Monday, December 17, 2012

Mark W. Winchester: Look At That Rooster Rock!

If you ever have the privilege to see Mark W. Winchester live, you will see how lets the music explode out of him.  Few can match his energy as he slaps his upright bass.  We caught up with Mark recently to talk about his new album (appropriately titled Upright) as well as early influences, time with The Planet Rockers, Brian Setzer and much more!

What led you to play the upright?
I was led to play upright out of necessity, really. I was trying to form a rockabilly band in college, around '82/'83, but I was playing acoustic guitar and singing. I found Jumpin’ Jimmy Jackson on guitar but we never could find an upright bass player. All the guys that answered our ads were electric players. So, having taken 3 electric bass lessons in the eighth grade, I said, "I'll get an upright and learn to play it". My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) had a friend whose father had an old Kay in pieces in his attic, and he let me have it. I got it repaired, put on my Johnny Burnette and the Rock-N-Roll Trio album and started slappin' away.

Rockabilly seemed to be
the punk rock of that day. Do you think it's that energy that still keeps it popular and exciting to this day?
I certainly found it through punk. I think it's just a real pure form of music, a unique time period that it came from with the rednecks and hillbillies wantin' to play the cool "race" music they heard on the blues stations. Those times in history when a music form just gets put in a crucible and it burns red hot in the beginning, the records from those times will always live on. They have an unbridled energy. It’s like when Flatt and Scruggs joined Bill Monroe, or when punk came along as an answer to stadium rock.

Who were some of your earliest influences on your bass playing?
I taught myself how to play to Dorsey Burnette. Of course Bill Black's slappin' was awesome. It was only later after I'd been playing a while that I discovered Willie Dixon and realized Dorsey and Bill weren't inventing this thing exactly, they were just applying it to hillbilly music and keeping it going throughout the song, where as Willie might just slap on a solo. I've seen articles on other upright players who have an incredible list of slap upright players they were influenced by, but I never went on much of a search. I learned those Burnette brothers records and the Sun stuff and started playing gigs.

You were a part of a killer rockabilly group called The Planet Rockers. What was that time period like for you?
Moving to Nashville and hooking up with the guys that eventually turned into the Planet Rockers was an interesting time. I had actually decided to not play the bass. I was really here to try and get a songwriting career going. Right after my wife and I got married in Monroe, NC ('87) I joined a Top 40 country band and immediately went on the road and stayed gone a lot. The plan was to move to Nashville where I could do music in a music town and not travel. I sat in one night on upright with a band in Franklin (TN); then, through a series of events, Eddie (Angel) and Sonny (George) found out about me and the upright was back out of the closet for good I guess. I was young and wilder and had lots more energy for acrobatics on stage back then. It was great to be in a band where everyone got it and fielded their position stellarly. We had quite a buzz around town for a year or two…newspaper articles, making records at Emmylou's (Harris) house, packed clubs. I didn't appreciate it like I probably should have at the time. We've actually gotten back together recently to play rockabilly festivals that expressed some interest in booking the original Planet Rockers. We'll be in England in June for a big weekender there.

That time with The Planet Rockers was right before you toured with Emmylou Harris. How was she to work with?
She was fantastic to work with. Again, I probably didn't appreciate it at the time like I should have. Those three years were a great time for me musically. I grew up a lot on the instrument.

You've had a strong connection with Brian Setzer by touring with his orchestra as well performing with him on a few albums. How did you connect with Brian in the first place?
The story behind how I got the Brian Setzer Orchestra gig goes like this: Ricky
Scaggs had a show on TNN that they taped at the Ryman Auditorium called “Ricky Scaggs' Monday Night Concert Series” around 1995,96. Drummer Harry Stinson was the band leader for the house band, and he knew me from Planet Rockers and Emmylou. He knew me as a slapper, a rockabilly guy. So when Brian Setzer was coming to tape a show, Harry called me to supplement the house band behind Brian. Fantastic night for me. I also got to go out and do a segment, a tribute to sun records, with Brian, Elvis Costello, Ricky and Marty Stewart. Somebody told me recently they had a copy of that show, or somebody might have posted part of it on you tube, I don't know but I've never seen it. Anyway, after the taping, Brian's guitar tech at the time, Rich Modica, took down my name and number and said he and Brian dug it and maybe, who knows, we might be callin' you sometime. It took a year, but they did end up calling around the time they had most of The Dirty Boogie recorded. Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan's bassist) had slapped upright on the record, but he couldn't go out on the road with the orchestra, and the current bassist in the orchestra was more of a jazz guy, no “slappity, slappity”, so i was being offered this opportunity. That's how all that started.

Let's talk about this great new solo project called Upright. Kenny Vaughan (guitars) and Jimmy Lester (drums) back you up on this and the 3 of you guys sound amazing throughout the entire project. That had to be fun to do with these guys! 
For that kind of record, that kind of music, you don't get much better than those two guys. It was fun. We recorded it quite quickly. Very live. Kenny and I came back on day two and overdubbed some things. There's not much better place to record that kind of stuff than with George Bradfute at Tone Chapparal either. He gets great sounds and has a subtle way of suggesting exactly what the tune needs. "Hey Mark, why don't you just double that vocal?" Lot of first take stuff. "Okay, what's next" "Really?" I'd say. "That's the take?"

You were part of Setzer's 68 Comeback Special- Ignition album where you sang your song "Rooster Rock" on there. You've done a new version on this album which is a bit more of a laid back swing. 
That song has been with me a long time. Many, many years ago I wrote that. It had those two verses back then, but I called it “Cock-a-Doodle Doo”. I remember playing it for some guys that, like me, were trying to write songs that would get recorded by country artists of the day. They literally laughed at my song…not rockabilly fans, these guys. Years and years later, after I was playing with Brian, I took a big leap of faith and broached the subject of laying some tunes on him, hoping he’d be open to it. He took my song "Drive Like Lightnin', Crash Like Thunder" and re-did it with a different riff, a big band arrangement for the middle, and another verse for it. We recorded it on Vavoom! But he liked “Rooster Rock” just like it was, and let me sing lead on it when we cut the '68 comeback album. For some reason, I didn't get around to the third verse when we cut it. The version on my record has the third verse and repeats the first verse at the end instead of a double chorus, and yeah it's a little more swingy…more jump-blues than rockabilly. It works both ways I guess.

I love the "twang" that shines through on this project. "Damp As Dew" kicks off the album and sort of sets the tone. We talked about your bass influences earlier. Who influenced you vocally too to give you this sound? 
I don't know who influenced me vocally. It took me a long, long time to get better at singing. I used to pitch stuff way too high for my voice. Or in other words, I’d sing a song in the key I wrote it in. It didn't dawn on me for the longest time, that I could lower the key. I just wanted to sing the songs that I was writing. It all started with forlorn love songs to my long distance girl friend in college. I would make tapes of these songs and mail them to her. I guess I tried to sound like
the guys I was listening to…Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson. If it was a punk song, I tried to sound like Joey Ramone. For rockabilly, I liked early Roy Orbison. Carl Perkins, twangers. But I was bad for a long time…screamed and strained. I finally learned to relax. You know the advent of four track home recording machines helped a lot. Hearing it back, I’d say "why does that sound like crap?" You want to get better. “Damp as Dew”, that's just me trying to sing like a hillbilly. I literally just sang that line out loud one day plinkin’ around on the guitar. “My right foot's dry and my left foot's damp as dew”. Where does that kind of stuff come from? I had to use the songwriting process just to explain to myself why my left foot was damp. Maybe some long gone hillbilly cat just wanted to send back a nice little ditty from the other side.

"Mousetrap" has a slow grooving almost punk influence but fits in nicely to this collection. Tell me about this one.
“Mousetrap” came from an experiment in songwriting that I undertook a while back. I hadn't written anything in a long time, and decided to get up real early every morning and write a complete song, good or bad, everyday for as long as i could. It worked for about 60 something days until spring, when allergy season hit and I felt terrible and stopped. That's a lot of songs! Many of them were bad but there were some gems too. “Two White Dogs” and “Remember Rock N Roll?” came out of that too. “Mousetrap” stood out when i started listening back to all the rough guitar vocals I'd put down each morning on GarageBand. I dug it because it was a one chord song and I'd always wanted to write a one chord song--like bull by the horns---I'm not exactly sure what it means. It came out all at once. During that time I had a piece of paper that I had titles and phrases on it. I was crankin' down on that weird chord in the closet at 4:30 in the morning, looked down at the list and just sang, "build a better mousetrap, baby” and if I didn't want it to also be only a one LINE song, I had to make some other shit up. When we made the record, I wasn't sure it would fit either, or how i would play it on upright bass but it came out great. Kenny came up with some out guitar stuff on it. I tracked on my Harmony Rocket and sang it live. That's one George suggested I double the lead vocal on. Yes, I'm punk influenced. That's my “attitude" voice on that one.

I like the clever lyrics in "Absotively, Posilutely". Where did this idea come from?
“Absotively, Posilutely” is one of my all time favorites. I was a staff writer for a few years at Reba Macintire's publishing company, Starstruck, and there were a couple of guys there I liked to try to make up songs with. One was Jerry Boonstra and the other was a Texas guy named Doak Sneed. Doak brought out his hook book one day, or his list of titles/ideas and I looked down it and saw “Absotively, Posilutely” and thought it was clever. We didn't work on that that day, but driving home, I started singing and hearing that groove and style where that song lays and had the chorus and a verse before I got to the house. So I called Doak and asked him to come over and help finish it since it was his hook, you know, and he did and we came up with the second verse. We just built to be played on the upright bass. I'm proud of that song. Guy gets tongue tied around his girl says “absolutely” all backwards…easy to fill in those blanks.

There's some good rockers on here as well. "Hillbilly Train" comes to mind.
I stole that title from Sonny George when we were in the Planet Rockers together. He and I have different memories of how that all went down. I remember that he told me he was going to write a song called hillbilly train, and I said, "That’s a great title! Do you mind if I write one called that too?" He remembers that he played me his whole song called “Hillbilly Train”, and then later on, I appeared with my own song of the same title. Either way, good title, two good songs. The groove and lick of mine was influenced by that song on Tom Petty's Wildflowers record called “Honey Bee”. It's a stomp. I like a stomp…two chord song which is almost as good as a one chord song.

What's on the horizon in 2013 for you? 
The jury is still out on 2013…ust trying to make it to the end of 2012. The Planet Rockers will be ringing in the New Year at a rockabilly rave-up in Stuttgart Germany, and I hope to be out myself promoting Upright!

Where's the best place for people to stay connected with what's going on with you?
I have a ReverbNation page ( that I post my gigs on when I remember to. My CD’s can be purchased at “Like” my Mark W. Winchester Facebook page (

w/ Brian Setzer, Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs- "Honey Don't"


The Planet Rockers- "Get Off My Back"

"Rooster Rock" with Brian Setzer

"Oh Well" with Billy Burnette, Kenny Vaughan and Jimmy Lester

"Hillbilly Train"