nashville-number-system

Pub Stories…A Cautionary Tale

nashville-number-system

When I arrived in Nashville in 1973 I had managed to build a pretty solid studio resume in England, and was hopeful of doing something similar in the States. I was also interested in expanding my arsenal of guitars and keyboards by adding  bass guitar to the tools. I’d had a hankering to play bass for quite a while, but the opportunity seldom arose, as I worked so much with George Ford, a superb bassist. As I was the first Brit musician to arrive in Nashville, I figured that the locals who might know my name wouldn’t necessarily know what instruments I’d been playing in the London studio world. So one of my first moves was to acquire a sunburst Fender Jazz  bass and an Ampeg studio amp…

My Nashville friend Buzz Cason had been very generous showing me around and introducing me to some of the local movers and shakers, including John Denny of Cedarwood Music. I began spending time over there and figured I’d ease into the bass thing in low profile situations… demos and such, while I was learning how things worked in this new musical environment.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

My first studio call was to play on a Floyd Cramer track at R.C.A. Studio A. Serious deep end, but I’d  worked in all the key London studios with various high-visibility artists, so the chutzpah kicked in and I went for it. On the appointed day, I showed up an hour before the 2 p.m. downbeat in my London work clothes… midnight blue velvet jacket, black silk pants etc. etc. with my extremely long hair flowing free. The sound engineer was the only one there, and he didn’t seem to be too taken aback by my costuming choices, and we worked quickly and efficiently to get the bass sound, so by one thirty I was on my stool with a music stand before me, feeling pretty confident, as the Nashville Cats began wandering in. They were all extremely casually garbed, with overalls and ball caps seemingly the rule. I was eyed with curiosity, but they all seemed friendly enough, and too professional to question my presence. The producer was an Australian named Bill Walker, and as he got settled behind the console, in walked the great Floyd Cramer, looking like he’d just finished the back nine at McCabe. He exchanged pleasantries with some of the players, glanced briefly in my direction, then sat at the piano and began playing. Hearing that famous slip-note technique in the flesh was very cool, so I sat and enjoyed it, figuring he was warming up.

What I didn’t notice was that the local boys were scribbling away on available scraps of paper, the back of an envelope, the long bill from a grocery store cash register etc. Meanwhile I was waiting for my chart to be delivered to me.

You see, in London, if it wasn’t strictly a head arrangement, one was usually provided  with a formal notation chart, or at the very least a chord chart on staff  paper, and I always carried staff paper with me to sessions. As the clock hit 2, Mr. Walker hit the intercom button, saying “ O.K., Lets run it down” The drummer, who I soon learned was Larry Londin, started to count it down, but I had no chart, so I felt obliged to interrupt. “ I’m sorry, but I don’t have a chart  yet “
Voice on intercom “ Didn’t you get it down while Floyd was playing?’ “ Noooo”

“O.K. Just copy Jerry’s chart “Jerry was Jerry Shook, a great acoustic rhythm guitarist, with whom I later worked a lot. He leaned across and presented what looked to me to be some primitive computer code, rows of numbers grouped in columns of four, with gaps after every four lines, and arcane little squiggles and arcs in the margins. My mind froze… I looked with total incomprehension. Bill Walker, sensing there was something afoot, called me into the control room. “You don’t know the numbers system, do you?” I replied that I didn’t know what he was talking about. “O.K. You got any manuscript paper?” Of course I did, and he kindly sketched out a formal chart, as he was also  a locally prominent orchestral arranger, so I was able to complete the session, although in less than the style I’d envisioned. I immediately realized that I hadn’t researched the Nashville studio scene sufficiently, as our landing up in Nashville had been a bit  random, and country music had not occupied large areas of my listening or playing experience.

For starters, the numbers system was, and largely still is, confined to Nashville, and back then there was no book  to crack the code… you could only get it from another muso, and some of the locals weren’t necessarily falling over themselves to pass it on to an interloper. I also soon realized that there was a very formal protocol, particularly with bass, involved in Nashville studio sessions at that time. Transitional walk-ups and walk -downs had to be whole tone on the way up and the way back  down… a flat third going in either direction was frowned upon.

At the ripe old age of 29 I realized that I had to learn a whole new music methodology, and quickly at that! Initially, I picked up bits and pieces hanging out at Creative Workshop (Buzz Cason’s studio), but in a working environment, guys didn’t usually have time to pause and answer my questions about “the numbers”. Luckily for me, there was a much more laid-back shop, Pine Brothers, right next door to Creative. It was home base to the great Muscle Shoals  r‘n’b songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were, like me, recent Nashville transplants. Spoon was a particularly easygoing fellow, in addition to being a renowned studio keyboardist, and he unlocked the mystery for me in about twenty minutes flat with no fuss at all, illustrating the nuances of the system at the piano. His patient though succinct explanation showed me how beautifully simple yet infinitely adaptable the numbers system was, and I’ve used it almost exclusively ever since. Once I had the numbers cracked, I was ready to go, and I vowed I’d  never get caught on the hop again.

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