Picking Up the Tempo
Bassist Edgar Meyer takes his music nationwide.
By Michael McCall; Photos by Eric England
DECEMBER 15, 1997: Edgar Meyer tends to dash. On a crisp afternoon in late November, the bassist is on the run--literally. When he hears a knock on his back door, he runs to it, opening it in a breathy flourish. When an offer of coffee is accepted, he runs to the cupboard and then to the coffeepot. When the phone rings, he runs into another room to answer it. When the call is over, he runs back to the refrigerator for a carton of milk. All this time, he's talking--greeting, apologizing, explaining, catching up. The manic hyperactivity and diffuse anxiety make it feel like an I Love Lucy skit.
All this activity should come as no surprise, though. Described as "the finest bass player of his generation" by L.A. Weekly and by scores of other music critics, the Green Hills resident might also be the busiest bass player alive. "Things are a little out of control," Meyer says as he scurries about the house, speaking long-distance to his manager while simultaneously instructing his personal assistant on an entirely different matter. "It's a three-ring circus sometimes." He stops in his tracks just for a second and flashes a slightly maniacal grin. "But it's a happy thing."
Being busy is good, it's true, but being too busy can make a person easily flustered. These days, Meyer flusters as easily as a nervous parrot. Not that he ever quite relaxes: Meyer, one imagines, would be a tightly wound bundle of anxious energy even on a meditative day at the beach.
As one of the music world's most renowned and most wide-ranging talents, there's no time to unwind anyway. It's just not possible when a person is juggling as many projects as Meyer is. Right before the Thanksgiving holiday, he was devoting his attention to no less than five different endeavors. These included making last-minute changes on an album of original chamber pieces he wrote and recorded with the famed Emerson String Quartet; writing a set of classical pieces to be performed and recorded with violinist Joshua Bell; planning a trio tour with banjoist Bela Fleck and mandolinist Mike Marshall to support Uncommon Ritual, their new album on Sony Classical Recordings; preparing a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos for his next appearance with the New York-based Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; and working on an album designed to teach children about orchestral music.
As if all that weren't enough, Meyer's extended family was due to arrive for a pre-Thanksgiving celebration with the bassist, his wife, violinist Connie Heard, and his 5-year-old son George. The china, silver, and glassware were already set out, and the refrigerator was packed with food. "I like doing all these things," he says, sitting upright in a straight-back chair in the living room. "But it gets piled up sometimes."
Those who know Meyer say the whirlwind of activity suits his personality. "Edgar's a maniac, you know," laughs Fred Sherry, a New York-based cellist who plays with Meyer in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "Anybody with Edgar's intensity is going to be somewhat unusual. He's a genius, and that's not a word I toss around lightly. He's also the sweetest, nicest, most interesting guy to hang around with. He has incredible patience. But he also expects everybody to be great, and he really won't accept anything less. He expects you to be in tune and in time, and he expects you to have perfect intonation and to phrase things beautifully. He expects that because that's the way he does it."
On the one hand, it speaks to the diversity and the high quality of music that comes out of Music City on a regular basis; it also says something of the fertile environment that musicians find in our town. The only problem is, there are those in the classical world who prefer that their chart-toppers hail from less supposedly backwater environs.
In fact, it would appear that many classical listeners don't appreciate the fact that some of today's best-selling musicians have--gasp!--played on country and folk recordings. In a genre where purity is sometimes upheld as a crucial standard, some segments of the classical community apparently have little appreciation for a recording such as Uncommon Ritual, which features a banjo among its instrumentation. The same people look at Appalachia Waltz, with its references to old-time fiddle tunes and folk-based song themes, and they wonder what right the album has sharing space with new recordings of Bach and Mahler.
Meyer doesn't agree with such arguments, of course. But he understands where they come from. In classical music, perhaps even more than in other genres of music, there's a gulf between what sells in the popular marketplace and what is considered significant art. Meyer accepts that his two best-selling albums aren't the most serious of works. But, on the other hand, both present original, enjoyable music and feature supremely good musicianship.
"What's important in classical music isn't necessarily what's the most commercial," he says. "What's important is what's going on among composers and players, what gets them the most excited. If you were to ask that core if Appalachia Waltz represents something important, they'd tell you no, it doesn't. They'd tell you that it was talented folks doing an appealing project."
At the same time, Meyer has his own counterargument for those who would downgrade his work. "Basically, classical music is a tricky term, a bad term, and that's true of most musical categories, I guess," he says. "I would say that classical music in its most natural state has a tremendous overlap with all other musics. They have more in common than they do differences."
Yet there are those drawn to classical music who would prefer that it remain in a sort of vacuum, for any intermingling undermines the music's high-toned appearances. When Meyer performed with Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall at Lincoln Center this past October, the concert hall's administration received calls of outrage accusing the venerable venue of selling out to commercial forces.
The eruption of all this criticism is fairly ironic, considering the fact that Yo-Yo Ma is considered one of the most accomplished cellists living today--and he certainly doesn't look down on his musical collaborators. By all accounts, he was a most enthusiastic participant, and he repeatedly has said that he learned a great deal from his collaborators and has become a better musician because of the project.
"Nothing is as good or as bad as those [detractors] think," smiles Meyer, who will enthusiastically explain why he believes bluegrass is just as disciplined and worthwhile a musical tradition as Bach and Beethoven. "Sure, the musical standards [in classical] are high. But there's also this need to maintain a perception that they're really high. Once you get into that mind-set, there's less willingness to collaborate with those from outside of it.
"Obviously, what I'm saying is that they're stuck up. But I'm also saying that having porous borders would be a more natural way to operate. There's a little too much uniformity, and there's some really strong forces that make it that way. But [those forces] are about perception; they're not about music. The music is always, always evolving."
A strictly trained classical musician, Meyer contends that being open to other musical styles has led to his greatest evolutionary steps as an artist. And he cites his involvement in the Nashville music community as a huge contributing factor in the development of his distinct musical voice. A resident of Tennessee since the age of 2, the bassist moved to Nashville in his early 20s, after studying in Indiana and in Aspen, Colo. "It redefined my world," he says of his decision to relocate here.
The timing of Meyer's return in the early '80s proved to be a crucial move, ripe with opportunity. During this period, several other young musical prodigies all decided to make Nashville their home as well. Fiddler Mark O'Connor, banjoist Bela Fleck, and Dobroist Jerry Douglas all arrived within months of each other. O'Connor, who at age 13 had appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, returned at the urging of Chet Atkins to pursue studio work as a fiddle specialist; Fleck came to town to join New Grass Revival, a groundbreaking bluegrass band; Jerry Douglas showed up as a member of The Whites at about the time the family group began recording with MCA Records.
Meyer, for his part, says he returned to Nashville "as soon as I knew all these other guys had moved here." Most of the musicians had already crossed paths at one point or another. Fleck and Douglas knew each other from their involvement in bluegrass circles. O'Connor had met the others while playing guitar and fiddle in the highly regarded David Grisman Quintet. Fleck and Meyer met in Aspen during an annual music festival.
In fact, when Fleck traveled to Aspen with New Grass Revival, he had already started hearing about this amazing double bassist who drew an incredible range of sounds from his bulky instrument. It was 1982, and Meyer had won the festival's annual fiddle contest with just his bow and his bass. At the time, he also regularly set up in Aspen as a street musician, playing for tips in front of a gourmet ice cream shop because the acoustics were good and because the store drew steady foot traffic.
Fleck went to hear Meyer's street performance and ended up taking out his banjo and spending the afternoon jamming with him on the concrete. "He was stunning," Fleck says of his initial encounter. "We ended up going to someone's house and playing very late. That's a night I'll always remember."
Once gathered in Nashville, the four musicians began encouraging and prodding and inspiring each other. They exchanged ideas and argued over compositions and arrangements. Meyer learned the painstakingly exacting methods of bluegrass from Fleck and Douglas, and he learned swing and old-time music from O'Connor. Meanwhile, the others discovered the discipline of classical music from Meyer.
The result of this intermingling was that it greatly broadened the players' musical vocabulary while also pushing them to become greater musicians. Now all four are considered masters; it could even be argued that Meyer, O'Connor, Fleck, and Douglas have each done more to expand the capabilities of their individual instruments than anyone of their generation.
For a brief period, they all performed in the same band. Along with mandolinist/fiddler Sam Bush--himself a well-regarded virtuoso and musical pioneer--the foursome formed Strength in Numbers in 1988. The guitar-free quintet recorded one legendary acoustic album (1989's The Telluride Sessions for the MCA Master Series label), and their dozen or so performances are now discussed with awe by those who saw them and by those who wish they had.
"Strength in Numbers was Edgar's idea," Fleck recalls. The quintet had recorded together in 1986 on Meyer's first album, Unfolding, as well as on Douglas' Under the Wire the same year. The first time they all performed onstage together was at Summer Lights in 1987. "Edgar invited each of us to do duets with him during his show," Fleck says. "We did that, and we performed in various groupings, then we all got to do four or five tunes together. It was really cool."
Later, when preparing for a Telluride Music Festival appearance with New Grass Revival, Fleck realized that four of the five guys would be in attendance. So he convinced festival organizers to cover Meyer's travel costs and let Strength in Numbers close the event instead of wrapping up the festival with the usual all-encompassing jam session. "The group sort of solidified at that point," Fleck says.
At the time, however, Bush and Fleck were also still very much immersed in New Grass Revival. O'Connor and Douglas had solo careers and schedules packed with studio dates. And Meyer, as had become his custom, was moving freely between classical and acoustic music circles. "It sort of faded away," Fleck says of Strength in Numbers. "It was never thought of as a full-time thing for any of us. But we all look back on it as one of the best, most fun things we've all done."
The groundbreaking Strength in Numbers album wasn't that much of a stretch for most of the members. Fleck and Bush had included similarly progressive instrumentals on many New Grass outings, while both O'Connor and Douglas had spent their lives pushing the boundaries of folk-based acoustic music. But for Meyer, the album pulled him more deeply into a musical tradition that was wholly different from the one in which he had trained. Although Meyer's previous solo albums had used the same musicians, the compositions were all over the place, from classical to loping acoustic funk. With Strength in Numbers, he stayed more squarely within what he calls "rhythmic music." He developed a progressively artful and lighthearted style that crossed the borders of bluegrass, swing, and folk music.
In the end, Strength in Numbers alerted each of these players to the endless creative possibilities that lay before them. Within a year or two of the group's breakup, they'd all embarked on bigger, more successful projects. As New Grass Revival started to move toward its demise, Fleck formed the Flecktones, blending folk and bluegrass with jazz to create a fresh style of music. Douglas began producing records by Alison Krauss, Maura O'Connell, and others while also expanding his own sphere of collaborators. He has since gone on to make albums with Peter Rowan, with Meyer and guitarist Russ Barenberg, with Meyer and Hindustani folk musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and, perhaps most importantly, with jazz stalwart Bill Frisell.
While each member of the Strength in Numbers crew acknowledges Meyer's particular influence on his music, O'Connor remains perhaps the most affected. "People would think I would go more in the direction of Jerry and Bela," the award-winning musician says. "But the truth is, I headed more in the direction of Edgar, at least in a stylistic sense."
O'Connor, in fact, has delved into classical forms with a vengeance. He has written two concertos, which he premiered with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the last few years; he has since performed these works with other orchestras across the country, and Warner Bros. Records released one of the concertos on CD in 1995. In 1996, he signed with Sony Classical Recordings and recorded Appalachia Waltz with Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. His most recent project, the Liberty soundtrack, is now raking in sales--and bringing some deserved attention to the Nashville Symphony, which provided musical accompaniment on the recording.
The violinist credits Meyer for introducing him to a musical world that would profoundly affect his future. "He is such a brilliant champion of his training and of classical music," O'Connor says. "He convinced me more than anyone else that there was fertile ground there worth exploring."
True to his self-effacing nature, Meyer expresses a similar awe for O'Connor. "He has such a deep knowledge of fiddle music and such deep perspectives on what a bowed instrument is capable of doing," the bassist says. "On a personal level, Mark's changed my life in an infinite number of ways. He proved that the violin is a 100-percent valid instrument in virtually any type of music. To me, it makes me want to prove the bowed bass is capable of virtually anything as well."
Meyer gives similar credit to his other longtime Nashville collaborators. "I came to Nashville with a real deficit as far as my ability to play rhythmically," he says. "I didn't have a good understanding of how the rhythm worked in bluegrass and in these other styles. Playing with these guys not only broadened me in that it taught me a different discipline, it also made me a better player in every way and in every style. I came to see what a defining thing rhythm is in all music. So it really upgraded my standards."
This feeling of respect and mutual admiration exists among all four members of this musical fraternity. That's what makes it so special--and what makes their work so special. In the case of Fleck and Meyer, both men cite their discussions about writing and composition as the strongest aspect of their creative friendship.
"Edgar's an amazing composer, and he knows things I don't," Fleck says. "I particularly like having him as a friend that I can run things by." They both admit that they often butt heads as well. "We clash a lot," Meyer laughs. "We tend to revel in it. It's very liberating. We both have areas that we slide in, and we both need somebody to call us on it. That's one of the fun things about my relationship with Bela, and it's also made me a much better composer."
The fruits of this particular partnership can be heard on Uncommon Ritual, which explores the various places where folk and classical music intersect. It also combines Fleck's intellectual musical searches with Meyer's well-grounded virtuosity, and it occasionally flashes both the nervy sense of adventure and the quirky sense of humor that both men share.
Meyer and Fleck spent three intense months writing songs and going over arrangements for the project. Co-collaborator Mike Marshall, who lives in California, flew in for four week-long stretches to add his input. "[The record] really gave a chance to take this partnership I've had with Bela public," Meyer says. "For years now, we've had this intense relationship that wasn't about gigs or recording. It was just about our own writing. And I guess I liked it being private that way too. But the time seemed right for us to really dive in together and collaborate."
As for Douglas, Meyer explains that the slide Dobro specialist has, interestingly enough, had the greatest influence on his own playing. "For me, Jerry has such an emotional style," he says. "There's a direct line between his instrument and his mind and his heart." Robert Hurst, the bassist for the Tonight Show, was the first of Meyer's friends to notice Douglas' influence. "He caught it," Meyer laughs. "He said my playing now just reeks of Jerry. It's there in how I handle a lot of my phrasing. No one else would have noticed, because they're such different instruments. But Bob is a bass player, and he knew how I played before I met Jerry."
Hurst's comments also get at the heart of Meyer's peculiar genius: Here's a jazz bassist recognizing how his classically trained colleague draws on an old-time folk and blues instrument for inspiration. Indeed, Meyer's open-to-everything attitude is particularly heartening in this age of musical specialization. His success says many things about the worlds in which he travels, but it suggests even more strongly that a creative being flowers best when staying open to a world of influences.
If some members of the classical world have scoffed at Meyer's and O'Connor's work, there are those who resoundingly support it. Nashville Symphony Orchestra conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who has worked extensively with both, compares them to Nicolo Paganini, the preeminent Italian violin virtuoso from the early 19th century. "Edgar has a phenomenal grasp of his instrument, as does Mark," Schermerhorn says. "They are both extraordinarily gifted, Paganini types who have an amazing mastery. The ease with which they play all these various styles is extraordinary. They both have extremely keen ears, they play with immaculate intonation, and everything they do is so centered and so in tune."
Stephen Vann, the executive director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, seconds the conductor's remarks. "Both Edgar and Mark have tremendous versatility," he says. "One of the things that makes them stand out is their ability to communicate emotionally with their audience in a language that is both traditional and very contemporary. They both have unique voices musically. Their ability to have their ideas come across with an orchestra is amazing."
Like the other music professionals who lavish praise on Meyer and O'Connor, Vann compares the men's accomplishments to that of a person with extraordinary language skills. "It's not only that they can speak in different tongues," he says. "It's as if they can change from French to Italian to English within the same sentence and without any inappropriate accent. They can move from one discipline to another instantaneously."
But despite the accomplishments of Meyer and his cohorts, Nashville still hasn't grasped just how important they are. When it comes to entertainment, Music City celebrates commercial success more than it does artistic breakthroughs. Mountains of attention get focused on the mass-market sales of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and deservedly so--these two singers have proven that the city can create music that sells millions.
But Meyer, O'Connor, Fleck, Douglas, and other emerging instrumental all-stars deserve similar attention and civic celebration. They have the potential to bring Nashville increased artistic credibility and cultural visibility--something our city could use. They've proven that Nashville is home to musicians who are creating progressive, culturally important works. In that sense, Appalachia Waltz and Uncommon Ritual, as well as albums by the Flecktones and Bill Frisell, are just as significant to Nashville's future as Brooks' No Fences and Twain's The Woman in Me.
"I think perhaps their reputations are more heralded outside of Nashville than they have been here," Kenneth Schermerhorn says. "I'm not sure why that is. We should all be immensely elated by their success."
Meyer, in typical fashion, simply cackles at the idea of becoming a celebrity in his hometown. "I don't know," he says nonchalantly. "I kind of like the anonymity."
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