GOP Presidential hopeful talks basses, politics and music ed
By David Sands
August 19, 2015
As a GOP presidential hopeful, it shouldn’t come as shocker that Mike Huckabee knows how to give a rousing speech to his base. You might be a little surprised to learn, however, that the folksy politician also knows his way around the bass.
That’s right! Before he was a talk show host, a Southern Baptist minister or the governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was a musician.
He now plays electric bass in the classic rock cover band, Capitol Offense. Interestingly, the group’s original lineup was drawn from staffers involved in the politics of Little Rock around the time he became governor in 1996.
Over the years, Capitol Offense has opened for REO Speedwagon, Percy Sledge, Willie Nelson and Grand Funk Railroad. They’ve also played the 2004 GOP Convention and two unofficial presidential inaugural celebrations put together by the conservative Free Republic website. Huckabee himself has also jammed with artists like Def Leppard, Melissa Etheridge and Lynyrd Skynyrd on his now defunct Fox News talk show.
Intrigued by his enthusiasm for the bass, FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently got in touch with the Republican contender for a one-on-one chat covering his musical upbringing, the intersection of music and politics, his prized collection of basses and the presidential race.
Huckabee’s passion for rock music began when he saw the Fab Four on television as an eight year old, and something just clicked.
“When I first heard them on Ed Sullivan, I decided my goal was to be the fifth Beatle and started begging my parents for an electric guitar,” Huckabee says.
At the age of 11, he finally got his wish, three years later on Christmas, in the form of a $99 J.C. Penney guitar and amp set. It was a major sacrifice for his working class parents, who spent a year paying off the gift.
Huckabee proceeded to play the instrument until his “fingers nearly bled.” As much as he loved it, though, he noticed that a lot of other kids were playing guitar, and not very many were playing bass.
“I love the bass. I love the sound of it,” Huckabee confides. “But I also knew, if I was a bassist, I’d always have a gig in a band somewhere around doing sock hops and stuff like that. So I got my first bass, around age 12, and I’ve been playing it ever since.”
Not surprisingly, Paul McCartney was one of his early influences.
“He actually doubled a lot of the harmonies and melodies and, it was the prettiest sound,” he says of the famous Beatle. “I don’t think people ever gave him adequate credit for his musicianship.”
Another teacher was an older local man he knew that didn’t have any elbows.
“He played a little Fender Precision Bass by setting it on his lap, and, because he didn’t have any elbows, he couldn’t bend them,” says Huckabee. “So he would play it with his left hand, fretting it on top of the fretboard and picking it with his right.”
Under his tutelage, Huckabee learned to play a walking bass line. His observation of local players and early use of a felt ukulele pick led him to adopt a one-finger picking style.
Later on Huckabee gleaned insight and inspiration from the work of Noel Redding, who played bass with Jimi Hendrix, Mel Shacher of Grand Funk Railroad and Motown great James Jamerson. The playing of L.A. session legend Carol Kaye, whom he met a few years back at a NAMM show, also left a deep impression.
“She’s one of my real heroes,” he says. “I’ve met every living president and a few that have already passed on, but meeting her was a bigger deal than meeting any of the living or former presidents.”
Another player Huckabee looks up to is former Chicago frontman, Peter Cetera, whom he compares to McCartney for his ability to bring the bass to the forefront of a song.
The admiration is mutual; Cetera endorsed Huckabee for his 2007 presidential run and even sent him a custom Pat Wilkins bass as a token of his appreciation.
”The Pat Wilkins custom guitar that Peter Cetera had made for me is just wonderful,” says Huckabee. “It’s based on a jazz bass with a nice thin neck that plays smoothly and quickly. Great feel. Great tone. Great range.”
The bass-loving politician has a preference for handcrafted instruments. Among his other custom basses are a “Huck Bass,” made by Overture Guitars, which he played on his Fox show, and one created by Jeff Cook, a founding member of Alabama.
For years, Huckabee pined to get his hands on a 1967 Fender Jazz bass, something he’d sold to shore up his family finances around the time of his first child’s birth. Vintage stores were asking upwards of $10,000 for an original, so he ended up getting Fender to build him a less costly replica. His collection also includes a 1966 Gretsch Tennessean, a Rickenbacher, a Danelectro, several Ibanezes and a Breedlove acoustic.
Asked about the fact that both he and the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton hail from Arkansas, Huckabee says there’s probably some truth that Arkansans of a certain age are inclined towards music.
“Those of us that grew up just dirt poor didn’t have money for a lot of entertainment,” he says. “Somebody would have an old guitar, and they’d bang around on it and maybe there’d be an old upright piano… People would just make music, and that was part of growing up in the South at the time.”
Commenting on Clinton’s wife, Hillary, who’s currently vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, however, Huckabee quips she “would have been better [off] if she’d been a musician.”
Asked about his GOP competitor Donald Trump, he gets more introspective.
“I think he has tapped into the raw nerve of so many people who are just fed up of government screwing them around,” Huckabee says. “People are just angry, and I don’t know that they truly think Donald Trump is going to be elected president, but I just think they’re happy that somebody is saying [what he’s saying] with a reckless abandon.”
From a bass player’s perspective, one of the most intriguing things about Huckabee’s candidacy is his championing of music education. When he was governor, he pushed for Arkansas schools to mandate K-12 music and arts education. Huckabee also served as national spokesman for the NAMM Foundation’s “Wanna Play Fund,” which seeks public donations to support school music education and opportunities for youth and adults to learn music.
Huckabee deplores the fact that so many school systems around the country are cutting these programs.
“We’re losing so many kids,” he says. “The issue is dropouts, but they’re also the right-brain dominant creative class that will create the next Apple computer or Pixar, and we’re making a huge mistake by not tapping into their creativity.”
Responding to a question about why a bass player should be in the White House, Huckabee’s answer is a matter-of-fact “Why not?”
“Let’s face it, some of the greatest influences in the world have been bass players, and without bass players, the music just dies,” he says. “With the bass part, it comes alive, and it has punch. And our world needs a little fullness right now. It’s pretty empty and hollow.”
In addition to being a political campaigner, Huckabee is an author. His latest book, the New York Times bestseller, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, is now available.
FBPO Feature: Peter Cetera Gets Real
FBPO Interview with Bass Legend Carol Kaye
Mike Huckabee’s new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, is available here