Lafayette, Louisiana and Atlanta, Georgia are only about 600 miles apart. You can drive the distance in less than nine hours. But it’s taken bassist/songwriter/band leader Charlie Wooton his entire life to make that trip.
Of course, it wasn’t a straight shot; the lives of musicians typically aren’t. But every stop along that snaking, oft-uncertain road has contributed a little more experience, some hard knocks and lots of knowledge that the bassist has used wisely. It’s ultimately resulted in Wooton being an increasingly visible and vital component of the Atlanta roots/blues/jam scene. As the leader of Zydefunk and on his own, he’s become a respected musician who’s played with virtually all the area’s high-profile figures such as Oliver Wood, Donna Hopkins and Heather Luttrell along with recently deceased veterans Donnie McCormick and Sean Costello. Of primary importance now, though, is his newly released debut under the Charlie Wooton Project moniker.
Wooton (not to be confused with Bela Fleck bassist Victor whose last name is spelled differently), comes from a musical family. All four of his brothers play instruments; one even has a Ph.D. in music and is head of percussion at the University of Southern Mississippi. Charlie has always been exposed to music and learned the fundamentals from both from traditional and less conventional sources.
“My studying started with my big brothers and going through the school program,” he says. “I studied a lot of jazz and theory in school and growing up in Louisiana played a lot of Cajun and Zydeco.” But his first real education of playing with a professional touring outfit was when he was hired, just out of high school, for Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band. Wooton credits the high energy, accordion playing Louisiana Zydeco/funk front man for teaching him how to deliver a show and “take care of business.”
City Of Angels? Well, at least one
In 1991 at 20, he was “young enough and dumb enough” to drive to Los Angeles with $20 in his pocket. He landed a gig there working at a rehearsal studio called Third Encore where he met, among others, Kim Stone, bassist for Spyro Gyra and the Rippingtons. Stone refused to give him the lessons he requested but invited Wooton to jam at his house whenever he wanted. The blue bass that Wooton still plays was a gift from Stone.
After working with veteran musicians in L.A., he received enough recognition and respect to realize he could make his talent a profession. “But being from the South, being brought up in Louisiana, still speaking half French and half English, it was a culture shock and I just didn’t like living there.” So at 23 the bassist headed back east. He moved to Hilton Head, S.C. for a while but realized he “wasn’t going to get anything accomplished living on an island” and relocated to Atlanta. That’s when Zydefunk was born.
The concept behind Zydefunk, established in 1996, was to “combine Zydeco, New Orleans funk and all the Louisiana musics into one group and to educate people about the similarities and differences of each.” That band is still very much alive. In fact Chubby Carrier and Beausoleil’s Michael Doucet are scheduled as guests on an upcoming live-in-the-studio disc, only the band’s second release in 15 years.
Moving front and center
Foremost among Wooton’s current priorities is the first album under his own name. The Charlie Wooton Project was recorded with longtime friend and musical partner (“my right hand man”) guitarist Jody Davies, who also produced it and played on nearly every cut.
“Like Zydefunk, the Project also mixes the various genres I have been fortunate to play in my career,” Wooton explains. Brazilian, African, Caribbean, soul, funk, jazz and rock are all represented, some in the same track, meshed together with disarming ease in a steamy gumbo effortlessly ignited by Wooton’s ever-present elastic bass lines. Much of the CD consists of grooves Jody and Charlie laid down in the former’s basement studio, later enhanced by overdubs. Considering the extensive time it took to record and the Frankenstein nature of the songs, the tracks sound fully fleshed out, concisely constructed and arranged, professionally produced (at Tree Sound Studios) and played with subtle flash.
Wooton is convinced the new project crosses all boundaries, both musical and those of age, and is anticipating finally releasing and it playing live, after a long gestation period. “Like the CD where I have seven different singers, every show is unique. Each time you come to a Charlie Wooton Project show you may hear the same tunes, but there will be someone else on stage giving it a different take.”
A little help from his friends
The late Donnie McCormick, a kindred spirit Charlie met due in large part to his (Wooton’s) wife Traci, was another major influence. The album’s only non-original tune is a soulful cover of McCormick’s “Day Dreamin’.” “It was amazing to play with [McCormick]. You had to bring your ‘A’ game, because no matter how awful he felt, when Donnie hit the stage, it was magical. He was just beautiful.” McCormick contributes backing vocals on the song, which also features guitar from Oliver Wood, Marcus Henderson on keyboards and Ricky Fargo’s lead vocals. Sadly, Sean Costello, another of Wooton’s good friends, was due to lay down guitar on the recording the day he was found dead.
The project release isn’t all that’s keeping Wooton hopping. He’s also contributing to a CD with Caroline Aiken and Jeff Sipe, just finished a live session with Heather Luttrell and is planning the next Zydefunk recording.
In other words, it’s all just another stop on Wooton’s ever evolving life journey. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.