Inspired by female vocalists, bassist Victor Wooten recorded two companion albums.

Photo of Victor Wooten
"Ohhh, I hit a baby deer."

Bassist Victor Wooten is driving to his son's school outside Nashville, and a baby deer just ran in front of his car. The car's okay, which is more than can be said for the deer. He's a little shaken and understandably sad. "Well, as my mom would say, the Good Lord knows about that, too."

Wooten plays the Howlin' Wolf tonight in support of his two new albums, Sword and Stone and Words and Tones. They feature the same compositions, but the former features vocals - primarily female vocals - while the latter's instrumental. He recorded the two at the same time, but Words and Tones isn't simply Sword and Stone with the vocals stripped off; they're different versions, sometimes with different musicians. "I took a solo on this one song; I did a different one on the other," Wooten says. "Or I had another musician come in and do it. I did it in a way that it’s not just a muzak version of the song. It’s a hip version with different arrangements, and things like that in a lot of cases."

Wooten has had the idea of recording companion albums for more than a decade as a way of channeling the restless creativity that becomes obvious when he plays. For years, the record industry made the idea impossible. No label wanted to release two albums at the same time to compete with each other, but no label wanted to share an artist and share promotion on such a project. 

"Now that I have my own record label, I decided I’m going to do it myself," he says. "I’m going to release two different records on the same day, which people have done, but I’m going to make these records really relate to each other. And do it in a way that people will benefit from hearing both albums. If you listen to the instrumental version of one record and the vocal on the other song, you’re going to learn quite a bit about me, how my mind works. And I think you’ll be entertained even more than just hearing the first version."

Sword and Stone is also distinctive because it features primarily female vocalists, one of which - Crystal Peterson - is touring with Wooten's band. "I always loved supporting female vocalists," he says. "A good female vocalist is one of the most beautiful sounds in existence." 

Because he knew he planned to work with female vocalists from the start, he worked out the music, complete with a guide melody played on his bass, but Wooten only sketched out some lyrics. "I would let them finish the lyrics, so that they could sing lyrics that they wrote," he says. "I figured anyone would be happier singing lyrics that they wrote, and they would sing them more truthfully."

Writing with female vocalists in mind shaped the compositions themselves, often making them gentler. "It allowed me to do more softer things," Wooten says. "Ballads, a jazz waltz, different things like that, where a lot of times people know me for being funky or jazzy. Of course, there’s a lot of that on the record, too, but hearing the female softness of the voice, it made me go in a different direction in some places."

The albums also include versions of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" and Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Stevie's an obvious reference point on Sword and Stone, but the track has been around for eight years, and it was inspired by Crystal Peterson. Wooten saw her sing at a Christmas show in Nashville that his daughter was also a part of. "I approached Crystal one day and said, 'Would you mind coming to the studio and record something? Let’s just record something.' I wanted to document her voice. We came up with a song and what we wanted to do, and it happened to be “Overjoyed.” It’s one of the most amazing vocal performances I’ve ever heard. I added real strings to it, but her performance and the quartet of musicians playing behind her was recorded eight years ago."

That sort of impromptu recording is common for Wooten, who has pressed family members, friends, even midwives into service when he feels creative. These days, it's how he merges his personal and artistic lives. "If you’re at my house at I’m working on a song, I’ll ask you, 'You play anything?' he says. "f you do, you’ll wind up on the record. That’s how my kids get on the record, because they’re there. Now, they’re old enough and they’re good. They can do it for real. I use my wife a lot. My photographer who takes all of my pictures for my albums - I found out that he sang a little bit, so I put him on a song. It does help me out, but it also gives people who would never get a chance to be on a major record a chance to live that dream. I like doing that for people."