Picture little Victor Wooten and his four brothers in matching sequin suits with butterfly collars and burgeoning afros. Long before he was one of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones, Vic and siblings were covering R&B mainstays James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield at the Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Va. Picture Victor, not yet out of grade school, shouting out to drunk and dizzy Southern vacationers that he wants the funk, that he’s gotta have that funk. (Anyone who captured The Wootens circa 1975 at the beer-flavored theme park on Super 8, please call the Indy for an offer before you put the footage up for sale on eBay.)
While Les Claypool and Flea were still in diapers—hell, Vic was probably in diapers, too—Regi Wooten put a bass in his youngest brother’s eager three-year-old hands. By age five, Victor had made his stage debut and it’s been slap and pop ever since. Having been just a tot at the time, Victor can’t even recall the first bass line that made him wiggle.
“It didn’t happen for me like that,” he explains. “That’d be like saying, ‘You speak English. What was the first sentence that made you want to learn English?’”
Wooten says that music came to him the same way language instinctively comes to a person.
“I learned from my brothers,” Wooten says, “because when I was born they were playing and they just included me in. By the time I came around my brothers already had their instruments and I guess Regi realized they needed a bass player and that was me.”
For bassists who think that the groove chooses them instead of the other way around, it may blow a mind or two to know that Wooten—one of the most idolized bass players since drugs, drink and mad genius destroyed the life of Jaco Pastorius—didn’t chose the bass for himself.
Regardless, Wooten took to the instrument and took it to a place few thought it could go. Music awards aren’t much in the way of artistic or talent litmus tests, but if they were, well, damn. Wooten’s got a trophy case your junior high principal could only dream about: a couple of Grammies (admittedly the least impressive award of all time), two Nashville Music Awards for Bassist of the Year and three Bass Player of the Year awards from Bass Player magazine. Even after all these accolades, it’s Down Beat magazine’s Talent Most Deserving Wider Recognition award that is most telling of Wooten’s aspirations.
“I’m questioning myself right now to figure out if I really want to push and make a big effort to take this music and this show mainstream and kind of break through the cracks of the pop world,” Wooten says. “There’s something that’s intriguing about that challenge of not letting go of the music but still making it into that pop world.”
When Victor Wooten was growing up, there were dozens of artist who got funky and creative and complex and still climbed Casey’s charts. Wooten wants to see that again.
“Back then there was a lot of it going on and it was about music,” he says. “Bands like Yes could play in odd meters, odd time signatures, and still get their stuff on the radio.”
Wooten doesn’t know where the music industry took a wrong turn but he suspects the usual culprit— MTV—played a part. Once Downtown Julie Brown started picking the tunes, it was leather pants and cleavage, cleavage, cleavage! This process, now in its third decade, has vindicated the “Survival of the Cutest” theory of popular music evolution, leaving the less-sexy but more substantive stars to take a back seat to the Backstreet Boys.
So how’s a man who reeks of talent but isn’t about to make videos dominated by booty-shakin’ and scantly clad teens supposed to bust onto Top 40 radio? Apparently there are a few routes: write constantly, record constantly, tour constantly and team up with lots of superstars (Wooten has already recorded with Branford Marsalis, Bootsy Collins and members of the Dave Matthews Band). He’s also formed a band—the outfit playing Missoula this week—that plays less esoteric fare than the Flecktones.
“This show is based more off my musical roots like R&B and funk,” Wooten says. “And if you want to see things and hear things that you’ve never seen before and that will probably be very inspiring you should come to the show.”