Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Trainwreck of Ambition

The day started out like any other. I began my day with strenuous calisthenics, which consisted of lifting 220 pounds just getting out of bed. I padded into the kitchen, put on a pot of some “nerve mud”, pried the cat off of my leg and sat down to check my e-mail. There was an interesting item from a promoter, forwarding a notice that a singer/songwriter duo was looking for a bass player for some “west coast” gigs, and they had charts for all their songs. If a shiver went down my spine, I did not notice it.

“Hmmm..”. I hummed. “I’m a bass player, of sorts. I like playing on the west coast, I’ve read a chart or two – I think I’ll look into this!”. So I responded to the e-mail contact information, providing some information about myself, where I’ve played, etc etc. As God as my witness, I didn’t veer from the truth one iota.

Presently, I heard from one of the singer/songwriters in the duet, and we traded a few e-mails, and a few phone calls, and I passed the initial “Is this guy a jerk?” test, and they mailed me a CD and some charts. I listened to the CD and realized a couple of things right off the bat.

One, these were good musicians and very good songwriters – good to know. Secondly, the way the material was produced on the album was not very acoustic based, for the most part. There was lots of special effects, some piano, some drums, but I could imagine the material being presented as an acoustic duo (with a standup bass accompaniment), so no big deal, I guess.

Third, this music was not even close to Bluegrass. This had me a little wary – it was clearly outside my comfort zone. But, they HAD provided charts, and I was born to have adventure, so I grabbed my fedora and bullwhip and set about playing along with the CD, using the charts as a crutch.

Have you ever had a really, really bad knot in your shoelace? The kind where the laces seem to disappear into a hard knot with no discernable entry points? This is how this seemed. Even with the charts, I had a hard time following this stuff. And yet, it seemed to yield to concerted effort, at least a bit. The harder it seemed, the more I dove in; and I began, just barely, to learn these songs.

I had a session with the amazing duo, and learned that the CD was just under half the songs in their two hour set. An uncomfortable buzzing began at the back of my skull, but I ignored it. I slogged through the songs on the CD with the singer/songwriters, and we whipped through the other 60% of their set. Some of the songs had no charts, and my only notes were things like “mostly in Bb”.

I did a gig at a coffee house with the singer/songwriters, and suddenly the charts appeared as if they were in Cyrillic. Some of the songs I thought I had made good progress on I got completely lost on, while others I actually caught the rudiments of a groove. I could have made omelets for everyone in the house with all the eggs I laid that night. But, the duo, besides being talented, are also great fellows, and told me I did great (I even got a hug from one), and I slinked home.

Thus began an obsession. Every free moment I had, I went into my music room with my music stand and CD and charts and played until I was drenched in sweat. The singer/songwriters, ever supportive, (these are REALLY nice guys!) sent me MP3s of the other songs, and I tried to get the whole set down pat. I didn’t see much of my family – if I didn’t have a band rehearsal or another gig, I was in the garage, feverishly trying to close the gap on this material. Friends noticed that e-mails were not being responded to.

The songs are great, and I really wanted to give these guys a full dose of the patented Bruce the Bass Man mojo, and help them shine.

I went to another rehearsal and my confidence was good. I had worked very, VERY hard on this material, and indeed, much less of it was mysterious – the hard parts remaining were, in large part, the nooks and crannies of the songs’ arrangements. There were a multitude of places where verse 3 is slightly different than verse 1, and many of the songs have elaborate ending codas that consist of bits and parts of the rest of the song. “I can do this!”, I triumphantly proclaimed, and prepared to dive back into the practice room.

And I did just that, but something very serious happened – it dawned on me that I wasn’t enjoying any of this at all. I accepted a challenge, and was doggedly trying to meet that challenge, but somewhere a fundamental truth was missed – that music is supposed to be fun. I had run into an absolute brick wall, where trying to play utterly unfamiliar songs in an unfamiliar musical idiom laid bare the limitations of my talent, my time, and my resolve. My ambition and confidence had absolutely outstripped my abilities, and the realization of this was shameful, and humiliating. I had to call these guys and let them know I had to bail, that I was throwing in the towel. It will be a while before I will stop feeling a knot in my gut when I think about this.

Will I make this mistake again? Almost certainly. I may actually be a slightly better musician for the experience, but I can’t be sure of that. I like to test my limits, and I have taken chances like this before with very good results. This time, it bit me hard, and I’m still working in getting my smile back. Did I learn something? I think so, and this is it: if you discover yourself NOT having fun playing music, something is very wrong, and you should examine your course of action immediately – if the course doesn’t appear to lead to fun, take the next exit off that Highway of Pain.

(Doctor’s note: Bruce’s singed wings are expected to heal completely. The duo he was referring to is called Kunkel & Harris – check them out if they play anywhere near you!)

Posted:  9/23/2009

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email