Should you happen to see an upright string bass being toted around Music City, chances are it belongs to a symphonic player, a jazz musician or a bluegrass plucker. Somewhere in the chasm between those stylistically exclusive camps falls country-and-classic rock ’n’ roll bassist Mark W. Winchester, whose credits include Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers and retro-rooted Stray Cats co-founder Brian Setzer. The latter role is a natural for Winchester, a guitar picker whose yen to form a college rockabilly band finally prompted him to take on the stand-up bass chores no one else at the University of South Carolina could handle. It would later lead the self-taught bassist to his first notable Nashville gig in the late 1980s, slapping the big fiddle with The Planet Rockers, who would go on to become international cult heroes.
Winchester’s original music testifies to his portfolio of pub-rock/punk/new-wave, country and 1950s-era rock/R&B influences, all of which collide quirkily on his second full-length solo outing, Upright. Joining Winchester are Los Straitjackets drummer Jimmy Lester and guitarist Kenny Vaughan (on loan from Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives), who comprise a rough and ready trio that brings the heat to performances as unselfconscious, stripped-down and immediate as you’re likely to hear in these digital days, when layers of post-production polish are the norm. Recorded mostly live with minimal overdubs over a couple of days at Madison studio Tone Chapparal, Upright stands tall on the strength of well-crafted songs supported by savvy musicians who don’t overthink the process.
Offbeat humor flavors several standout tracks, undercutting romantic paranoia on the revved-up “Givin’ Me the Nervous” and coaxing a chuckle from a nightmare scenario in “The Bride Is Hot”: The bride is hot / I know it’s true / Don’t tie the knot / She loves the best man too. Both numbers suggest the throwback tongue-in-cheekery of British pop-rock legend Nick Lowe, whose influence also shows up on the tender blue-eyed soul of “Absotively Posilutely,” featuring one of Winchester’s strongest vocal turns. His adequate, likeable singing voice gets the job done, especially on his more idiosyncratic songs, though his liltingly beautiful country waltz, “Part of Me,” deserves a classic set of pipes of the Jim Reeves/Patsy Cline caliber. Similarly, Winchester’s take on his self-penned “Would I” can’t vocally surpass the baritone ballast of Randy Travis’ 1996 hit recording, though the unfussy version featured here rings with comparable charm.
The romantic and wackabilly factors on Upright are offset by some darker themes: the intriguing “Two White Dogs” is half canine ghost story and half would-be robbery song, while leather-clad malevolence seethes beneath the unsettling, minor-key “Mousetrap.” While such cuts contribute variety, the album’s overall effect is ultimately upbeat. If there’s an overarching statement to be found here, “Remember Rock-n-Roll?” would have to be it. A mash-up of Buddy Holly and The Ramones, the song earnestly poses its titular question while seemingly dismissing the notion of youthful nostalgia; to Winchester, rock ’n’ roll isn’t something to wistfully reminisce about in one’s older years, it’s a vital means of retaining agelessness. Anyone needing a nudge in this direction may find in Winchester’s loose-limbed Upright a reason to stand up and shout.
Quickie Q&A with Mark W. Winchester
When did you arrive in Nashville? What made you decide to relocate?
My wife and I arrived in Nashville in early 1988, I believe. I was a musician and a songwriter, so this was sort of Mecca.
As you mention, you’re a songwriter as well as an established musician—if pressed, which one would you choose over the other?
If you ask me that question when songs are pouring out of me, or I should say coming through me from wherever it is they come from, I would say songwriting. There is no better feeling than that. But I’m still always pickin’. So, if you’re pressing me right now, I’ll have to say musician. The writer side will come back, though—it always does.
To this day, the Planet Rockers still have faithful fans overseas. What do you think creates such a strong appeal in the U.K. and Europe for American roots-music and retro-style acts?
Well, post-World War II America will forever be unmatched for coolness: cars, clothes, music, radios, toasters, lamps, coffee tables. . . . Bands that the U.K. and Europe fans can tell are playing music in the style of that era in an honest, authentic way are appreciated. Part of it is nostalgia, I guess, but if that kind of music really turns you on, you want to hear it played live by people who feel it, too, who aren’t pretending, and the Planet Rockers are definitely that.
What are the highlights of your career thus far?
Well, having Randy Travis record a song I wrote, and hearing it on the radio, was pretty cool. One of my favorite moments occurred in a backstage hallway at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, when I was on tour with Brian [Setzer]. The guys were all abuzz because Shania Twain was in town that night and it was rumored that she was going to come to see Brian. I had been part of her backup band many years before, on her first appearance on the Tonight Show and on the Academy of Country Music Awards show. I didn’t say anything to the guys about that because I didn’t know if she’d even remember me, but lo and behold, as we were all lined up in the hallway and she came walking down it on the way to Brian’s dressing room, she stopped right in front of me, hollered, “Mark Winchester!” and gave me a big ole hug. The looks on the horn players’ faces were priceless, as they say.
Favorite local hangout?
Well, these days I’m hanging really locally down here in Nolensville, about 20 miles south of Nashville. I stop in and chat at Three French Hens, a vintage/antique shop, with my coffee from Mama’s Java. Might get a couple fish tacos from Oscar’s for lunch.
Favorite places to play?
Sambuca restaurant in the Gulch. The Nashville Palace out by Opryland. Anywhere that pays the band and doesn’t charge a production fee.
In your experience, how does Nashville compare to other major cities and music centers?
For a city its size, it rocks! It’s a place that’s not overwhelming in size, and is fairly easy to get around in. You’ve got all kinds of music styles going on downtown in the honky-tonks, the Ryman Auditorium is right there for concerts and the Grand Ole Opry, and right around the corner are major professional sports. You’ve got the bohemian/artist vibe in East Nashville, the young/hip/eat-outside-at-night L.A. vibe in the Gulch, the indie-film house and hipster bar thing going in Hillsboro Village. Man, why am I sitting at home right now?