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Revered Nashville Bass Player Dave Roe Is Dead At Age 71

Bass player Dave Roe, who laid down the sonic and rhythmic foundation for incalculable amounts of Nashville’s greatest music of the past five decades, died suddenly on Friday at the age of 71. Multiple accounts point to a massive heart attack at his Goodlettsville home. Roe’s musicianship, from his long tenure with Johnny Cash to his recent status as the pulse of Easy Eye Sound, defined the groove of Americana.

“Dave’s story was really fascinating,” said fellow bass player and American Federation of Musicians International Vice President Dave Pomeroy. “He never took himself too seriously, which was a real strength. That allowed him to play in these very different situations with the same attitude and drive to excel whether it was the 12 South Tap Room or Madison Square Garden. He had a sense of commitment to the music that made it possible for him to live in all these different universes. He absorbed all that from Johnny Cash, but didn’t hang on to it. He shared his knowledge with everybody who needed it.”

“Playing with Dave on stage was like working with Godzilla,” said guitarist Guthrie Trapp, who played for about two years with Roe as part of a golden era on Lower Broadway in the Don Kelley Band. “He was a real cat - a master musician. I think he was one of the super confident and big personalities. When it’s time to play the bass, it was Game On. No hem-hawing around. It was going to be up in your face. He didn’t even like taking slap bass solos, but he made it groove like crazy. He really knew how to subdivide that beat and make it a funky, groovy thing, almost more of a Willie Dixon inspired vibe rather than a rockabilly machine gun.”

“Anyone who knew or worked with Dave would understand he was not your typical man or musician,” wrote drummer Paul Leim on Facebook. “He was a virtuoso that possessed a rock steady groove and demeanor that always made the stage a better place to be when he was there.” Leim played on one of Roe’s final performances last week, a Grand Ole Opry debut by their Cash tribute band The Tennessee Four, featuring Cash’s grandson Thomas Gabriel.

Though he grew up in Hawaii playing mostly funk, rock, and R&B in various working bands, Roe seems to have been destined to play country music in Nashville. Within days of moving to town in December 1980 (a cousin lived here and he didn't want to live in LA), he’d landed a gig with icon Charlie Louvin, and that gave way a month or so later to a long road job with Jerry Reed, then an honored veteran at the top of his game. Roe went on to tour with a who’s who of Grand Ole Opry stars, including Mel Tillis, Dottie West, Vince Gill, and Faith Hill. As Roe’s orientation shifted to studio work and live shows around Nashville, he became one of Music City’s most visible musicians. His four-hour sets at Robert’s Western World with Don Kelley were ferocious and soulful. Countless gigs with his close friend the guitarist Kenny Vaughan, many in small venues like the 12 South Tap Room or Dee’s Lounge, let us music lovers get close to some of the most intimate bandcraft and synergy that this city has had to offer.

In the studios, Roe was similarly ubiquitous, and his discography grew long and rich with artists including Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, John Mellencamp, and Carrie Underwood. He’s on A Sailor’s Guide To Earth by Sturgill Simpson, The Songs of Mickey Newbury by Gretchen Peters, and Company’s Comin’ by Leslie Jordan, to name a few recent, eclectic projects. Through his tenure as the de facto house bass man for Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio and label, he’s been on key latter day roots recordings by Yola, Marcus King, John Anderson, Robert Finley, and Auerbach himself.

Probably the most famous story about Roe is that he was hired in 1992 by one of the biggest stars in the business for a job he didn’t know how to do. Roe’s background was on electric bass, but he’d been recommended by a friend in common to Johnny Cash, whose rockabilly origins meant he needed an upright acoustic player with the hard-driving, finger-punishing slap style of playing. There was no audition or rehearsal, just a trial-by-fire performance.

“I knew enough about the music where I could fight my way through. But man, it was brutal,” Roe said in a 2017 interview with WMOT. “I had blisters all over my hands for three days. And I got called on it. (Cash) called me backstage and said, ‘You don't really play upright bass, do you?’ And I said, ‘No, I don't.’”

Roe thought he’d blown the opportunity and told Cash he was honored to have played a show with him. “And I thought that was the end of it. And the next day at the airport, he just took me off to the side and said, ‘Do you think you could get on it and learn how to play well enough to play this show and learn some slap bass? I'll give you six months.’ Which was an extraordinary thing to do.” Roe met the Man in Black more than halfway. He played the road with the Cash family show through the 90s and then participated in the albums produced by Rick Rubin that are credited with reviving Cash’s career and iconic reputation.

Dave Roe could appear forbidding behind shaded glasses and a walrus mustache that sometimes gave his craggy features a stone cold glower. But he was unfailingly kind, and he was renowned for supporting and advising younger musicians. Chris Scruggs wrote a long and moving tribute to Roe’s mentorship when he was a teenager getting his start on Lower Broadway. “Dave always looked out for me,” he said.

Roe is survived by his wife Leslie Barr and son Jerry Roe, who has become one of Nashville’s in-demand drummers.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org