Nashville Cats: Salute to Bob Moore

February 17, 2007
Veteran Nashville musician Bob Moore, who has provided rhythmic support and ideas for more classic country hits than any other bassist, was honored Saturday in a poignant and informative two-hour program at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Ford Theater.

In the latest installment of the museum’s on-going series Nashville Cats: A Celebration of Music City Session Players, Moore spoke about his career and his contribution to such standards as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” and Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” among countless other hits.

The tribute included several video clips, from an early shot of Moore backing Red Foley on the Ozark Jubilee TV show in the fifties, to an Austin City Limits taping of Moore and drummer Buddy Harman playing boogie-woogie rock & roll with Jerry Lee Lewis in 1981.

Museum stringed instrument curator Bill Lloyd, host of the event, told of Moore’s central role in moving the acoustic bass from an instrument primarily used as a slap-string, percussive instrument to one capable of a wide tonal, rhythmic, and melodic range. As Lloyd explained, Moore was one of the musicians who “legitimized the bass” as a country music instrument; his work demanded that the instrument be taken more seriously, and the bassist no longer was relegated to the role of comic foil within country touring bands.

The nearly endless list of hits Moore helped create will forever stand as a “testament to your musicality and versatility,” Lloyd said.

At age seventy-four, Moore is still an active musician and producer. But his heyday came in the 1950s through the 1970s, when he was the first-call bassist as part of Music Row’s legendary A-team session musicians.

A native of East Nashville, Moore traced the childhood events that led to his becoming a professional musician, then spoke of the turning points that made him the most in-demand bassist on Music Row. His career has now lasted more than sixty years, and he’s played on, by his estimation, more than seventeen thousand songs.

Born in 1932, he was raised by his grandmother near the city’s Shelby Park. He related an old family story of how, at age three, he’d pull himself up on tiptoe to watch 78-rpm records spin on his grandmother’s Victrola. He also listened often to the Grand Ole Opry, and occasionally he was treated to attending the Opry with his grandmother.

Always enterprising, by age nine he set up a shoeshine box at the corner of Fifth and Broadway in downtown Nashville, near the entrance of the Ryman Auditorium. (Moore brought his original shoeshine kit with him to show the audience). Before long, he was invited backstage at the Opry to shine the boots and shoes of Opry stars, and he got to see the Opry bands jam and rehearse backstage.

By age ten, Moore had begun performing. A band he formed with some older East High School students, the Eagle Rangers (named for the school’s sports team), included fellow student Jerry Rivers, who would go on to become a member of Hank Williams’s Drifting Cowboys band. Moore’s first recording came when the Eagle Rangers backed deejay and singer Bob Jennings for a single.

When Moore was fourteen, he joined the Grand Ole Opry duo Jamup & Honey, doing ninety one-nighters in tent shows in Oklahoma one summer. Moore recalled how they’d drive down dirt roads announcing the shows through loudspeakers on the car’s roof, to what seemed like empty farm fields, only to find the tent overflowing with ticket buyers for each performance.

Moore then joined Paul Howard & His Arkansas Cotton Pickers, a renowned western swing band that previously had included future Music Row session guitarist Hank Garland. Once Moore joined, the Cotton Pickers left the Opry for an extended stay in Texas, where they played in battles of the bands in San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston against top swing outfits such as those led by Bob Wills, Leon McAuliffe, and Johnnie Lee Wills. “We always won,” Moore said. “But we weren’t making any money.”

A lack of money led Moore back to Nashville, where he joined Little Jimmy Dickens’s band, which included another future A-team member, guitarist Grady Martin. From there, Moore went to work with bluegrass pioneers Flatt & Scruggs, which led to work with Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, and others. It was with Arnold, Moore said, “that I met Colonel Tom Parker. I knew the Colonel before I did Elvis.”

For a while, Moore and Martin traded time between appearing on the Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley in Springfield, Missouri, and doing radio transcriptions with future Country Music Hall of Fame member Marty Robbins in Nashville. They’d back Foley on weekends then rush back to Nashville to perform with Robbins on Monday and Tuesday, heading back to Springfield on Wednesday.

While backing Foley on a recording date in Nashville, Moore met pianist and record producer Owen Bradley, who asked Moore to meet him later that evening. During the meeting, Bradley proposed that Moore join his society dance band, which had a great reputation in the area, and added an extra incentive: He told Moore that in six months he would begin operating a Nashville office for Decca Records, and Bradley said he’d hire Moore regularly as a session bassist if he moved back to Nashville.

Moore agreed. He not only became Bradley’s preferred bassist, but soon drew work from other producers, including Chet Atkins and Don Law. Bradley eventually persuaded Moore to give his sessions first priority, and in turn Moore worked on nearly every Decca recording session for years and years.

Moore credited Bradley for teaching him more about music and recording, opening his mind up “to the inside of the chords,” and to seeing music as more than melody and rhythm. “It was a real musical education,” the bassist said.

In the 1950s, Moore also began playing on Nashville recordings that represented some of what would become known as rockabilly. He became a favorite session player of Elvis Presley, even touring as a member of the King’s band. Other samples of Moore’s rock work were played during the program, including songs by Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, Brenda Lee, Bobby Helms, and Wanda Jackson.

“We didn’t know until ten years later that we were playing rockabilly music,” Moore said.

Moore also explained how he came to enjoy a major pop hit of his own in 1961 with the instrumental recording “Mexico.” After helping producer Fred Foster form Monument Records, and acting as session leader on many Monument recordings, Moore got the idea to record a tune using the rhythmic, horn-driven sound he’d heard on his trip south of the border.

He knew Monument planned to release “Mexico” as a single, but Moore never expected it to become a hit. Yet, while touring in Texas, he heard it on the radio, so he called Foster in Nashville to tell him the news. “I found out it was a hit, and Fred said, ‘Get back here, you need to go out and promote this thing.’” The song went #1 in Germany and reached #7 on the U.S. pop charts.

Moore singled out working with Roy Orbison as one of his favorite memories, talking of how genuine, sensitive, and witty the late Texas singer was. He also talked of how much respect Orbison drew from other artists. For example, Moore recalled how, at Presley’s sessions, “Elvis would walk across the studio straight to me and say, ‘What have you been cutting with Orbison lately?’”

Recalling the heyday of the A-team, Moore remembered setting up Sunday afternoon jazz jam sessions at RCA Studio B that led to regular gigs on Printer’s Alley, where players like guitarist Hank Garland, trumpeter Bill McElhiney, and vibraphonist Gary Burton would jam with him.

As at past Nashville Cats events, the one-on-one interview with Moore featured video clips, rare audio recordings, and photographs, many taken from the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Frist Library and Archive. The crowd, which nearly filled the Ford Theater despite the snow and unusually low temperatures, included previous Nashville Cat honoree Don Helms, veteran songwriters Hank Cochran and Billy Dees, and a score of musicians, songwriters, and music industry executives.

At the end of the tribute, when asked if he preferred older recording styles, when musicians recorded together in the same room, or the more modern technique of recording instrumentalists and vocalists separately and blending them together digitally, Moore made a case for the way they did it in his day.

“I’d rather work with everybody in the studio,” he said. “There’s chemistry and vibes when you play with each other that come across on record and through the wires. There’s a magic in it that can’t be created without everyone being in the studio playing at the same time.”

—Michael McCall