Rearview Mirror: Victor Wooten Takes A Hard Look at himself

Editor’s note: Don Wilcock is currently writing his memoirs, looking back at 51 years starting with Sounds from The World, a column he wrote for “grunts” in the rice patties of Vietnam in what was then the largest official Army newspaper in the world, The Army Reporter.

Originally ran in the The Troy Record on December, 2000.

To most of his fans, Victor Wooten is the bass player in Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, the band that took the banjo out of bluegrass and expanded the definition of the instrument and the genre to encompass jazz, folk, funk and rhythm & blues. Wooten’s bass plays an important role in that expanded function.

To his three-year-old daughter, Kaila, Victor is daddy, and daddy is not paying enough attention to Kaila because he’s talking to a nasty old critic from The Record who won’t let daddy play with Kaila.

To the critics, Wooten is one of today’s best bass players. “Among bassists, Victor Wooten currently stands at the head of the class.” That quote from “Nashville Scene” is typical of the accolades for his third solo album, Yin-Yang.

But it’s who Victor Wooten is in his own mind that is most important. And his parents taught him never to lose track of that.

“I think the best thing you can know in your life is yourself, and that’s the hardest thing to learn is who you are,” says Wooten who appears with a four-piece band at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Sunday night.

“In life in general most of us define ourselves by what people think of us,” he explains, “and I think that is something you should pay attention to, but you just put that in a pot with what you think ’cause you gotta look at your own self.

“It’s like if you’re (building) a building, and everybody says that building is safe, and you know it’s not safe. Who are you going to listen to? I look at myself like a building. If I see a brick that doesn’t look good, I gotta fix it. I gotta take out that character or whatever. No matter what everybody else thinks about it, it’s not me.”

Focusing on your own view of self is hard for artists in the public eye, particularly when critics are heaping either great praise or derision on that artist.

“What happens is that most artists start taking on the view of the public, that if the public says I’m good, ok, I must be good. Why do I need to keep practicing if every night the public is saying my music sucks? Ok, then I’d better change. The radio won’t play my music. I must be doing something wrong.

“That’s living by the critics’ view or the public’s view, and I’m definitely not doing that.” Wooten’s parents gave him solid grounding for his focused view of self. By the time he was five, they were booking shows for him and his four older brothers. From opening gigs with soul singer Curtis Mayfield at that tender age, he learned a lesson that some musicians never learn.

“He (Curtis) would play soft. He’d play a whole show that was really soft, but it was so intense – so intense! He was like a master of being able to play at that soft level. He would sing in the high falsetto voice and, man, he was so intense and not many musicians could do that. A lot of bands if they want to be intense, they have to turn up loud.”

Two of Wooten’s brothers are in the band that plays The Parting Glass Sunday night, Reggie on bass and Joseph who plays keyboards.

“To me, a band is a lot like sitting around and talking to people, and the more you know the people, the more commonality you have, the easier it’s gonna be. The less you’re gonna have to think about it, the less you’re gonna be uptight. I know what you’re gonna say at other times before you say it. So, that’s obvious we’ve known each other for so long. We’ve also played together for so long. So, we could get out here and do these shows really without any rehearsal ’cause we have a repertoire already just from playing together growing up. We could do some of that.”

Not only have his brothers and parents all been featured on his albums, but he actually built the melody of a song around his daughter’s babblings when she was 16 months old, perhaps making her the youngest songwriter in history. The song, “Kaila Speaks” is a standout on an album that covers even more ground stylistically than the eclectic Bela Fleck and the Flecktones CDs.

“I had gotten the idea (for “Kaila Speaks”) from a guy named Hermento Pasquel. He had done a similar thing with a guy speaking, and he played piano with it, but just hearing Kaila talk, her voice is just so musical. I just kind of started getting the idea as I was putting the record together.”

For five years before Wooten joined The Flecktones, he played in a show band at Busch Gardens in Virginia. At first, he wasn’t playing bass at all but fiddle. Curt Story taught him how to play “Orange Blossom Special.” “I was never very good at it. I could just pull it off at an amusement park.” It was Curt who introduced Wooten to Fleck in ’87, and Wooten’s been with Fleck ever since. Nevertheless, as part of Wooten’s centered view of self, he sees himself as the leader of his own band first and a sideman second.

“I had this life before the Flecktones. I mean, The Flecktones are almost like a side project when I look at my whole music life. The first thing would be playing with my brothers. That’s what I’ve done most of my life. That’s my whole background. That’s my training and everything. It was like stepping aside from that playing with The Flecktones.”

Victor Wooten performs Sunday night at 9 p.m. at the Parting Glass at 40-42 Lake Ave. in Saratoga. Tickets are $15. Performing with him in his and are brothers Reggie on bass and Joseph on keyboards. J.D. Blair plays drums. Also joining them is Divinity, a bass player who raps.

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