‘Everybody’s Fill-In Guy’
Between top local acts and sold-out tribute shows, bassist Chase McGillis' Nashville dance card is perpetually full
Up until recently, Chase McGillis drove to Texas every weekend, to play bass for the likes of Joe Ely and Ray Wylie Hubbard. He’d drive 14 hours from Nashville to Austin, do the weekend of gigs, and drive all the way back to work construction. Then he’d do it again the next weekend, and again after that – for years.
For reasons of health and sanity, McGillis – now 31, with a wife (fellow musician Liz Foster of Texas’ The Trishas) and children – knocked all that on the head about a year ago. He stays in town now, slinging nails in the daytime as a project manager on home-building sites, plucking low notes at night for a host of the young, fresh next-wave names in town. He loves it. The acts love him too.
McGillis is easy to love: serene, polite, mustachioed, humble, and a good hang – a trait in this town considered much more pressing than being able to play the ”Barney Miller” theme. Stirring a cup of joe at the Post, he’s fittingly self-effacing about his full dance card.
”Well,” he shrugs, ”I’m a bass player, and everybody needs one of those. And I guess folks know they can call me to do a gig in town because I’m not going to be on the road.”
There’s Patrick Sweany, Nicole Atkins, Jonathan Tyler, the Texas Gentlemen, Ruby Boots – a lot of Americana, plus a lot of packed tribute nights at The Basement East.
”I moved here as a songwriter but ended up playing bass more than anything,” McGillis says. ”Just in the last couple of years I’ve been everybody’s fill-in guy.”
The biggest name McGillis can drop: Kris Kristofferson, who brought him in for a few gigs. ”Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard – it’s just one, two, three-offs,” he says, ”and they call me back later and that lets me know I didn’t blow it.”
Hailing from Manhattan, Kansas (the ”Little Apple,” he calls it), McGillis’ musical ambitions took him first to Tulsa, Oklahoma, ostensibly for college, but really to get his feet wet musically. He joined The Effects, who moved en masse to the East Side ”for a co-pub deal,” before fellow East Nashvillians The Wild Feathers formed and pulled in lead singer Joel King.
Inspired by Nashville tribute-show stalwarts the Long Players and the Sons of Zevon, McGillis subsequently hung out his own tribute shingle, forming The Tennessee Help. He and his fellow mad scientists have since plowed some rows no other tribute bands have touched, including Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
”It’s not a regular thing,” he says, ”but they’re so much fun. You meet new folks if you don’t know them already, and ” I’ve learned more licks and tricks from doing these tribute nights than anything else. They’ve been really creatively inspiring and spurred on my playing more.”
In June, McGillis took on producer and musical director duties for Comrades in Song: A Tribute to East Nashville Community Spirit, featuring a slew of local performers, including Sweany, Boots, and Philip Creamer, celebrating the songwriting of other locals, including each other. It showed off the intense devotion and respect among the artists in the petri dish Chase McGillis germinates in.
”Terry [Rickards] at The Basement East has always been very supportive and encouraging about the tribute nights, and we fill the room,” McGillis says. ”Of course it’s not just me. It’s the great artists. Everybody puts his or her name on the poster. We’ve had some big lineups as far as heavyweight singers, and heavyweight players in the band.”
McGillis smiles, has another sip and muses a moment.
”I feel like I finally got my feet underneath me here in town,” he says. ”I have to work a side job to be able to play, but I don’t mind my side work, and love the artists I get to play with now. It’s a real privilege.”