If you’ve read any stories at all about musicians trying to make it in the music business – especially in Nashville, Tennessee – you’ve heard story upon story about just how incredibly long it took for them to get any traction at all – if at all. The stories of Keith Urban and Blake Shelton come to mind where, despite all of their best efforts, their desired success didn’t come until many years of trying finally paid off.
Not so with a remarkable guitarist by the name of Dave Baker. Dave wanted to be a working session guitarist with, maybe, a regular gig with a band, artist or his own solo work from time to time. In a relatively short period he accomplished all of those goals, including serving as guitarist for the lovely Kellie Pickler.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Baker about his new CD, 71 South – an amazing debut CD of jaw-dropping guitar work. As we started our chat, I asked Dave to tell Boomerocity readers a little bit about himself.
I'm originally from Cleveland, Ohio and I moved to Nashville about four years ago. Ironically, I didn't come here for music. I came here because my wife graduated from grad school in Cleveland and she had a difficult time getting a job there. Vanderbilt recruited her and we kind of looked at each other and she said, “How do you feel about dropping everything and moving to Nashville?” I was scared but I said, “Okay, let's give it a shot and if it's cool with you let's hold on to our little condo here in Cleveland until we both feel like it's a good move.”
We have a good understanding, my wife and I; we have great communication. We moved down here and I would say within five months I had a decent artist gig. It was pretty good and it was pretty quick, so I said, “Let's sell the house in Cleveland.” Up to that point I was commuting. I would live half the month in Cleveland and half the month in Nashville because I was still working so much in Cleveland. I finally let go of those ties and I committed to Nashville 100%. About a year after that I landed the gig with Kellie Pickler. That's kind of the story of my commute and, say, the last four years of everything that's taken place. It is pretty interesting for me to reluctantly move here, my wife kind of dragging me. Everything worked out!
Responding to my point earlier about those who’ve not had as good of luck as Dave in getting established in Music City, he said:
I've known people that have moved here since I’ve moved here - and that were good players - that have left already. It's disheartening. It's crazy to think about what is going on here in Nashville. You have so many great musicians in one concentrated area. You have to work that much harder to be that much more motivated. You have to have practiced that much more.
There's more than just that - the planets aligning a lot of times. It's also being a good guy and being easy to get along with and being engaging. I mean everything. I don't know, I should write it all down one day. I think all of it matters, every nuance. It's not black and white, and it's not like this guy’s a great player so he's going to make it big. There's no way that's going to happen. There are all of the other nuances that go along with it.
With a monster musical talent like Dave Baker, I had to ask him who his musical influences were while he was growing up.
Well I would say I was influenced by a lot of different people and I think it reflects on my CD. I was influenced by a lot of classic rock, and then I was also influenced by everybody from shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen to George Benson to Wes Montgomery to Chet Atkins to Les Paul. Al Di Meola, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck go without saying; I love 'em.
I'm always trying to stay grounded toward something that would be more or less blues-based. I love first-, second- and third-generation blues. I love how it's evolved into what we hear now. I'll always listen for any form of music that I enjoy and most of the time if it's something that I enjoy, it's blues-based. There's an overtone of the language that's in there. I would say that probably off the top of my head.
With such a who’s who of great guitarists having influenced him, has Baker worked with any of them?
I haven't had the opportunity to work with a lot of my influences. I wish I could and, having said that, I wouldn't call myself new to Nashville but that I'm newer to Nashville. I would say that about a lot of people that have been here awhile, and I think that time could possibly come because there are some great players right here in town. I'll see other players and different things going on: like I met James Burke a couple of years ago at a show. I was giddy about it because there, again, he's another influence. Albert Lee influenced my country playing more than anyone; I'd love to meet Albert Lee one day. To get to play with him would be great.
I asked Dave what prompted him to take up the guitar to begin with.
Everybody on my father's side of the family plays guitar. My dad's mom played guitar and sang on the radio back in the mid- to late-‘30s; she even backed up Roy Rogers at one point. I still have her guitar and I had her promo shot blown up with her and the guitar. It's pretty amazing. She kind of had a history in the music business. I think that's what she did when she was younger for a living. But they all played guitar so I would say first and foremost I'm a guitar player, and then I just happened to dabble a little bit in some other things.
When I play with Kellie, I play electric and acoustic guitar. I play mandolin, and then I even play lap steel. I juggle four things with her, plus sing. She stays pretty active so I do an average of about a hundred shows a year with her, which is actually perfect because then I can have a whole life. I can have other musical endeavors that I can call upon on a regular basis: anything from doing sessions to collaborating on production. I still do jingles and I teach also.
With our conversation turning towards his new CD, “71 South,” I asked about the significance of the title.
That's the highway from Cleveland to Nashville. At least it's the highway from Cleveland to Louisville until it turns into 65. Most of my routes were 71 South. It took eight hours door to door.
The album is great, an eclectic mix of genres. Knowing that he couldn’t pick a favorite from it because it would be like picking a favorite child, I asked Dave which song he would point Boomerocity readers to as a sample or calling card for the entire album.
That's a tough one. I would probably have to say either, I think, track numbers 3 and 4 or both, “Sandy Spit” and “Spaghetti Western.” The reason why is because they’re more improvisational - what's going on there - than I planned out. “Spaghetti Western” has that definite country overtone to it, and I think that comes across in my playing even when I'm playing hard rock.
There are certain elements of country that kind of poke their head out here and there. It could be the way I approach things, it could be a technique I'm doing, and it could be just a tone I'm getting. I think those would have a lot to do with it. Maybe even track number 6, “Baker’s Boogie,” because there's the blues influence again. “Closer To Home” and “Geneva” have very much of an Eric Johnson feel to them, and the first song, “Guitar Center Saturday,” that's probably where you’re hearing a little George Lynch. It's just complete shredding, almost like an Yngwie/Joe Satriani-type piece.”
Since Dave Baker has worked on all sorts of different albums, I asked him if there was any difference working on his own disc by comparison.
First of all, I think just being that it's all-instrumental you don't have the focal point of a vocal song. With any song, you’re telling a story. I think that was the hardest thing for me to keep in my head: even though there are no vocals on this, I'm still telling a story. I have to have an introduction to my story. I have to have the middle part of the story. I have to have climaxes, peaks and valleys, and everything that keeps a story interesting. I have to try to do that with my guitar. So that was probably the challenge of it. I wanted to appeal to a person who doesn't play guitar, too. I wanted to appeal on a pedestrian level. Somebody that maybe doesn't play anything and they just enjoy music. I wanted to appeal to them. I wanted to be able to be engaging with what I'm doing.
As for tour support for the CD, Baker had this to say:
Well here is what I do other than touring with Kellie; Kellie's my first priority.
I play two nights a week locally, but I have one night that's my night. Every Monday night I play down on Broadway at one of the honky tonks, Whiskey Bent Saloon, and I do 6:00 to 10:00 PM. It's under my own name, Dave Baker, and we play everything from older country to ‘90s country. I have a really talented girl in the band that sings and plays fiddle, and she's awesome; we go back and forth on fiddle and guitar. We'll do everything from “Orange Blossom Special” to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and it's a great band. Awesome band. I've been doing that gig now four years in February...ever since I moved here pretty much. It's one of the first gigs I got, playing the honky tonks.
I think everybody kind of goes through a very similar growing process when they move here, especially if they don't have any ties and don't know anybody here. You’ve got to start from square one and then kind of move up. I still enjoy playing locally once a week. People come out to hang and enjoy the show, and I also enjoy it because I can stretch out with my chops. I couldn't even put a price on that because I'm honestly doing it for my soul. Then I play on Tuesday nights at a pretty famous place called Tootsies; I back a girl up with other members of a band. That's basically my local gigs that I do and on the Mondays particularly I sell my CD.
With regards to feedback on the album, Dave said:
My feedback so far has been great! It's been positive. Once again, people have their favorites that they'll point out to me, “Well, I really like when you do this” or “I really like when you do that.” I also have people that are like, “Man, if you could have just done this I think you would get a wider audience.” I know that happens once in a while but this particular guitar record is all over the map. It really is, for better or worse.
Some people prefer just to listen to one thing, one style. If you buy a Joe Satriani album you know exactly what you're going to get every time, and that goes for anybody that kind of does that. If you buy a Chet Atkins album you know what you are going to get, and that means you're getting nothing even close to “Guitar Center Saturday” on a Chet Atkins album! I don't think you would hear anything like “The Brothel” on a Joe Satriani album.
Being nosey, I asked if he had leftover material together for another album this year.
I would say the answer is yes - but I wouldn't say it's leftover stuff. It is material that I've been writing since this album was completed. My intent is to put out another one - and I'm not sure if I would put out another one within the year but I would definitely try. I've already started writing and, yeah, it's definitely something I'm going to do.
I think my next endeavor will probably be a little bit more focused, but it's hard for me to shake the diversity because I'm constantly being asked to play in a diverse fashion whether it's a session or an artist gig. It can change all the time. I think because I've had to wear so many different hats in the past that has kind of lead me to do something like this.
As far as focusing, would that be more focusing on the blues?
I think it would be definitely in the spirit of that a little bit more. Maybe a little bit more in that direction, too. I don't know if I would necessarily say a Bonamassa-type thing - although I love Bonamassa - but it would be something that would be more blues-based. You would hear it in my playing a little bit more than you do maybe on this album. Even though I always try to stay grounded, sometimes the song might lend itself for me to go in a different direction. I think I've had songs that lent themselves to stay in that arena a little bit more.
Baker said of his future plans:
In early 2015 I'll be getting ready to start more tour dates with Kellie, which is great. I love doing that; I love playing for her. She's an amazing artist, an amazing person and an amazing employer. But I also plan on possibly booking some things that coincide with her tour dates. So, if I'm playing in Biloxi with Kellie doing a gig, I may try to do some sort of clinic during the day at a local music store or university music class. I would be there pushing my product as well as playing PRS guitars, McPherson acoustics, Dr. Z amplifiers - all of my endorsement companies been very good to me. Doing things like that to help out the companies that have helped me. I’m also doing more product demos (Baker has been doing video demos for Dr. Z Amps since 2009, as well as other guitar products). And I’m doing more commercial music: I started playing on commercial jingles about 15 years ago. Since then I've honed my production chops by writing and producing spots for everyone from dating websites to major network news packages. Most of what I do is produced in my home studio although, given a bigger budget, at times I will record full production pieces at larger studios. Doing jingles has been another great creative outlet that is always challenging yet fun. Of course I’ll be putting out more albums in the next few years, things in the spirit of this, plus doing more sessions as a player and/or producer.
Whether you’re catching one of the shows by the adorable, Kellie Pickler, or are going to be in the Nashville area, please be sure to catch Dave Baker’s work. The man will blow your mind!