With two best-selling kids’ albums and an anti-bullying campaign, longtime Jimmy Buffett bassist has a following all his own
By David Sands
August 26, 2015
Jim Mayer has had himself a rather curious musical career.
Fans of Jimmy Buffett – Parrotheads, as they’re called – think of him quite rightly as the bassist for the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer’s Coral Reefer Band. Mayer has been doing that for more than a quarter of a century, playing gigs everywhere from Bora Bora to the White House lawn. Kids, however, probably know him better by his alter ego, Uncle Jim.
Under that moniker, Mayer has released two children’s music albums, Funky as a Diaper and Let There Be Fun. His work has proved popular with young folks, netting him two number one hits on Sirius/XM Kids radio. Building on this, Mayer has also developed a line of educational anti-bullying programming, known as the IM4U Teaching Program.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently got in touch with Mayer to find out more about his eclectic musical background, work with kids and love for the tiny Kala U-Bass.
As it turns out, the bassist’s earliest experiences with music took place in India, where he was born and spent his early childhood. The son of Lutheran missionaries, he got a taste of Indian music from local visitors would drop by his family home during Christmas. “Villagers would come in and get cookies and tea and, of course, they would bring tablas and their music. Believe it or not, there are Indian Christmas carols,” he tells FBPO. “My sisters knew the words in Tamil, which is the south Indian dialect, and for years beyond that almost every Christmas they would sing them.”
Mayer grew up the youngest of eight in a musical family. Most of his siblings sing or play instruments, but his older brother Peter, who plays guitar with the Coral Reefers, has been the most influential of them. Mayer picked up bass in order to play music with him and a guitar-playing friend who lived near them in St. Louis.
“A friend of my brother had a big Gibson bass,” he says. “Man, I saw the big strings and thought, ‘That’s what I need to play, cause we don’t need another guitarist.’”
The future Coral Reefers bassist was very “mathematical” about his early studies, drawing out strings and frets on notebook paper to help learn the scales. At around 15, he started paying attention to Jaco Pastorius, whose first album had just come out. In time, Stanley Clarke, Paul Chambers, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland would also become inspirations to him.
During his teen years, Mayer also got heavy into jazz after listening to Charlie Parker’s A Night in Tunisia. Eventually, he started playing local jazz gigs around town. Due to the high demand for bassists in St. Louis, he found himself playing with jazz greats like Herb Ellis, James Moody and Mose Allison.
One episode that stands out was a performance where Pat Metheny came by to hear Moody Play.
James Moody was crazy then,” says Mayer, “playing ‘Giant Steps’ at just absurd tempos. It was just incredible!”
In the 1980s, he changed things up, forming a rock band called P.M. with his brother and drummer Roger Guth.
“We were like a music factory,” he says. “We worked every day, almost five days a week… just sitting in my mom’s basement writing songs [and] recording songs.”
With the help of a management company, they eventually got a record deal with Warner Bros. In 1988, through their producer Elliot Scheiner, they ended up auditioning for Buffett, and the timing was perfect as he was making some changes to his band.
“We were not avid fans, which worked to our favor because it kept us very chilled out around him,” says Mayer. “He really liked it, and so he invited us out on tour. We thought it was one summer, and here we are 25 years later. And I love it.”
In addition to his success with Parrotheads, Mayer has also been a hit with kids. He never set out to be a kids’ performer, though. By 1998, he had moved to Nashville and set his mind on writing country music. His early “Uncle Jim” tunes were cooked up as an afterthought to amuse younger members of his extended family.
“I sang them to my nieces and nephews and they seemed to really like them, and people are like these are really catchy,” he tells FBPO.
Encouraged by the positive reception, he gave a copy of his debut CD to the folks at XM Radio. Within six months, he had a hit. Buffett’s label, Mailboat Records, signed him on as Uncle Jim in 2005.
Mayer then began asking teachers how he could put his influence with kids to good use. As a result, he developed his anti-bullying campaign, IM4U. Professor Ellen Booth, an early education expert, now helps him develop the programming.
“It combines fun, silly songs with classroom activities and games to teach young children social-emotional skills,” says Mayer. “It’s about being good team players and supporting each other.”
At Buffett’s concerts, one of the things that really helps the bassist stand out is his diminutive Kala U-Bass, which is essentially a ukulele built to play as a bass. While it may not have the girth of other basses, Mayer consistently blows audiences away with its sound.
“Everybody I’ve played it for or played it with just can not believe how huge the tone is out of that tiny instrument,” the bassist says. “It still sounds enormous!”
Mayer has played the U-Bass on several of Buffett’s albums and taken it on tour with the Coral Reefers to Europe. He tells FBPO it does an excellent job filling in the gaps in the midrange tones in Buffett’s music, adding that it sounds great on reggae tunes too.
“I’ve pretty much always got the Kala U-Bass on stage,” says Mayer. “It’s an amazingly versatile instrument.”
On the road with Buffett, he also relies on a vintage 1920s upright and two Sandbergs, a P-bass and a five-string jazz bass. DR are his strings of choice, with DR Sunbeams being his favorite for electrics.
As for amplification, his go-to amp is the MesaBoogie M-Pulse. Curiously, he uses 2×12 cabinets to accommodate Buffett’s mid-rangey music requirements, but cautions they need to be well-matched or the output will just sound too harsh.
Mayer considers himself blessed. He loves performing with Buffett and also tours with his brother Peter and performs with Mac McAnally and other Nashville artists.
While he’s no doubt occupied with those two projects, Mayer can’t help but feel pulled towards his musical efforts with kids. In fact, he says, it’s actually become one of his highest priorities over the last few years.
“I’m very serious about continuing to develop — as funny sounding as it is — the children’s thing,” he tells FBPO. “It’s really a huge focus for me. It’s kind of a service work thing and something I love doing, using music to help kids out!”
Uncle Jim’s popular kids’ CDs are available here:
Funky As A Diaper
Let There Be Fun
The Story Behind The Kala U-Bass (FBPO Feature)
FBPO Interview With Charlie Haden
FBPO Interview With Dave Holland