The Humble Embrace of Bass
by Kara M. Bachman
Big ole bass voices have the power to calm and embrace—they’re warm; they’re welcoming; they’re not attention-seeking. Still, bass tones somehow form the vital support and underpinnings of most music. They add depth, mystery, and maturity.
Gene McDonald has one of those inimitable voices, and according to this gospel singer, the bass range lures in kids like nothing else does. Before he was old enough to be classified with a bass vocal range – way back when he was singing as a child tenor – he was always roped in by those guys.
“My biggest heroes were bass singers,” McDonald said. “Because they loved kids.” His experiences since have given the idea credence.
“I think kids like bass singers because it’s something they can’t do,” he said, adding that grabbing onto that interest to form a bond – even if just for a few moments at a festival or after a show – is still important to him. “Kids really need to know they’re important. If we can make that child smile a little bit, then we’ve done something.”
McDonald undoubtedly makes both kids and adults smile during his many decades of performing gospel. He tours solo and also is a regular with the Gaither Homecoming Tour.
“I started singing with my mom and dad in 1968, at the age of three years old,” McDonald reminisced. At a radio station in Missouri, listeners first heard the little child who would end up with a lifelong career in the business. He traveled the midwest with his family for 15 years. Next, he took up with Jack Campbell and the Ambassadors. He then had stints with the Plainsmen Quartet and The Florida Boys.
His main gigs are touring and recording solo and participating with the Gaither Homecoming for many years now. In 2017 McDonald released “Reflections,” a recording he created independent of a label.
“It was just a fun record,” he said. “Some old stuff and some new stuff people had never heard me do.”
McDonald said he is just ramping up work on the next record, which he said will include Christmas music and hymns. He’s aiming for a fall 2022 release.
Classically trained in opera and choral music, McDonald had a change of heart at some point in his college opera work.
“I came back to what I love, which is gospel,” he said.
His brief sojourn sounds similar to what happens to many raised around gospel and bluegrass. They become something akin to prodigal sons. McDonald says he sees this dynamic all the time in his audiences.
“I’ve seen grandmas and grandpas bringing their kids and grandkids…but they leave at age 17 or 18,” he said. “Then they come back at age 28 or 30.” He said the return to traditional music often happens because they become parents themselves.
“If you had a good time listening to bluegrass or gospel, the first thing you’re gonna do is bring them…like, let’s see if you enjoy it as much as dad did. They remember the feelings,” he continued, “and the sounds, and the fun times they had. The kids enjoy the camaraderie of becoming a fan of a group or person.”
For McDonald, his childhood energies went into being a devoted fan of Doyle Lawson.
“I was always a fan from the get-go,” he said, adding that he and Lawson are now also friends but that his fan status has never waned.
In addition to working on the new album, McDonald said the next months involve getting back on track with touring more heavily. The pandemic caused a standstill for musicians in 2020 and 2021, and performance opportunities decreased at least 20-percent both for his solo touring and Gaither appearances.
“I had a pretty rough 14 months, never looking at a microphone or riding on a bus,” he said. He’d been doing that – touring – for most of his life.
“It made you think about what your life was…we all went introspective on our lives,” he said. “For every musician in the business, there were some dark moments.”
He said the biggest inner question he had personally was: “Were we really doing what God called us to do?” He said in the end, the question resulted in an understanding and he speaks this clear and basic gospel in warm bass tones so that all might hear.
“To humble yourself and not take too much pride in what your ability is.”