Big developments took place in Peter Salovey’s life the past few weeks: He played a music festival in Kentucky. His band released its first CD. And he moved into a new office—running New Haven’s largest employer and one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning.
Salovey began work July 1 as Yale University’s president. On Wednesday afternoon the office remained a work in progress, with bookshelves partially filled and some furniture still to arrive.
Salovey, a psychology professor who made his name as a pioneer in the field of “emotional intelligence,” did have in the office a copy of Pick or Perish, a CD recorded by the Professors of Bluegrass, a combo he and Yale colleagues formed 20 years ago. As Salovey’s academic star rose, he also developed a modest side career as bluegrass stand-up bass player.
He didn’t have his bass on hand for an interview Wednesday. He did play some air bass as he described how he came to love bluegrass, a personal musical journey nurtured in New Haven, and the finer points of his little-noticed instrument’s role in the Appalachian-inspired Southern roots music.
Bass players often avoid the limelight in bluegrass. Salovey does, too.
“You have to keep the time and hold it all together,” he said.
Does he plan to play the same role as Yale’s new president?
He said he does intend to try to “keep everybody marching in the same direction.”
“We cultivate individuals all doing great creative things. But they’re all marching in different directions,” he said. “It’s the bass player that sort of helps the organization march in the right direction.”
He had a lot more to say, too, about bluegrass and bass. A transcript of the conversation follows.
From Banjo To Bass
Salovey: I became interested in bluegrass music in the ‘70s when I was a student at Stanford. I was a college student right at a time when classic rock-and-roll gave way to disco. I found that disco really wasn’t what I wanted to listen to on the radio. Twisting the radio dial, I found a station that played traditional folk and old country music and bluegrass music, and I fell in love with it. Which is a funny thing to fall in love with when you grow up in a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Maybe it it’s not so unusual. My parents were caught up in the folk revival ...
Independent: So if you listen to Dave Van Ronk at 15 ...
Exactly. If you grow up listening to Dave Van Ronk and the Weavers and Leadbelly and Odetta, this isn’t that big a leap at all.
So I fell in love with it. There was a wonderful stringed instrument store in Palo Alto called Gryphon Stringed Instruments. It’s still there. I went in and rented a banjo. Bought a few records. I tried to teach myself the banjo, ended up taking lessons, and arrived in New Haven for graduate school in New Haven in 1981.
I discovered some years later there were people around that were interested in this music. I would bring my banjo and play with them.
But of course I quickly discovered there was always a better banjo player around. Often a lot better. But there was never anybody who played bass.
Where were some of the places you played?
We would go up to that hootenany in Bethany [at the home of] Bill Fischer. I think there were still some things in the GPSCY, the old tradition of the Enormous Room. I think the Picking Parlor on State was gone; I think that was before both our times in New Haven.
So you figured there were better banjo players, so you’d pick up bass ...
One of those better banjo players was a guy named Frank Shaw in Branford. He now plays for a band called Short Grass. And he owned a bass and said, “Why don’t you try this?” He showed me where the notes are.
Bluegrass bass is actually fairly simple. You play the root of the chord. It’s called the one. You play the root of the fifth chord, the five. You can do all kinds of fancy things.
The chords you’re going to play, the one chord, the four chord, the five chord, that’s the basic three-chord bluegrass song, just like rock and roll, just like blues. You play the one and five of each of those chords. The one and the five are directly next to each other on the strings that are next to each other, fingered in the same places. And so it’s easy to play a rudimentary part.
That’s the left hand. What about the right hand?
The right hand, you’ve just got to have good time. Because you are the percussionist. If you can keep the beat and play the root and fifth, in three different chords, switch chords in the right places, you can at least play a rudimentary bass line. That’s how I got started.
To be frank, many bands would prefer that you don’t do anything else.
So the banjo and mandolin and the violin can shine?
The virtuosos have to show off. And you have to keep the time and hold it all together.
That kind of sounds like being Yale president.
The more I keep everybody marching in the same direction ... and let them shine ... all these star professors and students ...
Universities always say one of the big challenges is alignment. Because we cultivate individuals all doing great creative things. But they’re all marching in different directions. It’s the bass player that sort of helps the organization march in the right direction.
I’m definitely not a virtuoso. I am somebody who loves bluegrass music and is happy to stand behind the virtuosos and keep it all together with rudimentary bass lines.
Edgar Meyer is a bass player ...
Edgar Meyer is a virtuoso.
I listen to bluegrass. I love it. I never noticed the bass. Then I noticed on Pandora I liked all these Edgar Meyer songs. I still couldn’t figure out what he was bringing to it. What makes him a virtuoso?
He’s doing all kinds of imaginative things. First of all what does he do to get from one chord to the next? I just switch chords. But Edgar Meyer will do some kind of interesting walk, some quicker bass line. He may play ghost notes, where if you hear a bass player instead of just going “bom, bom,” they’re going “ba-dum, ba-dum.” Edgar Meyer doesn’t slap too much. But some bass players will also slap [and] get a whole percussive sound going. In bluegrass it’s usually a double slap: bom-chicka-chicka, bom-chicka-chicka. You’re actually slapping the bass, pulling the string and slapping the bass between notes. So that’s to make the bass into a real percussive instrument. Now you’re actually providing a drum part on the bass.
Kelly Brownell and I founded the Professors of Bluegrass I think it was 1989 or 1990. We had a good time playing together. People have come and gone. Now Kelly is at Duke University [as] the dean.
I’m the only original person left. We have a very good group right now. We have a professor from the department of psychiatry Oscar Hills [on banjo].
You have to be a Yale professor?
Not really. It’s really a town-gown group.
Now that you’re Yale’s president, you can give Edgar Meyer an honorary degree ...
... Then we can get him to play with us!
Craig Harwood is now a dean at Hunter College. He used to be the dean of Davenport College here at Yale. He plays mandolin. Katie Scharf [Dykes] is a double alum [Yale College and the law school]. She’s now the deputy [state] commissioner of energy.
I should mention our great lead singer, a guy named Sten Isak. He’s a townie. He grew up in Wallingford. He’s a woodworker, cabinet maker, custom woodworker. He has a cabin in Maine.
So he’s the ringer?
Although he’s done woodwork at Yale.
You’ve been touring with this group ...
Well, touring is sort of like the difference between a point and a line. Touring implies multiple points. Our world tour had only one stop on it. We played in Owensboro, Kentucky [at the big annual “ROMP” bluegrass festival].
We played [New Haven’s] Connecticut Folk Festival last year. We’ll likely play it this year.
That’s a line ...
Owensboro is 15 miles north of where the music was born. It is the home of the International Bluegrass Museum. At the moment I’m the chair of their board. The festival that we played is a big fundraiser for that museum.
And you have a new CD ...
For 20 years we always said we should make a CD. Because we’re a kind of novelty.
We put out a CD. We called it Pick or Perish. Sort of like “publish or perish.” We self-produced it.
When did it come out?
Two weeks ago. Just in time for Owensboro.
Did you sell any down there?
We sold them to benefit the museum. We heard 50 of them sold down there. They’re selling on the internet. Katie Scharf did the artwork.
She didn’t put a bass on the cover.
No bass. I think that’s a mandolin.