Charlie Wooton — Louisiana Roots, Brazilian Grooves and Inspiration Across Generations

Bassist, producer, songwriter, bandleader and devoted Hartke artist Charlie Wooton is a bred-in-the-bone Louisiana musician, having grown up in a musical family in Lafayette – down in “Cajun Country.” Now he lives in New Orleans, after productive stints in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Wooton, born in 1970, has played with a who’s who of top Louisiana musicians, from guitarist Sonny Landreth and drummer Johnny Vidacovich to such bands as Bonerama and Royal Southern Brotherhood, the latter featuring one of his heroes – Cyril Neville (from one of the great New Orleans musical families, the Neville Brothers). While in Royal Southern Brotherhood, Wooton recorded four albums and toured the world, along with writing one of the band’s signature tunes, “Fired Up.” Wooton has been producing LPs by other artists in recent years, and the bassist has his own new Charlie Wooton Project album out, Blue Bosso (Wild Heart Records). 

At age 20, Wooton moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles, working as an engineer at 3rd Encore Studios, “where on any given day you might see everyone from Stevie Wonder to Guns N’ Roses to The Eagles,” he recalls. It was there that he met Spyro Gyra and Rippingtons bassist Kim Stone, who took Wooton under his jazz-fusion wing and even gave the younger musician his custom five-string “mongrel” bass, a unique instrument that Wooton plays on Blue Bosso. From the mid-’90s to 2010, Wooton was based in Atlanta, where he founded his band Zydefunk – which became an accordion-fueled draw from local bars to regional festivals and beyond. “I started the band because I was missing home and wanted to play some of that funky, earthy music, but it took on a life of its own – people loved it,” he says. “I’ve had a revolving lineup in the band over the years, with guitarist Daniel Groover, an R&B and hip-hop session player in Atlanta, as a key member. We toured Japan last year.” The bassist also toured Japan and recorded an album with Zabaduo featuring him alongside Brazil-born, Atlanta-based percussionist Rafael Pereira. Wooton has had a love affair with Brazilian music, and he senses “a kinship between the Louisiana and Brazilian mentalities,” he says. “People from both Louisiana and Brazil are laidback and love food and having a good time, with music in their blood in a similar way.”

Wooton’s Blue Bosso features him in league with a core band of guitarist/co-producer Daniel Groover, drummer Jermal Watson and keyboardist Keiko Kamaki, plus New Orleans vocalist-lyricist Arsène DeLay. The new album also includes contributions from such six-string notables as Landreth and Crescent City fixture Anders Osborne, as well as Damon Fowler on lap-steel guitar; and singer-guitarist Eric McFadden leads the way on a funk-minded cover of The Rolling Stones classic “Miss You.” The spirit of Wooton bass hero Jaco Pastorius often animates the eclectic feel of Blue Bosso; the record includes a direct homage to Pastorius in the form of the dual-bass track “Jaceaux” with Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish. We caught up with Wooton during an afternoon off in New Orleans, where he lives in the city’s 7th Ward, to discuss his latest work in the studio, his musical upbringing in Louisiana, his favorite gear and more.

What were some of the lessons you learned in Lafayette, things that you still apply as a working musician?

My granddad played guitar and sang. When he got a couple of beers in him, that’s when he’d pull out his guitar and sing “You Are My Sunshine” and “Jambalaya” – he knew a ton of those old songs. He wasn’t a virtuoso, but when he would open his mouth to sing, everyone would stop and listen – he had that kind of charisma. That’s the sort of thing I’ve always aspired to on stage, that connection with the audience. Playing music in zydeco country as a kid, I’d see that there would be no difference between the players on the bandstand and the crowd dancing to the music – it was a sharing of energy, with the audience just as important. It’s the same thing in New Orleans, where you’ll see a millionaire and a bum standing next to each other at, say, the Maple Leaf, both digging a band in the same way, a part of the music-making – feeding off of it but also giving something back to the players.

I studied classical and jazz and musicals in school, but then you would go out and play that indigenous music and it was all groove, all vibe. It was about connecting to the crowd. I’ve never forgotten that. To this day, if the band is cooking and I’m kind of floating out of my body, then it’s a great night – whether we’re playing for three people or 3,000.

Tell me more about the connections you feel between the music of Louisiana and Brazil.

Playing samba bass is tricky – it’s like zydeco, in that you really got to get that groove right. But when you do, it’s something special. Playing with Rafa Pereira, I can get into that zone like I was talking about. He’s the kind of cat that if he’s on stage with me, I feel so calm. We have such chemistry that we can make a world of music with just the two of us. I love it.

Who are some of the bass players who have most influenced you?

When I was growing up, I was really into Jaco Pastorius – what a virtuoso. And I loved that South African bass player on Paul Simon’s Graceland, Bakithi Kumalo. Kim Stone was important for me, and I really like Richard Bona and Victor Wooten. 

What do you do off stage that helps you as a musician?

I was pretty athletic as a kid, and things like yoga help you keep that up. The physicality of music is important, I think. As with sports, playing an instrument well is a balance of discipline and freedom. Even practicing scales is part of that, so that you have that motion in your muscle memory – so that you can hit it when you need it in the moment. Ultimately, if you have your mind, body and spirit together, you’re gonna groove better.

What is your favorite Hartke gear to use live?

Live, I use the LH-1000 bass amplifier, the 115XL bass speaker cabinet and the 410XL bass cabinet. I also use a Kickback KB12 bass combo in various situations. I use a Hartke H77 looper pedal live, too. All the Hartke stuff is musician-friendly and durable – and I love the sound. The gear is great, but so are the people at Hartke. That means a lot to me.

What was the studio set-up for your bass and the recording process for Blue Bosso?

For my bass in the studio, the usual set-up is to go through a custom-made preamp that I got in Japan.  The preamp allows me to get my own tone without having to rely on the engineer. Then I use one of my Hartke Kickback combo amps. And what I love about Hartke amps is that they don’t change the tone of my bass. So, I always put a microphone on my Kickback to get the air and ambiance of the tone. Then the DI gives me the center of the tone, whether it’s for rhythm or harmony.

As for the overall recording process, it was the rhythm section first, with Daniel Groover, Jermal Watson and I working at WixMix Studios in New Orleans. Management suggested that we make a “bluesy” record, so we got together and two days later walked out with 11 smokin' rhythm tracks. We built on those with Keiko Komaki’s keys. Doug Wimbish laid down a funky rhythm bass track for “Jaceaux.” Anders Osborne, Eric McFadden and Damon Fowler overdubbed their parts at NOLA Studios during one session. I went to my hometown of Lafayette to record Sonny Landreth, who played a Resonator guitar on “Front Porch” and some slide guitar on “Tell Me A Story.” After all that, I brought the tracks to Arsène DeLay, so she could write words and vocal melodies for most of the songs – and she nailed it. The unsung hero for me on this record is really Daniel. He not only played rhythm guitar – he wrote songs and played the solo on “Reflections,” along with co-producing and mixing the record.

You have been producing other artists lately, too – tell me about that studio work.

I produced an album in New Orleans called Yesterday’s Troubles by Mike Doussan, a New Orleans singer-songwriter. And at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, I produced a record called The Dockside Sessions (Where the Wind Blows) by an Australian blues guitarist, James Southwell. He had seen me on tour in Australia with Royal Southern Brotherhood and reached out for me to help him make his record. I’ve also been recording with Arsène DeLay, who sings on my new album, for her upcoming solo project, also in Maurice at Dockside. That’s my favorite studio. I grew up in that area, so it feels like home. It’s a residential studio in a beautiful spot – an antebellum home, with the studio in a barn, big old oak trees all around. Dr. John, Tab Benoit, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Marcus Miller – they’ve all worked at Dockside. There are no distractions, cell phones don’t work so well out there – you can really get into a groove.

Did you get ever work with Dr. John?

Yeah, I was lucky enough to jam with him one night in New Orleans. I was playing last New Year’s Eve at the Maple Leaf with Johnny Vidacovich, and Dr. John sat in with us. He was in a wheelchair that day, but when he started singing, he became something else. It was really special to be near – you have to soak up that sort of greatness whenever you can, before it’s gone. Cyril Neville had told me so many stories about Dr. John over the years. Dr. John obviously embodied New Orleans and its music. It don’t get much more New Orleans than him – he was New Orleans for much of the world. Cyril talked about Dr. John the way I talk to people about Cyril. Those kinds of artists have touched generations of people, deeply – musicians and listeners. It’s an honor to be close to them. Passing an art or a craft down through the generations is important, whether it’s music or food. Take my mom’s ettoufée – she learned it from her mother. My Zydefunk song “My Mama” is about that. She’d hunt rabbits and cook them up. That’s inspiration, too!

Check out the new album by The Charlie Wooton Project titled Blue Bosso here…

— Bradley Bambarger


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