Barry Bales Expands The Spectrum With Alison Krauss & Union Station

Ask Barry Bales a question about himself, and the words “band” and “we” usually come up. For instance—what’s your part, Barry, in recreating Union Station’s polished studio sound onstage? “We really don’t have to worry about it too much. The other people in the band are great players, so that leaves me free to concent
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Ask Barry Bales a question about himself, and the words “band” and “we” usually come up. For instance—what’s your part, Barry, in recreating Union Station’s polished studio sound onstage? “We really don’t have to worry about it too much. The other people in the band are great players, so that leaves me free to concentrate more on the feel or maybe play off somebody else.”

For the past 15 years, that band-directed attitude has served Bales in his bass and vocal work with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and on a variety of other Nashville sessions. In singer/fiddler Krauss’s latest Rounder release, Lonely Runs Both Ways, Barry lends solid yet sensitive support to the pop-tinged bluegrass sound on songs such as “Crazy Like Me” and “Gravity.” He also lays down trad two-feels on tunes like Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and keeps a steady hand amid the newgrass twists of Jerry Douglas’s “Unionhouse Branch.” Throughout the album you can hear the big, round tone of Barry’s Meisel upright, with the exception of “Gravity,” for which he enlists his Azola Baby Bass. “There are no hard-and-fast rules” for choosing the Azola, the 35-year-old explains. “If it’s a particularly sparse tune, I’ll add a little more sustain with the electric instrument, a little more low end. It’s mainly a matter of the song’s feel.”

Feel. That’s another word Barry favors.

A native of the east Tennessee hill country near Kingsport—he still lives on the family homestead—Barry grew up to the sound of his father’s guitar and mandolin and of recordings by country and bluegrass artists like Buck Owens, George Jones, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. Barry started out playing guitar and banjo, but, he says, “I was always drawn to the bass. It seemed to come more natural.” Settling on the bass, Barry progressed from playing along with records to working with a popular hometown group. “It was pretty innovative for a local band,” Bales says, “bringing in different styles rather than just playing old standards or rehashing the latest records. That set the foundation for what I’m doing today.”

As that band morphed into a group called Dusty Miller, Bales’s touring miles and musical connections increased, eventually leading to the Krauss gig. “The bluegrass circuit is like going to college. You play festivals every weekend with the same people, and you get to know everybody and jam with other musicians.” Krauss was among those classmates, and when three slots came open in Union Station, she tapped Barry and two others from Dusty Miller. Bales had hit the big time. “We were tickled to death at the thought of actually being able to play for a living. Our band had not been at that level. We might have played at a great bluegrass festival one day and then at a car dealership the next. When we got with Alison we were playing Wolf Trap, the Kennedy Center, the Grand Ole Opry, on television—all of that.”

New musical considerations accompanied the leap to major stages. “They were doing some pretty pop-sounding music when we joined the band—that was new for me—and we had come from straightahead bluegrass where dynamics aren’t as much of a factor. We had to learn to play more delicately, to back up Alison’s vocals without overpowering her.”

Helping Bales grasp Krauss’s eclectic music were lessons he had learned from his bass heroes. “My all-time favorite is Todd Phillips. He came from a jazz background and brought a completely different way of thinking and playing bluegrass—a really sustained kind of sound, great chops. Another huge influence from a different side was Roy Huskey Jr.—a very traditional-type player who played a big American Standard bass with gut strings, but he also created some very innovative bass lines.”

Adjusting to Union Station’s music, Barry began devising ways for his bass lines to better complement Krauss’s vocals. “Early on, if I didn’t have to play any higher than the A string, I wouldn’t. But with Alison that would leave too much of a sonic gap. So I started playing things in different registers. Now, after listening to a song a few times, I can figure out what would be interesting without making everybody go, ‘Oh, the bassist is playing a lick.’”

Now an established voice in Union Station’s honed vocal harmonies, Bales had yet another lesson to learn early on. “I had done some singing, but when I joined the band I became one of the primary harmony singers. On top of that I hadn’t done a lot of singing with a woman, having to sing almost above my range. I think I’ve gotten a lot better—I’ve learned to sing with other people instead of just singing at the same time as them. And I’ve learned to find that fine line where you can concentrate more on singing and let your unconscious rhythm take over, so the playing takes care of itself.”

Union Station’s lineup of acoustic virtuosos includes guitarists Ron Block and Dan Tyminski and dobro master Jerry Douglas, and also deploys the drumming of Larry Atamanuik. “Playing with a drummer was quite a departure for me,” Bales says. “In bluegrass it’s all about pushing, about being right on the front of the beat without rushing. To go from that to working with a drummer who might play right on the beat or on the back of the beat—I fought with that for a long time. I had to learn to listen, and then I was like, Oh, I get it.”

Barry’s long list of session credits includes work with Vince Gill, Clint Black, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, the Cox Family, and Merle Haggard, and he appears on the acclaimed O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as well as in a cameo in the movie. “These days I get called for sessions for one of two things. Either we go in as a band to back somebody up, or I get called for a traditional bluegrass sound but played with a newer-type energy and sensibility—being able to play around with the chords a bit or throw in something extra.”

In the studio Barry most often relies on his Azola and his “workhorse” Meisel, a e-size plywood instrument of uncertain vintage. Bales strings the Meisel with orchestral-gauge D’Addario Helicores and uses a “medium-low” action, “depending on who you’re talking to. For bluegrass players it’s low. For jazz players, no.” As 2005 approached, Barry was planning to put a set of D’Addario Helicores on the Azola, replacing the Thomastiks that had been on the bass since 1994. In addition to the Meisel and the Azola, Bales sometimes records with one of his two gut-strung American Standard basses—fitted with a David Gage Realist pickup—for that “Roy Huskey kick-drum type of sound,” as well as a ’70s Fender Precision and a Jerry Jones Danelectro-style “tic-tac” bass. (For details on Bales’s Azola, see Barry’s Baby.)

Onstage Bales amplifies the Meisel via a Fishman BP-100 piezo pickup and runs his signal through an Ashly 7-band parametric EQ and Demeter preamp on the way to the house board. For recording the Meisel, Barry says, “I defer to our engineer, Gary Paczosa, on whether I should use the pickup. His mic of choice is a Sony G800 plus some kind of pencil mic, like a B&K, to get articulation from the fingerboard. The Sony normally goes eight or ten inches from the bass between the treble-side ƒ-hole and the bridge. The other mic often goes a third of the way down the fingerboard between my hands.”

As he recounts his musical journey, Barry notes that bluegrass bass is still encumbered by the old “we’ll just get Joe’s wife to play it” attitude. But, he asserts, “playing root-5’s right is a hard thing. For me, number one, it’s all about that pull—moving air and having a good thump, a definitive note. You have to play with solid time. And you can do all of that and still make it interesting. It’s not about playing a lot of licks or playing worked-out things. Sometimes it’s about not playing a note, or playing one in an odd place to turn the feel sideways for a second, and then pulling it all back together.”

Nonetheless, Barry counsels, no matter your ability level or inclination for innovation, “just do it because you enjoy it. Not everybody has to play for a living. If you love it, do it.”