He held it tenderly, cradling the body in his arms close to his chest, its long, smooth, fretless neck rising over his head, strings towards his body. He had to tilt to the left or right to look anyone else besides the love of his life in the eye.
Henry Wamsley III (nicknamed "Trip," short for triple, by his family when he was two) has the quiet stoicism one expects from electric bass players. A closer examination of his instrument, a stock six-stringed fretless bass, reveals some key modifications: The three fattest strings have hip-shot deep tuning pegs; his initials are inlaid in the headstock, not for vanity, but for ready identification in pawn shops, should it ever be stolen. If such a heinous theft ever occurred it is certain that Trip would never rest until the two were reunited.
A remarkable self-produced independent release, Dancing About Architecture , brought Trip to the attention of the magazine as someone associated with Kemper Crabb, Atomic Opera, and Caedmon's Call. Now based in St. Charles, Louisiana, Trip rarely tours. An appearance at Cornerstone Festival was a rare opportunity to meet the man behind the bass that behaves like a guitar.
Trip's closest association with fame is through Caedmon's Call. "I did their first three gigs, and they weren't any good then. No, they really weren't. They were actually quite terrible. I said, `I'm not going to do this.' It's very much Cliff Young's show. He's the visionary. You get aweirdo like me in there, and it would just screw it all up. I'm not the right person for that job. It would make me miserable."
"Weirdo" is the key term to Trip's genius, and his obscurity. "I'm one of those people, if the door says `Pull,' I'll push on it to make sure they're not lying to me: `Do I really have to push this door, or can I pull on it, too? Don't mess with me!' Ever since I was a little kid, I just remember three words that would make me angry as anything; it was, 'You have to.' Later on, when I grew up, I was like, `Do I really have to?' I always questioned everything."
An extended sojourn in the Houston music scene convinced him not to take the easy route of playing only for fellow believers. "I was isolated in the Christian scene for about two years, and that's all I did was play churches, which was great. I didn't mind that at all. But later on, when I started playing the clubs again, all of a sudden, man, I've got pagans (non-believers) coming to my prayer group now that wouldn't have come otherwise had I just been in a church somewhere."
Yet he weaves a spiritual message within his artistry: "I write songs based on what I'm going through. I can't write a praise and worship song because then I hear something else and I say, `That's more like what I meant.' I let the people that are good at it do it. I can only write songs about what I go through as a human being. It doesn't say `God' or `Jesus,' but see, I think that's more important. I'm a person; I'm in the world. I'm not of it, but I'm in it. I don't have any choice in the matter; I'm here."
"I go through things, and I struggle with them. I don't sugarcoat the truth. I'm witnessing to people right now. I said, 'Man, if you attend a prayer group, and if you accept Christ, I can't go, oh, accept Christ now.' That doesn't work. They have to go, Trip, man, I need this.' I give them the opportunity. I say, `Do you want to?' If they say, `No, not yet,' I have to leave it. You've got to leave it. But I've got so many of them coming to my prayer group now, just to see. I'm like, `Holy cow!' No pun intended, but it's just really great."
"I take 'em all out to the shrimp channel, and I just talk to them, and pray with them, stuff like that, and it's really groovy. When I was in Houston, I wasn't really doing that because I was with other Christians all the time. Which is great; it's kind of like charging your batteries, per se. But if that's all you do, you're really missing out on a big opportunity, because you know what? All the non-Christians, they're not here! They are out there!"
Trip's questioning of the status quo drives his music, too. "Bass players are supposed to be really dumb guys in the back. You look at violinists in the symphony orchestra, then you have the viola players. Very few violinists go, `I want to play the viola.' They get demoted to it. And yet, the viola was Mozart's favorite instrument."
"I wanted to play bass. It was and still is the most beautiful sound on the planet. Because if you look at the way the whole universe operates, on rhythms, that makes God a drummer, which would make Jesus a bass player. Tell that to your choir director at church. That normally doesn't fly too well."
"But the rhythms make sense, you know? You know; twelve digits on a clock, twelve months on the calendar, 365 days around the sun. Everything. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm."
There was more to attract him than simply the bass's rhythm potential: "…and it was just beautiful, and it is a guitar--look at it! It's got a bridge, it's got tuning pegs, it's got strings, right?"
"You could play it with a pick if you wanted to, or you could finger-pick it, you can hit it like a drum, or you can strum it, or you can do all of them. This bass can even shift the tuning on the fly. It's kind of like an interplanetary exchange program bass."
Although already a master of such un-bass techniques as double picking, fingerboard taping, alternate tunings, harmonics, and on-the-fly tuning, Trip is still discovering the instrument's potential: "I've only been playing sixteen years."
He decided to start pushing
the envelope right away. "Instantly. When I would first go to jam sessions,
the guitar player would walk in and say, `You do this, and you do this,
and you do this.' He'd boss everybody around, and play, weedlewee, weedlewee,
weedlewee, weedleee wee, and it wouldn't go anywhere. I thought, `I can
do it too!' That's the way it evolved, and then I just kept falling more
and more in love with it. I mean, they're better than girls and my wife
"It came into my life at a time when I didn't have many friends. When you meet a real friend, a real friend isn't intrusive, doesn't invade your life and go, `Hi, howyah doin'?' Not like a car salesman. It's gentle. That's it. Before you know it, you're friends. You have a lifelong bond. That's what music is. There's a business side of making a living at it, but if I didn't make a living at it, I would still do it."
Despite his original approach to the instrument, Trip does not consider himself a pioneer. "I've pioneered nothing. I really don't think so. It's a big world. How can you say that you've pioneered anything? I remember in 1978, Eddie Van Halen came out with the ingerboard-tapping thing, but there was a guy in the thirties or forties that came out with the fingerboard-tapping book. A whole book on the technique, but everybody goes, oh, Eddie Van Halen did that. As far as pioneering anything, no. I do what I want. I play what I want. I'm funny that way."
Playing what he wants may bring great personal satisfaction, but it makes wider distribution or a recording deal elusive. "Record companies don't want to risk it. They go, 'Who could we market this to?' They can't sell it to their twelve-year-old daughter, so I'm better off being independent. I do O.K. by myself. I make a good living as a musician."
When asked what reaction listeners have when they first hear his wild musical flights, he replies, "Television didn't prepare me for this, so this cannot be possibly happening."
Despite the disinterest of
the marketplace, Trip recently completed his second album. Perhaps television
will one day catch up with the visionary who is always asking, "Why not?"
Dancing About Architecture CD review
E-mail Trip at HEW86@aol.com. His new cd is called "The Difference Engine" You can get one by e-mailing trip or by calling 318-626-0763.