Chris Donohue talks versatility

Emmylou Harris bassist loves seeking new horizons

By Jon Liebman and David Sands
August 31, 2016

Musically, Chris Donohue is something of a man-of-a-thousand faces; rock, folk, jazz, country and classical all being facets of his remarkable career. Over the years, Donohue has put his impressive bass playing talents to work recording and performing for artists and ensembles as diverse as Robert Plant, The Indigo Girls, Ben Folds, Gillian Welch, Pete Seeger, T.S. Monk and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.

In addition to being a master of many genres, Donohue also wears a lot of hats: session musician, producer, composer, music supervisor, and songwriter. He produced and co-wrote the multi-platinum artist Tiffany’s first country single, “Serpentine.” And his original music has been utilized for film and television projects, including work for networks like ABC and USA and corporate clients like Burger King, Mattel and General Motors.

Since 2011, he’s also been a recurring guest artist of Lincoln Center’s “Meet-The-Artist” series, serving as Musical Director for The Sleight-Of-Hand Band which backs illusionist Mario Marchese. He’s currently touring with Emmylou Harris.

FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently caught up with the multi-faceted Donohue to find out more about his musical beginnings, taste for unique basses, thoughts on playing Broadway shows and other topics.

FBPO: I’m curious about your musical upbringing, going from New York to New Orleans to Nashville. How were you first exposed to music? Do you come from a musical family?

Donohue: My parents are both avid and smart musical listeners, but they do not play an instrument. In fact, I’m from a New York Irish Catholic family with many, many aunts and uncles and cousins, but I only think a handful of us even ever touched an instrument. My parents, their tastes were different…My mom loved the crooners and big bands and swing. And, my father, he had four tapes that lived in his Gremlin: one was the Stones’ Love You Live; one was [the Beatles’] Abbey Road; and he also had the Brandenburg Concertos; and then John Denver’s Greatest Hits. And then we had a lot of Broadway soundtracks and a handful of popular records—that was the ’70s, of course. I’m 48, so communal music listening in my house didn’t really happen…I listened to FM radio, which was in its ascendancy at the time, and so became a rock kid. And there I stayed, firmly entrenched to this day, really. That’s sort of what I grew up on and what I know and what I gravitate towards instinctively.

FBPO: Are you an only child?

Donohue: No I have three brothers, all younger. When we were all in our late teens, we were all into hip-hop at the time too. And so we would all listen together to that. But, yeah, in the ’70s when I was listening to the radio, all the great classic New York rock stations NEW, LIR and BAB, PLJ and so that’s sort of where the musical environment I grew up in. And then I started playing guitar when I was 11 and worked with a guitar teacher for about a year and sort of got the basics down…I was also banging on Tupperware, even before I was playing guitar, and then in high school I ended up in the percussion section, concert band, and did that, played drums in bands from the age of about 13 until I was about 17 and graduated high school.

And then came for the bass. I was playing guitar the whole time. I’ve always played guitar, but I came to the bass [in the] later years of high school, early years of college.

FBPO: What attracted you to the bass?

Donohue: At the time, let’s see. I believe it was the same reason a lot of people do it: The band needs a bass player. Everyone could play guitar, so I said: “OK, I’ll do it.” But then I just discovered that it also suited my personality…I’m not naturally a front person or a showman and, because I played drums for many years, I liked the rhythmic aspects of music. So it was the best of both worlds for me.

FBPO: Did you have any bass influences, any bass heroes, once you discovered the instrument and started playing it?

Donohue: I did, even before I started playing the bass, my heroes always gravitated towards—I was a big Rush fan, so Geddy Lee naturally. McCartney, of course, having heard the Beatles since I was very young. [John] Entwistle. All the iconic and mostly more melodic rock bassists of that time. Chris Squire from Yes…When I saw [King] Crimson, I was totally taken with Tony Levin. What he did was so unique, but it wasn’t your typical rock bass-playing either. He could be subdued. And the group was way more improvisatory than a lot of the stuff that I had been listening to, and that was definitely a turning point for me. I think I was 14 when I saw Crimson. I saw a quartet with Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. And to this day Tony Levin is still, for me, just about the greatest in terms of his tone and taste. I just think he’s got it all.

FBPO: Your career cuts across so many musical genres. The list of people that you’ve played with includes everybody from Arlo Guthrie and Steve Martin to Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, T.S. Monk, Phil Keaggy, Larry Carlton and so many others. Would you say you’re a musical chameleon?

Donohue: Yes. Part of that is by design. Because at a point, when I started playing music full-time, I realized that as my life would go on, I would age out of certain gigs and wanted to be able to age into others. And I spent a good bit of time getting my reading chops back that I hadn’t really had to use since I was in high school, so that I could play in orchestras and pit orchestras. And part of that also is that working with Emmylou for ten years. She attracts such an eclectic range of recording artists as friends and collaborators and sometimes guests, you know, that it just sort of happened that way. I always have considered her as being her own musical genre, because her voice is consistent and very distinctive, but musically it works on such a broad range of settings. And she listened to music from all over the world from every era, so there’s no surprise there.

FBPO: Other than the current Emmylou Harris tour, what else is keeping you busy these days?

Donohue: Recording is sort of the backbone of what I do. Some days, I’m working for someone else as a session player. Some days I am working on writing music for TV spots or online media spots. Some days I’m producing albums. But recording is definitely what I wanted to do all along. And part of the reason [is] I wanted to be able to work in a lot of different styles and do it with authenticity, as much as I can muster. It keeps it fresh. That’s the good thing about recording in general. Sometimes even on the same day, if I’m working for a producer who opens up the studio for the day to a series of clients that will be in and out of the room over the course of eight hours, you can be playing on a Korean pop tune one minute and a gospel song the next. And you have to do it all very quickly. Touring is something that I enjoy, particularly because I get to work with—I have longstanding relationships now with a handful of artists. And I appreciate them as human beings, first and foremost, and creative people after that.

FBPO: Tell me about your equipment. 

Donohue: My three main electric basses, that would be a mid ’70s jazz; it’s a ’76. And I have a ’77 [Fender] P bass and a fairly recent StingRay. And much of the time for the average session, I will make sure to have at least two of those represented. Or the jazz bass, if I’m just going in for a one- or two-song session. On top of that, then I use an Epiphone viola bass for certain sounds, and I have an a 1974 Univox Hi-Flier copy, that sounds absolutely incredible, that was a gift to me from a family member. And then I’ve got a couple of Kala U-Basses, and they’re so much fun. And I’ve got Boulder Creek acoustic bass guitars; I’ve got a fretted and a fretless model. They’re built in the last 2-3 years or so, and love those, absolutely love ‘em. And my double bass, my main string bass, is a late 19th Tyrolean instrument; the maker is unidentified and that one is at home.

FBPO: Yeah, I was going to ask you if you traveled with that.

Donohue: No, I’ve taken it out a couple of times, and I’m too scared.

FBPO: Living in Nashville, do you know Charlie Chadwick?

Donohue: Of course, I know Charlie well. I’ve played his basses.

FBPO: He’s got those fold-in-half basses.

Donohue: Yep, the Chadwick folding bass. I used one for about a month actually earlier this year. And then to travel I use an Eminence bass invented by Gary Bartig in Minneapolis. The company is called the G. Edward Lutherie, and the Eminence is exceptionally well designed for travel, because you take it apart to put in the SKB golf bag case. And it’s a carved instrument; I’d say it’s about 2.5 to 3 inches deep. The body is very small. It doesn’t put off a lot of sound, but it’s certainly enough to practice with in a hotel room. But amplified it sounds the most like a double bass of any of the travel double basses that I’ve played so far. And as a perk you don’t pay oversize or overweight charges [on a plane]…The Eminence has proven to be the best [plane travel] solution for me by far, and I really, really enjoy playing it.

FBPO: You’re using Aguilar amps?

Donohue: Yes, I’m using Aguilar, pretty much exclusively, and beyond that I’m using I use Radial boxes and I’m also using the Lehle Basswitch, which I just picked up a couple months ago and can’t imagine life without it now.

FBPO: What about strings?
Donohue: Strings, I use D’Addarios primarily. At the moment I have a set of Bel Cantos on the Tyrolean bass, and they sounded and felt so good that I just left them. They were only 6-9 months old when I bought that bass.

FBPO: Tell me more about the Kala U-Bass.

Donohue: The U-Bass, for me, what I hear a lot when I play in studio is: “Wow, that thing sounds like an upright!” And if you close your eyes, I can see how people get that impression. But, to me, what’s really fun about the U-Bass is that it’s its own voice; I think it lives in its own sonic realm. And Hutch Hutchinson put it perfectly. I was hangin’ out with him about a year or so ago, and we were talking about the U-Bass. And he said: “It just fits so well with a kick drum.” And he’s right. Now many times, I will pull it out, and if people aren’t familiar with it, there’s the raised eyebrow. And sometimes I have to tell them: “Listen first. Don’t judge, listen.” They can’t get their mind around it. And who can blame them? It’s so small, but the combination of those strings and the size of that chamber and the shadow pickups. I find I am most inclined to play that instrument with my thumb and first and second fingers, because playing it like an electric bass with your thumb perched on the edge of the fingerboard does not feel right to me. And I think it plays way fat. You can always hear the difference when someone’s playing with their thumb, of course, but with the Kala U the difference is dramatic.

The first time I used it with Emmylou a number of years ago, we were playing an outdoor festival, and I was introducing it into the set and figuring what songs I wanted to play it on, and so we played a Lucinda Williams song, “Sweet Old World.” And the next song after that was “Luxury Liner,” which is a song she’s very well known for and is one of Albert Lee’s showcase solos. So, however, in between I had no time to change. So we ended “Sweet Old World,” and she immediately turned around to the drummer to start “Luxury Liner.” And I had the U-Bass. I didn’t have time to switch, ’cause she wanted to start. So I was like: “Well, here goes nothing.” And I don’t think she had noticed what I was playing. So we’re playing “Luxury Liner” and the whole band was laughing. She turned around during the solo and she looks, and she started laughing. And when we finished the song, the audience was going crazy. And she said on the mic: “Never again let it be said that size matters!”

FBPO: How about the future, Chris? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished? You’ve done so much already.

Donohue: I would like to continue to work in as many different genres and settings as I can because it keeps me wanting to learn and continue to evolve as a player, not just sit where I am musically, technically and think: “Well, this is it. I’m here.” I have a very curious nature, and the thought of ever winding up in a rut playing the same old stuff, day-in, day-out is not a place I want to find myself.

FBPO: So you wouldn’t want to do a Broadway show for any amount of time? 

Donohue: I would do that.

FBPO: That’s the same thing exactly, over and over…

Donohue: Well, yes, but the amount of focus and musical sensitivity required to play in a pit orchestra is one of the greatest challenges any player could face. And you have to be completely in the zone for three hours, especially as a rhythm section player…so for three hours your head has to be buried deep in that music. And you never know what can happen on stage, a cue missed, something like that—the singer getting ahead or behind. So it’s very, very stimulating work. And for the amount of time I get to do that, I’m very grateful for it, because it makes me a better player overall, without a doubt…If you’re doing it for a year or two, well that might become a little tiresome. But doing other stuff at the same time, well, who’s to complain? At least you’re busy and working. And that’s the bottom line for all of us.

FBPO: What would you be if you were not a bass player?

Donohue: Rock climber.

FBPO: As a career?

Donohue: Uh-huh. I do climb a bit, and I am an avid climber and hiker and cyclist. In fact, when I am touring, outside of the time when I am working, I am always looking for trails or climbing gyms or I gotta be out in the woods, because it keeps me fresh for the job. When I ride back there, it helps keep perspective. When you’re immersed in the music scene, music culture, gigs and all that, it’s nice [to get back to nature]. And I feel that crew guys don’t have the same luxury, but as a performer, it’s certainly nice to be out in the woods and be able to settle yourself, settle your mind and refocus. And I find that climbing, especially. It has a solo meditative quality to it. It’s great exercise, and I’m in awe of people who are great climbers.

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