Editor's Note: At the time of this writing Chris was in the hospital and LEGENDS was going to press. It is with deep sadness that we say good-bye to our long-time friend and musical legend.
By Stephen Corbett
As both a musician and a music fan, there has always been a mystique about Mississippi for me. Mississippi is without a doubt the birthplace of American music - a Mecca, of sorts. The Father of Country Music, the King of the Blues and the King of Rock and Roll all hail from Mississippi. With all due respect to the aforementioned masters, it was another musical genius that brought me to this legendary land.
I made my first pilgrimage to Mississippi in 2006 to meet one of my heroes who became one of my best friends, Chris Ethridge. I vividly recall receiving the email that contained the invite. “I’m good friends with Chris Ethridge. He used to play in a group called the Flying Burrito Brothers. He lives here in Meridian. You should come down and meet him.” As I read those words, I nearly choked on my coffee. Just a few inches from the keyboard, Chris’ eyes were staring at me from my copy of “Farther Along: the Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers.” I didn’t have to be asked twice.
While Chris' name may not be a household name, the impact this bassist has had on popular music is nothing less than spectacular. In a career that has spanned across five decades, Chris has recorded and/or toured with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Willie Nelson, the Doors, Judy Collins, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, Leon Russell, Randy Newman, Johnny Rivers, Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, the Byrds, Bill Withers, Jackson Browne, Arlo Guthrie, Gene Clark, Steve Young, Graham Nash, Dave Mason, Rita Coolidge and Booker T. Jones. Impressive as this list is, it only scratches the surface.
What surprised me most during my first visit with Chris was his humbleness. The modest house in the Meridian suburb offered no outwardly indication that it was inhabited by one of recorded music’s major figures. There would also be very little inside to clue a person in were it not for the platinum and gold records on the walls. The man himself was just as unassuming; he did very little name-dropping and hardly talked about his legacy unless he was prompted. My first hour with him was spent walking across his land and listening to him talk about landscaping and gardening – not one single mention of music. It was more like hanging out with a botanist than a bassist.
After settling on his front porch and having a few drinks, the topic of conversation finally came around to music.
“ So, what do you want to know about Gram Parsons?” he asked in a matter-of-fact voice.
“ I didn’t come here to learn about Gram Parsons,” I replied. “I came here to learn about Chris Ethridge.” Over the course of that weekend, I received a history lesson.
Chris was born in 1947 to a very musical family. His two brothers, Joey and Tommy Ethridge, are also gifted musicians. His father had a tape recorder that he would often use to record his young sons playing guitar together.
As tends to be the case in this musical holy land, the music Chris Ethridge listened to growing up crossed all sorts of genres and boundaries.
“ I can't say I was much of a country fan. When I was young, I loved Hank Williams, but then I got into rock 'n roll and then the blues. My friend Tom Rovinsky - we used to ride bikes together when we were teenagers - he turned me on to jazz. Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, I can't remember all the artists. So back then I learned a lot of those standards. That really helped me a lot.
“ I loved all that jazz Rovinsky would play for me. I loved Bobby Blue Bland, Ray Charles, everything he did was incredible. I loved Elvis, I loved all that music.”
It was this amalgamation of styles that helped inspire his trademark style of bass playing rife with walking bass lines and fills during a time when a lot of bassists were relegated to just keeping the beat in the background. At 17, this talent was spotted by a member of Johnny Rivers’ band who saw Chris playing in Biloxi. Shortly thereafter, Chris moved to Los Angeles and got an apartment on the Sunset Strip, at one point living with Rita Coolidge.
In typical Ethridge fashion, he describes having an apartment on the Strip in the 1960s by saying, “Well, it was better than not having one. Those were some good times.”
After doing session work for a few years, Chris began the first of many collaborations with Gram Parsons late in 1967. Parsons was playing in the International Submarine Band at the time, and just after all but one other member of the group had quit, they were signed to Lee Hazelwood’s LHI Records. Gram and guitarist John Nuese were scrambling to find musicians to complete the line-up. Mike Bloomfield, with whom Chris had played, suggested that Chris talk to him.
“ He [Parsons] wanted to know if I knew of any steel players in L.A.,” he said. “I knew Gram Parsons from the Palomino, but I didn't really know him well. So I called him up, and he asked me where I was from. I told him Meridian, Mississippi, and he told me he was from Waycross, Georgia and we should get together. So, me and my old lady went over there and met Gram, and they asked me to play on the International Submarine Band record.”
The recording for “Safe at Home,” the sole album from the International Submarine Band, was finished in December of 1967 and released in April the following year. Unfortunately at that point, Parsons had quit and joined the Byrds, the remaining members of the group lost the rights of their name to LHI, and Chris was back doing session work. Despite its importance in the role of the country-rock and alternative country movements, the record went nowhere.
The Parsons-Ethridge hiatus was a short-lived one however, with Parsons leaving the Byrds in July.
“ The Byrds were playing in Europe and were supposed to go to South Africa. Keith Richards had told him [Parsons] things were really bad down there and that it was like the South here, so he didn't go. So he left the Byrds hanging.”
Within a few months, Parsons was assembling a band that would play country soul with a rock attitude, and he and Chris were working together again in the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman and Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
The Flying Burrito Brothers released its critically acclaimed debut album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” in February, 1969. The album has become a landmark album and was ranked #192 in Rolling Stone magazine's list “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2003. For many musicians, this album is a holy grail for alternative country music or “Cosmic American Music,” as Parsons called it.
In addition to playing bass and piano, Chris also co-wrote the songs “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.”
“ I had already written the music to both songs and most of the lyrics. Gram just changed up a few lines here and there. Elvis Costello did a version of “#1” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982. He changed the name to “I’m Your Toy.” It was beautiful. I had never heard one of my songs played like that before,” he said.
Those two numbers have since become two of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ most covered songs. Cowboy Junkies, Devotchka, Belly and the Mavericks are among the other artists who have recorded versions of “Hot Burrito #1.” Big Star and Dinosaur Jr. are just two of the acts who have covered “Hot Burrito #2.”
For me, “Hot Burrito #1” also contains the definitive example of what makes Chris' bass playing so distinct and innovative. As compared to other genres, few uptempo or “rocking” country-based songs contain prominent bass lines. It is almost unheard of for a country ballad to be driven by the bass, yet that is exactly what Chris does in this song. In the song’s instrumental breaks, the bass is demanding more attention than Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel, which would have actually been the lead instrument. The influence from the jazz records he heard as a kid are very evident in this recording.
Despite the praise bestowed upon the Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Ethridge would end up leaving the band just prior to recording their second album.
“ At the time I was married and going out on the road all the time, which wasn’t easy,” he said. “It was also hard to make money. Sometimes when you love someone, you just decide to stay home. Plus, you could make a lot more money doing studio sessions in L.A.
“ In the '70s, there were a lot of musicians out there, but there were more singers than bands. I got to play on some real good records. Linda Ronstadt... Spooner Oldham and I played together on her stuff. Ry Cooder, that was really fun. He's a real interesting person and a really incredible musician. He influenced me a lot. Jim Keltner, it was an incredible pleasure to play with him. We did some Randy Newman records.”
Chris spent much of the 1970s doing session work and bringing a lot of southern musicians to California.
“ I brought Jim Dickinson out to L.A. from Muscle Shoals in 1972, and we played on some of the Ry Cooder stuff,” he said. “Jim co-produced some of it. Jim knew a lot about that old-time music. They were up the same ally. We could talk forever about music. I loved Jim. I love his children - Luther and Cody and Big Chris. Fabulous guys.”
In fact, Jim’s son, Luther Dickinson (The North Mississippi All Stars and the Black Crowes), has referred to Chris as the “Southern Ambassador to California” and cited Chris’ effort at getting southern musicians work in California as a good example of his generosity.
Of course, Chris speaks much more humbly of his role in the matter saying, “Well, I guess I was one of the first to get accepted out there. And I had a bunch of friends who were also great musicians. Since I already had a foot in the door, I was able to bring them out there so other people would know how great they were, too.”
During this period, Chris also co-wrote “She” with Booker T. Jones and Parsons. The song would show on the former’s 1971 album “Booker T. & Priscilla,” on which Chris also played, and on the latter’s 1973 album “GP.” It’s been covered by Emmylou Harris, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Black Crowes and Norah Jones.
According to Luther Dickinson, the Black Crowes were already playing “She” regularly in their shows prior to his joining the band in 2007. He did, however, get to introduce the band to the song’s author backstage at a show. “It was great introducing Chris and Chris,” he said, referring to Ethridge and the Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson. “Chris [Robinson] likes to go shopping for vinyl records. He’ll call me randomly and say, ‘Wow. I just found this great record and Ethridge is playing bass on it.’ It’s amazing the amount of things he’s played on.”
Chris’ next big move came in the late 1970s when he signed on to play bass for Willie Nelson, a position he held just shy of a decade.
“ We had a big band: two bass players, two drummers,” Chris said. “When I was with Willie, we were on the road all the time. We were never off the road. If you weren't on the road, you were on the phone being told when you were going on the road.”
Chris played on some of Willie’s most celebrated and biggest selling albums, including “Willie and Family Live,” “Willie Sings Kris Kristofferson,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Stardust,” which is Nelson’s biggest selling album to date. Chris also played the role of Easter alongside Willie Nelson in the movie Honeysuckle Rose.
Having grown tired of constant touring, Chris left Willie’s band just prior to the recording of “Always on My Mind,” which contained Nelson’s version of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” a song the Burrito Brothers had done on “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”
Chris remained active as a session studio musician in the 1980s and 1990s, but to a much lesser extent than he had previously done. He has also continued to write and occasionally record solo material. In the early 2000s, he toured Europe as part of a blues band that included Cedric Burnside.
On December 8, 2011, the body of Bee Spears – Nelson's bassist - was discovered outside his home in Nashville. Spears had played in Nelson’s band for more than 40 years and was one half of the bass-duo during Chris’ tenure. Nelson called on Chris to reprise his role in the band, and more than 20 years after holding that position, Chris was back in the pocket until Willie was able to find a full-time replacement.
Unfortunately, it was also around this time that Chris was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time of this writing, he is in the hospital with double pneumonia. The last time I spoke with him, he was in good spirits and was discussing some of the projects that he’d been working on. And it was still just as hard to get him to talk about himself.
Six years ago, I made the ten hour drive back to North Carolina feeling like I had known Chris forever. I also expected that to be a once-in-a-lifetime meeting, and yet when I got back home, he called me to make sure that I’d made it back safely and to invite me back down. In the years that have followed, I’ve made that drive numerous times and rarely go very long without talking to him on the phone, and somehow I still get star struck each time. He’s played me archival live recordings of the Flying Burrito Brothers before they were released to the public. We’ve shared a few drinks, seen shows together, and played songs together, but there’s no greater feeling than going to the local truck stop diner for a “plate lunch” and being introduced as “my friend, Stephen” by a man whose work has meant so much to me and to so many others. And that is what makes Chris Ethridge such a special person. Even after all of the success he’s had and all of the people that he’s worked with and met, he’s still a regular guy.
I guess Chris says it best: “Aw man, at the end of the day, I’m just an old hippie from Mississippi.”