Once I did that, I knew I had something different."

Bull, who moved to the West Coast in the mid-'60s, recorded for Vanguard from '63 to '72. Each of his four albums for the label revealed his determination not to repeat himself, an approach that drew rave reviews not only from noted critics Robert Shelton and Nat Hentoff, but from the likes of Bob Neuwirth and Bob Dylan as well. The demands of Bull's self-imposed hermeneutic, though, eventually got the better of the him. His addiction to cocaine and heroin only exacerbated problems; by 1974, he had bottomed out altogether.

After kicking drugs that year, Bull played out more often than at any point during his career, including spots on tours with rock high-priestess Patti Smith; jazz guitarists Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and Laurindo Almeida; and Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Record deals, however, proved elusive. "I went down to L.A. a bunch of times," he recalls. "I went to A&M. I went to Warner Bros. I went to Jerry Wexler [at Atlantic Records] in New York. I went to Clive Davis at Arista, and to Richard Branson at Virgin Records in London. Everybody turned me down."

Bull nevertheless continued to record, building his own studio and committing his music to tape. Several of those sessions featured renowned jazz and international musicians. Some of Bull's later work with Higgins eventually surfaced on the L.A.-based ROM label in 1988. Other collaborations, including ones with drummer Bernard Purdie, pianist Hilton Ruiz, the Brecker Brothers, and percussionist Aiyb Dieng, came out on Bull's own TRS imprint, a label that the guitarist established in 1990.

Apart from a couple of shows at the Bluebird and a stint at Ernie's Smokehouse, the Williamson County venue that later became Green's Grocery, Bull hasn't played around town much since moving to Nashville. He's spent most of his time recording and developing his Web site (www.sandybull.com)--which, along with the Vanguard reissue, has helped get his music back in circulation. Much as Bull has blended disparate musics throughout his career, this DIY approach to selling records has enabled him to forge connections with new and longtime fans, something he finds gratifying.

"I'm glad I've survived this long to see it happen," Bull says. "It's nice times for me now. I'm actually selling records and getting paid for it--and getting some recognition."

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