As a first-call session bassist, producer, performer, and songwriter, Rachel Loy has risen to the top of country music
Rachel Loy is one of the most sought-after session aces in the Nashville studio scene — a huge feat considering the talent pool in the Music City and its underlying boy’s club mentality. Her ability to perform under pressure and utilize her wide palette of tones and playing styles has made her the first-call hired gun for country stars Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Brothers Osborn, Scotty McCreery, and many others. As a sidewoman, she’s been called on to share the stage with Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Alan Jackson, Darius Rucker, Hank Williams Jr., Jason Aldean, and Kacey Musgraves, to name a few. When asked how she became the top-tier low-ender in such a competitive musical environment, Loy credits her successful history as a songwriter, her ability to always serve the song, her instincts in reading musicians, and her extreme malleability as a player.
As a producer, however, her disposition shifts from merely serving as the band’s foundational element to being the ultimate controller of the room. Loy goes with a direct approach when it comes to production, and her no-nonsense nature behind the board demonstrates her years of being on the other side of it. Her experience gained from paying her dues on hundreds of sessions and learning the lessons necessary to command the project regardless of the artist have become her biggest assets. Her insatiable curiosity about recording, and countless hours clocked in studios, fueled her journey to becoming a producer — and when it comes to changing roles, she has no problem seamlessly jumping from one to the other. Her patience as a producer wears thin when it comes to superficial artists, monetary motives, and unfocused musicians looking for their big break. But given her demand in the recording studio, she’s able to pick and choose which projects to take on and what the final outcome will sound like.
While she’s made her home in country music, the genre wasn’t her first choice during her musical upbringing. A life-long bass player, Loy was deep into rock and singer–songwriters before she headed to the Berklee College of Music, where she discovered her appreciation for jazz, gospel, R&B, and music from around the world. Then, after moving to Austin, Texas and meeting her future husband, a touring folk singer, Loy found her niche in country and Americana. From there she became a successful songwriter, landing hits as a solo artist and eventually moving to Nashville in 2008, where her focus shifted primarily to bass. Happily married with three kids, Loy has her hands full both playing on and producing multiple projects at all times and trying to find the moments to catch her breath in between takes. It wasn’t always her plan to wear so many different hats when she began playing bass as a young girl, and she definitely never imagined that the one she’d be wearing most prominently would be a Stetson. But she’ll happily take it.
How did you first get into production and recording?
I was 28 and I had been rising in the Nashville session scene for two years, and I was playing five days a week at a one-off demo studio. I was in the studio all day every day playing music, and all of my best buds that were coming in together were such a solid band, with five people deep in each chair. I got to know each of their playing really intimately. I got so comfortable in the studio, even beyond being an artist who writes. At the time, I had a record written and I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I finally decided that I was going to produce it on my own. I experimented on myself and brought my favorite band into the studio to make it, which was Derek Wells [guitar], Steve Sinatra [drums], and James Farrell [keyboard]. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but I did it. I put everything I had learned in all of my time recording on albums to use, and I figured out any other details on the fly.
I was in the middle of mixing and sorting through all of these .wav files and getting the core of the album together when another artist approached me about producing her record, and I agreed. I learned so much from that, because she was crazy. I released my album and I loved it, and then a couple of weeks later my husband, who was a touring Texas musician at the time, met a guy named William Clark Green, and he wanted to make a record with me. I finished that record and it put Will on the map, and all of a sudden I started getting approached by more and more artists, and producing became a full-on thing for me.
So you pretty instantly became an in-demand producer from the time you first attempted it.
I guess it did kind of happen like that. Playing bass got me into the studios and opened doors for me, but before that, I had been an artist and a writer for a long time. My career has always been three-pronged as far as artist and writer, bass player, and producer. There’s never been a time when I’m not in some way doing all of those things. For me, producing was a way for me to finally use all of the skills that I had been building up over all of those years. It all culminated into the production process.
When you first meet with an artist to work with them, what is your typical process?
If it’s an artist I don’t know well, we’ll have initial conversations where I discern if the artist is coming from a place of playful artistic exploration, versus a ton of pressure and/or thinking like a marketing person. That’s my first litmus test. I’m not actually interested in ever making a record that sounds like a record I’ve already made or that sounds like another record. The big distinguishing factor for me is finding out if we’re going to go in and make musical decisions together, or if there are going to be other factors that get in the way. There’s always going to be a bit of the wrong flavor in there, because if you’re spending enough money to hire me and you have to worry about moving songs and being heard, I get that. But it’s different from going into it fear-based. I once turned down an artist I really loved because she said to me, “This has got to be the biggest album of my career.” She didn’t have the songs written yet or a plan for what she wanted to do, but she insisted that it needed to be her best work. I told her that she had to go home and figure that out and then give me a call. It would be setting us up for absolute failure. The goals in making an album have to be musical goals, and if that’s the case, let’s talk about how we’re going to do this. If the goal is success-based, then I have no interest in working with you. I’ve been in enough situations that didn’t end well and I suppressed my instincts and thought it might still work, but it never does. At the end of the day, as the producer, I’m the one who has to take responsibility for whether or not this shit gets done and whether or not it’s great or sucks.
You work with legendary artists all the time. Does your approach differ walking into the studio with someone like Willie Nelson than it does with an up-and-coming artist?
Definitely. I learned pretty early on in my first session with heavy musicians how to walk in and not say a thing and just play it cool. When it’s a big artist who has a presence and is more experienced than I am and has something to say artistically, I take the approach of being cool and listening and taking it all in. Musically, I’ll be on my A game and will assert myself and not be timid. With new artists, it’s a like any social situation where if the person might look up to my peers or me, I’ll play more of an inviting role and will lead the charge a little more. As a rule, I have my brain all the time and I’ve heard everything that I have to say, so I always want to hear what other people have to say.
How does being a producer inform and influence your bass playing, and vice versa?
Recording a band and then taking those waveforms home, and digging into them and analyzing them as an engineer and producer, has made me better understand how to be an influence on the whole song as a bass player. You start hearing and realizing ways in the bigger picture to impact a song’s entire direction, just from the bass. Honestly, producing isn’t a whole lot different from playing bass in general. Bass is such a supportive role and is there to serve what the song needs, dynamically and rhythmically. Bass is so much the spinal cord of music that seeing the whole big picture as a producer is only a half-step wider than that perspective.
A Selection of Rachel’s Studio Bass Work:
Has your playing and tone evolved since you began producing?
That’s a good question, because I love thinking about my bass playing, and I never get to talk about it. When I first got to Nashville, there was so much I didn’t know about what my tone should sound like when I’m in a band full of guitar players. I remember a big moment with guitarist Tom Bukovac when we were talking about EQing the bass. I was using a P-Bass with scooped mids, but it needed more punch, so I changed the settings on my amp, and it changed so much for me. I realized that the scooped sound wasn’t very rock & roll or country at all. I had already developed my own style as a bass player, and the way I evolved from that point on was from hearing my playing through high-definition speakers all day. You can hear every little nuance, and it made me such a cleaner player. I started figuring out how to compress my tone naturally and play with way more consistency to each note. Being in the studio is pretty much like practicing eight hours a day.
Another way I’ve evolved is that I would always go with what was cool in the moment, but every five years I get really bored with myself. So even if I know what space to fill and what a song needs, I’ll start exploring and taking risks. There was a time when I got really bored of playing with my fingers, so I started playing every song with a pick, and then I figured out how to get a great tone for anything I needed. It was a whole new palette for me. Most recently, I feel like I’ve stepped into a new space with my playing where I don’t want to know that it’s me when I listen back. I don’t want to hear my sound; I want to impersonate everyone that’s around me. I’m in a big exploratory mode right now.
How do you typically track bass?
My preferred method is through a REDDI DI, and then I have a bunch of pedals that I sometimes use. I don’t swear by using a B-15 [Ampeg combo amp] at all times; it just depends on the track. Most of the time the bass is going to be mixed down to just its essential frequencies anyway, and there’s not a lot of room for steering an amp. Sometimes, if it’s a really cool, roomy rock record, I’m all about that and I’ll use my B-15. I love this Xotic Effects X-Blender that mixes any of my pedals with a clean signal so that I don’t lose any low end, but I can mess with the flavor. I use a fuzz, a regular distortion, and an overdrive pedal called the Sex Drive that a guy in Austin makes and I don’t know what it is, but it adds saturation and cuts so nicely.
What are your go-to basses in the studio?
I always bring four basses and I only ever use two, but I mostly always use just one. It’s a P-Bass with flatwounds that has a great vintage sound. When I first met my husband in Austin, we were playing shows every night of the week, and at some point I got all of my gear stolen. The bass I lost was a Pedulla Rapture 5-string with active pickups. Trust me, I wouldn’t be playing that in Nashville now. It was perfect for when I was in Berklee, because we were all playing neo-soul and hip-hop, but for what I do now it just wouldn’t work. It was tragic then, but it turned out to be a good thing, because my husband found this Mark Hoppus bass at a pawnshop that has a Jazz body with a P-Bass neck and no tone knob. I loved the color, and the neck felt really good. It’s been my total go-to bass for years. I added a tone knob and replaced the pickups with some Lindy Fralins and it sounds amazing. It’s beat up now, but it’s beat up from my road stories.
For the more rocking stuff that needs a lot of sustain and attack, I use a P-Bass with roundwounds that’s brighter. And then I have an Epiphone Jack Casady hollowbody, but I haven’t used it a lot because it has some bark that I have to wrangle. When it’s right, it’s really right, but that’s pretty rare. And then I have a Jazz Bass that I bring just in case, because when you need a Jazz Bass, you definitely need one.
If you’re going into a picking session, which bass are you going to grab?
Usually my P-Bass is my go-to for picking. I’ve been playing that bass for 17 years. It wasn’t vintage when I got it, but now it sure sounds like it is. I’ve beaten the shit out of that thing.
How did your time at Berklee sculpt you as a player?
Berklee was the equivalent of immersing yourself into a new country when you’re trying to learn the language. The biggest influence that it had one me was that it made me really comfortable playing gospel and jazz music. At this point I’m not as comfortable with those things because my gear doesn’t sound like the gear they use, and it sounds like a rock player impersonating a gospel player. But I did become fluent in the language of music, and I dove into the genres that use a lot more colorful movements than country. Country has always been harmonically limited because it’s always so steeped and detailed in the lyrical component that there’s only so much a song can hold. At Berklee I played in the gospel choir, and I went on tour with the Boston College Gospel Choir. I’ve always been really driven by the challenge of things, and gospel music is really challenging on bass. I think also being a woman, I’m used to being written off, and I just love dashing those expectations. I just love the challenge of learning new music I didn’t know, and the thrill of playing a bebop tune is just so fun. That’s why Berklee is great — because it’s so diverse. I came from the suburbs of Texas, and I got to hang out with people from all over the world and learn so many styles of music there.
What is it about country music that attracted you?
I was not raised on country music at all; I grew up on rock & roll. In college I was big into the Lilith Fair kind of artists, like Fiona Apple, Sarah McLaughlin, Tori Amos — all of these incredible women doing amazing things harmonically and lyrically in their production. I was really into that music, and that’s how my songwriting was sounding at the time. In my second year at Berklee, I got signed to Sony Records for a song that I wrote, and I kind of switched directions because I was a signed artist who was playing acoustic guitar on the Today show and being groomed and all that stuff. At that point, I listened to a Lee Ann Womack record, and I remember hearing the playing on it and thinking, Wow, these players are badass. I connected with the music emotionally, and I remember having the thought that I’d be really good at that. I moved to Austin after Berklee and worked on my first solo record and I met Brian, my husband, and he was a country artist and folk singer and I realized that my whole life was being directed toward folk and Americana music. Playing in that scene made me appreciate the rich sound of clean bass through a big amp, and loving whole-notes, and feeling how intoxicating it is to be in control of a band’s low end. That love of the song and creating dynamics within it led me to the gig that led me to Nashville. It was a really slow, unconscious progression toward a genre that I wasn’t initially into.
How and when did you first start playing bass?
My dad was a bass player, and I had a huge connection with him. He knew I was musical at a young age, and he encouraged me to play bass. His desire for me to play bass really moved me, even at a young age, so I did it. He bought me a bass when I was 12, and I thought it cost a million dollars, so I knew I had to practice and put in the hours. He taught me scales and told me to transcribe Paul McCartney, and I did it, and then after that he sent me to rock & roll camp. My sister was a drummer, so we played a lot together and we got good at it. We just kept going. I do feel that at a certain point as a teenager, if it wasn’t paying off socially for me, I would have stopped. I started playing in bands and was playing out once a week with my sister. My dad would book our shows. He was kind of like a pageant mom, but he was booking smoky bars and crazy venues. I developed so much in that time.
What was that first bass that your dad gave you?
It was a Fernandes half-scale moon-shaped (Pie-Zo) bass, and in my mind it was a huge deal. It had a built-in amplifier so I could just switch it on and hear it. Before that, I was practicing on his Guild bass, but I’m a small person so I would put a capo on it so it was easier.
Why bass? What attracts you to the instrument?
I often feel that with the bass I can subversively influence the band and push it in a different direction without any of the other players even being conscious of it. I love the bass because you have so much impact with that set of frequencies. If we’re in the studio and the song is boring the shit out of me and we’re doing the third take, I can simply change the chords in real time and elevate the song. I love how much impact I can have with the amount of effort I can put forth. I don’t have to assert my power or play a game or do a dance. I can literally just flutter my right hand a little and change the whole sound. That’s powerful! I always joke with my husband about how it feels strumming an acoustic guitar onstage after playing bass. It’s like an endless windshield wiper that has zero impact on the song. Then you pick up a bass and you hit a big old note, like, “What now, motherfuckers?” [Laughs.]
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about bass?
I read an interview with Willie Weeks a long time ago when I was feeling jaded and uninspired. He said that he just always tries to show up and play the song the best it can possibly be played that day. It was such a pivotal way of thinking — that you’re serving the song on that day, with this band, in this moment, and I’m going to play it the best it can possibly be played. I’ve thought of that quote a thousand times on sessions when I wasn’t connecting with the band or the music, and it pulled me through and made me ask what I could be doing to on my instrument to make this the best it could be. –BM
Bass Fender Mark Hoppus Precision with added tone knob and Lindy Fralin pickups, Fender “Partscaster” (husband-made), Epiphone Jack Cassidy Signature Bass, Fender Jazz Bass
Amps Studio amp: 1965 Ampeg B15; live amp: SVT Classic through 4×10 or 8×10 SVT
Pedals A Designs Audio REDDI DI, Durham Electronics Sex Drive, Source Audio Kingmaker Fuzz, MXR Bass Distortion, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, Electro-Harmonix Bass Mono-Synth, Xotic Effects X-Blender
Strings Ernie Ball Medium Flats & Roundwounds
Favorite Bass Chain REDDI DI into API preamp into Retro Doublewide tube compressor
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