Al Caldwell

“Travelin’ Black Hillbilly” talks about the Vanessa Williams gig, his 11-string MIDI bass and more!

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 20, 2009

Al Caldwell grew up in a musical family in St. Louis, MO.  Starting on clarinet, then moving on to trumpet, Al eventually became a prolific songwriter and master of various multi-string basses, as well as the banjo.  The self-dubbed “Travelin’ Black Hillbilly,” has played bass for Vanessa Williams for the past twelve years.

FBPO:  To anyone reading your background, it’s obvious you’re not just a “typical” bass player.  Talk a little about your upbringing and your introduction to music.

AC: I fell in love with the thought of being in the music business at the age of 10, though I didn’t pick an instrument until I was 12.It was the clarinet. Music was a release and an adventure to me. We grew up very poor and sports didn’t motivate me. I had a great music teacher named Herman Morgan, who encouraged me to play multiple instruments because of my desire to be an educator like him. He really helped me understand that instruments are just like voices and personalities. When you put them together, they form a team.

FBPO: What exactly is a “Travelin’ Black Hillbilly” – we don’t hear that phrase very often – and what inspired you to form the Travelin’ Black Hillbillies group?

AC: The phrase “Black Hillbilly” was first attributed to an early country artist named Deford Bailey. He played harmonica and banjo and was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. I stumbled onto the name by joking around at a local music store in St. Louis. The storeowner made fun of the idea of me wanting to buy a banjo. He called me a Black Hillbilly and I changed it to “Travelin’ Black Hillbilly.” I did some homework on the subject and fell in love with the concept of a banjo group from an African American perspective. I have no desire to play banjo like Roy Clark or Bela Fleck; they are already the best at what they bring to the instrument. I heard something new in my head – not better than what they offered, just different.

FBPO: Tell us about your bass collection.  Do you even own a four-string?

AC: I own an 11-string MIDI bass, a 9-string MIDI bass, a custom 5-string and two Fender basses. I also have a five-string bass, a Jaco Fretless 4-string bass and a Strunal Upright bass. I love a great Fender Jazz Bass. All of my basses are based on the Fender Concept.

FBPO: What’s it like playing with Vanessa Williams?  She seems to be keeping you pretty busy.  How did you get the gig and how long have you had it?

AC: Vanessa is the most generous person I’ve ever met. She understands that I design instruments and she encourages me. I’m very blessed to be in this band. I’ve been around the world with her and she always makes sure we’re treated like family, not employees. She’s very loyal and I thank God for her. I’ve been in the band – with the same group of musicians – for 12 years. That’s rare! Rob Mathes, her music director, hired me. We played together in New York in the Playboy Club House band. Chris Botti was in that band with us, too.

FBPO: I understand you’re a bit of a “techie.”  How are you putting your digital audio engineering chops to use?

AC: I try to play in a manner that’s best for the music. I play solid and simple. The extra strings on my basses are for range, not for overplaying. It’s important to have equipment that doesn’t make noise. I use a Genz Benz Shuttle 6.0. I love my Schroeder Speaker cab that’s made for my extended range and I use my Radial Tone Bone as a direct box. It helps as a line driver or to make up for tone loss in different environments.

FBPO: What else is on the horizon for Al Caldwell?

AC: I really want to teach and to make music videos. I’m really into modern music history. I want to talk about some of the great musical contributors to the bass, like Anthony Jackson and Chuck Rainey. Great bass lines dance. I love that! Great bass lines swing and bounce and drive. I love all that power! I just want to make a contribution to the gallery of greats. I pray to be worthy.

FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?

AC: I needs my nap!

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