Harmoni Kelley dishes on playing with one of country music’s biggest artists and the challenge of dialing in arena-size tone
In 2012, Harmoni Kelley landed the high honor of joining country star Hank Williams Jr.’s band, so she packed up her things and made the move from Austin, Texas to Nashville. After a brief stint with Williams, she flourished in her new scene and went on to play alongside James McMurty, Bonnie Bishop, and Holly Williams. She busily was making a name for herself in Nashville’s bustling music scene, when one day she got a call from her friend, guitarist Kenny Greenberg. He told her that Kenny Chesney was looking for a new bassist and that he wanted her to audition. After meeting the band for an instrumental audition and to make sure her personality fit the bill, Kelley went back home and waited for a callback. Weeks passed, and Kelley began growing nervous that she didn’t land the once-in-a-lifetime gig. But finally her phone rang and she was called back for another audition, this time with Chesney in attendance. The only problem was that the gig called for a 5-string player, which is something that Kelley had not attempted before — so she scrambled to get her hands on one, and she woodshedded as much as she could before she got to the audition space.
Kelley walked into the room and was immediately greeted by Chesney before promptly being ushered onto the stage where the full band was set up in front of the entire road crew. They quickly had her put in some makeshift in-ear monitors — another first for her — and then clicked into the first of six songs, right around the time that Kelley’s nerves were peaking and her heart rate doubled that of the click tempos. Calming herself and playing to her best ability on a 5-string with loose in-ears, she was startled when Chesney waved his arms in the air and called a halt to the performance. He grabbed the rest of the band and brought them into the hallway, leaving Kelley alone on the stage holding her bass. Certain that she had ruined her chances for the bass chair, her thoughts turned dark, which only intensified when Chesney and the rest of the band returned with crossed arms and grim looks on their faces. They stood motionless at the front of the stage and remained silent for what seemed like forever. The tension broke when Chesney burst into a huge smile, proclaiming, “I’m just f’ing with you — you’re in the band!” The room erupted and everyone circled around and embraced Harmoni in what would be one of the best and most altering moments of her life.
Now five years later, she’s a full-fledged member of the band, with integral musical and vocal moments in the live shows, and she has become a fan favorite of the adoring crowds that fill stadiums to see Chesney’s epic performances. And with Chesney hard at work in the studio currently recording his next album, Harmoni is gearing up to hit the road once again, equipped with her 5-string Fender, which now feels like home after her initial trial by fire with it. Adapting on the fly is something that Harmoni has become very adept at, as each show’s capacity crowd keeps growing, and every venue presents new challenges in projecting her tone, which she is very particular about. But more than meticulous, she’s just grateful to have landed her dream gig with one of the biggest stars of country music.
What was it like playing your first big show with Kenny?
I thought I was prepared going into it. I was not. Our guitarist told me that he had played big gigs before playing in this band, with Bob Seger and other big artists, but when he stepped onstage at a football stadium with Kenny, it took his breath away. The first time I played with Kenny was a hometown show at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and it was his birthday, so all these celebrities were there, from Joe Walsh to Taylor Swift. I had never been on a stage that big, I had never worn in-ears before, I had never played a 5-string live before, and I just had to go out and perform with all of those factors. But talk about a rush — it was one of the wildest experiences of my life. They were right. It definitely took my breath away.
Now that you’re seasoned at playing big shows, what goes through your head during live performances?
It’s been a really good lesson for me as a player to get outside of my comfort zone and not worry so much about what I look like and what I’m doing. It’s all about taking chances. I’ve always been used to standing back by the drummer and just holding down the rhythm and focusing on the music in a supportive role, but for this I’m expected to go out and run around and go out to the crowd riser and jump all over the place. When you’re running around and jumping up and down it can be really hard to maintain the precision of your playing. It’s not like just standing there and focusing on the notes anymore. And as a bass player, you want to hit the strings with consistent attack, and that can be hard when you’re jogging through the crowd. It takes a lot of practice, but you get better at it over time.
Playing venues the size that you do, how do you make sure your bass tone doesn’t get lost in the immensity of the arenas?
I was just discussing this with our front-of-house guy, Chris Rabold, who is world class at what he does. He told me that his biggest struggle is always bass. Playing huge football stadiums and arenas are super tricky to dial in, because you have to make this low, rumbling frequency extend to all corners of that huge space. Playing a 5-string makes that even trickier, because you have to project that low B and make it heard, not just a rumbling. I never want my tone to be muddy, and I don’t want to get lost in the mix, because the bass lines are so important to these songs. There’s a fine line between being really warm and buttery and getting lost. And you have to make it punch and cut through without making it too trebly and clicky-clacky. And that, my friend, is the biggest challenge of playing a big arena as a bass player. So I leave the sound that’s out in the crowd up to Chris, and he’s amazing at it. Luckily for me, I have in-ear monitors, so I hear everything I’m doing crystal clear. I’m good so long as the fans hear it as well.
How much does your gear selection play into aiding your stadium challenge?
It helps a whole lot. I’ve never been a super-technical gear person when it comes to my bass, like I don’t have a huge pedalboard or anything, but Chris and I try a lot of combinations to make it work. Every rehearsal we test a few different things for my tone. I have my SVT-VR onstage with an 8×10 cab, and then I have an Ampeg Portaflex in an isolated cab on the side of the stage miked up to blend with my main mix, and then he sends it all through a Neve preamp and an Ampeg SCR-DI pedal. It’s a big science to dial in my tone. I’m still such a student, and I ask so many questions regarding what we can change to better my tone, because I’m so curious. There’s no such thing as perfect tone, but I want to get as close as possible. It’s a constant struggle for us bass players; we’re always chasing that ideal sound we hear in our heads.
You were playing Music Man basses with Kenny and switched to Fenders a couple years back. What led to that change?
I’ve played Fender basses my whole life, but the bass player who had played for two decades before me had used Music Man basses the whole time. Kenny told me Music Man would give me anything I wanted to play, but it’s my choice to play whichever type of bass I choose. It was an opportunity that I didn’t think I’d have again, so for the first two years of playing with Kenny, I used a Music Man through a Peavey amp. It was awesome and sounded great, but after going to NAMM a few years in a row, I got in touch with the Fender and Ampeg people, and that felt like home to me, so I switched back. You really can’t go wrong with that combo. And that’s not to knock Music Man and Peavey; their stuff is awesome. This setup just fits this sound better for me.
How does your playing technique impact your sound?
One of my favorite things to do to get a specific tone is to use palm muting and pluck with my thumb. That changes dynamics so much, and it works really well with acoustic songs. Otherwise, I don’t really think about my technique while it’s happening. It becomes instinctual after playing for a while. I am conscious of where I’m striking the string with my finger, though, whether I’m using it closer to the nail or closer to the pad. That can really change up the thickness of the tone you’re getting. Usually it just happens when I’m playing live and I don’t have to think about it.
What’s it like working with Kenny as an artist?
He’s not at all what I expected from somebody at that level of fame. You can tell that he comes from a small town; nothing was handed to him, and he didn’t just put out a #1 hit and blow up overnight — he worked his way up. They started playing in flatbed trailers and built up to small clubs and rodeos and finally grew a fan base that loved him. That really comes across when he’s onstage. I’ve played my fair share of gigs with artists who don’t really acknowledge the band onstage or interact with them, which always makes for a weird dynamic, and it comes across in the music. Kenny is the exact opposite of that. He has the “we’re in this together” mentality. I love getting to sing with him throughout the set, and we even have a song that’s a duet for the two of us. He appreciates his bandmates so much and always lets us know it.
What is the principal role of bass in country music?
To me, it’s like we’re laying a really comfy but solid bed for the rest of the music. Kenny has done away with a lot of traditional elements of country music like a lap-steel guitar. And we only have fiddle on a couple of the songs, but otherwise he gets away from that twang and more into a rock feel. In traditional country music you have the fiddle, lap or pedal steel, a banjo, and a million harmonies and backup vocals. With so much high range going on, the bass has to be solid and sit under all of that. You’re mainly pulling a variation of a walking line, the 1–5, or a swing type of line. Bass isn’t busy in country, so I’m not going to noodle all over this music. I want to lock in with the drummer and make sure that it’s solid. A lot of times people are dancing, and I’ve played my share of two-step gigs, and if you’re not tight, the dancers get pissed.
What other style of music would you be playing if not country?
If I had my druthers and I could play in any style — and don’t go telling Kenny this — it would be with a R&B/soul/funk band. There’s something about that type of music and the bass role in it that’s very appealing to me. It’s super slinky and super solid in all the right ways. I’ve been listening to a lot of D’Angelo’s Voodoo , with Pino Palladino on bass, and it makes me want to cry because it’s so good. It’s hard to even explain in words. That shit is just so good to me.
How and when did you first start playing bass?
I’m a huge Guns N’ Roses and Duff McKagan fan. Stylistically, I’ve never really emulated him by using a pick or a chorus pedal, but he was the reason why I started playing bass. It was in that time of being a teenager when you have posters on your wall and you watched MTV videos all day and when you’re into a band. It just takes over your entire world. My best friend Robin and I were such big GnR fans, and she came to me one day and had that classic conversation where she said we should start our own band. We had never played instruments before, but we decided that she’d play guitar and I’d play bass because I was so into Duff, so we did. I got a bass for Christmas when I was 17. My dad and I went to a music store in Austin, and we picked out a Mexican-made Precision with a burgundy finish and white pickguard. I got a small Peavey TNT combo amp, and I would sit on the floor in my parents’ living room and listen to records and try to learn all of the bass lines. I had always been good at hearing bass; that’s just what my ear always went to in songs. I never went to school, or took lessons. I always just taught myself by ear, which is the same thing I’m doing still. If it ain’t broke, I suppose.
Bass Fender American Professional Precision 5-strings
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR, Ampeg SVT 8×10, Ampeg Portaflex 15
Effects Ampeg Liquifier Analog Chorus, Fender Downtown Express, Fender Pelt Fuzz Pedal
Strings D’Addario NYXL Medium
Accessories JH Audio In-Ears, Mono Gig Bags