“Music is not about music. Music is about life. If we lose sight of what life is about, then our music suffers.” Grammy Award-winning musician Victor Wooten joins Zibby to talk about his new book, The Spirit of Music. The two discuss Victor’s rich cultural upbringing, the inspiration for his books, and the influence nature has on both his performances and his immersive music camp.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Victor. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Victor Wooten: I love that name as well as your name, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. It’s short for Elizabeth. I just have had it my whole life. Can’t get rid of it.

Victor: Much better, Zibby. Elizabeth is nice, but Zibby is you. I like that.

Zibby: Thank you. Your second book, The Spirit of Music, beautiful, amazing memoir really like a love letter to music and its role in your life in addition to other background. Tell me about writing this book, what it was like writing this book. Why now? Go.

Victor: I like that, a love letter to music. I’m going to use that if that’s okay.

Zibby: Take it.

Victor: I love that. I wrote the first book, The Music Lesson, maybe around 2005 or ’06, probably ’06. I published it myself first just for fun. I had no idea what I was doing. I just put it on my website and sold it. Then a bigger company picked it up. The book has done very, very well. I also knew, even when I was writing that book, The Music Lesson, that I had more to say. Penguin put it out in 2008. In 2011, I started writing The Spirit of Music, but it didn’t flow. It wasn’t flowing the same way The Music Lesson just poured out. I didn’t force it. I stopped. I was touring a lot. I was under no obligation to even write another book. I put it off until 2017. I started writing again thinking that I was going to have to start all over. I read what I had written back in 2011 and realized I liked it. I reworked it and basically finished it. I was going to put it out myself, actually, again, except a friend of mine who had retired from Penguin said, “Look, just call this one guy before you do it yourself. Call this guy.” I called this guy and fell in love with him, he’s a great person, and ended up putting it out with the company again. Basically, I just felt that there was more to say. There’s still more to say. I just have to see whether I’ll take the time to write about it again.

Zibby: I was really interested in one section where you were feeling a bit bedraggled and not fulfilled by the touring and the crazy schedule. You went back home with this ten-hour drive. You talked to your dad and said, “I’m not making time for music.” He was like, “Then you’re not making time for you,” or something really amazing that he said. Tell me a little bit about that and how even if you’re touring you can’t necessarily get your own musical needs met in a way. Tell me about that.

Victor: This is what could possibly turn into a third book. The first book drops the idea that music is sick. I couldn’t leave it there. This book goes into the possibilities of why she is sick, what we can do about it. For me, what’s just as important — this is what my parents were concerned with from my birth. I’m the youngest of five boys that play music. I don’t really talk about that in this story. I’m the youngest of five. I really learned from them. My parents, my mom especially, had a saying that I quote a lot that says, “What does the world need with just another good musician?” She says, “We have plenty.” Then she said, “What the world needs are good people.” More than ever, I’ve noticed during this pandemic that a lot of musicians, not just musicians, but people in general, we’ve kind of gotten lost. We’ve lost ourselves because we’ve learned to define ourselves by what we do. Now that I’ve had to put the bass guitar down, something’s left. Who is that? What is that? Who is that person behind what we do? The pandemic is forcing us to take a look at that. Many of us have realized, wow, I haven’t looked at that enough. Maybe I love who that person is or maybe I don’t, but that person needs to be nourished so that I can bring a better me to what I do. Music is not about music. Music is about life. If we lose sight of what life is about, then our music suffers. Then I would say music herself suffers.

Zibby: Wow. It’s almost like music is a parable of sorts for the whole world. You could say the same thing for the environment or mother nature. It’s a greater good.

Victor: I totally agree with that. My outlook is that music exists, you can hear it in your head, I can hear it in my head, but for music to take a physical form, it needs a being and an instrument. It could be a bird and their voice, but it’s still a being and an instrument. For me, it’s me and a bass guitar. I’m much more musical without the bass guitar, but the bass guitar allows me to express to you how musical I am. It also allows music to become a vibration. In another sense, it allows music to be born on earth. Music already exists. For it to vibrate, it needs us. Music is indebted to us in the same way we are indebted to music. We need each other, at least on this plane we call Earth and life. I hope this comes out right. It’s like having a child. The more healthy we are, the more together, the better that child will enter the world and hopefully exist in the world. Music is the same. When we have ourselves together, music comes in on a more pure form.

Zibby: I feel like, though, that the reputation of many musicians as these rock and roll, crazy people is not necessarily the picture of perfect emotional health.

Victor: I don’t want to be the one that says, I know what perfect emotional health is. I don’t want to claim that. In my view, a lot of my musical heroes were maybe failures in life. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s what they needed to do what they did. What you call a good person can’t exist without a bad person. Both are necessary. I can’t say that one was wrong or one was bad because it gave me things. It gave me both sides or all sides to look at. I’m thankful for that. I’ve learned so much from all these musicians.

Zibby: Who are some of your musical heroes?

Victor: You could name them. They’re really all of them. I grew up in the Motown era, so there were people like The Temptations and The Jackson 5, of course. Stevie Wonder came along. Then James Brown wasn’t Motown, but he was still there. I grew up in that era. At the same time that Motown was happening, The Beatles were happening and Led Zeppelin and The Who and bands like that. Chicago came along. There were horn bands like Chicago, but then there was also Earth, Wind, & Fire on the R&B side. Then there was also Tower of Power who was somewhere in the middle. The pop radio stations back in the seventies and sixties, pop radio only meant popular. It was just short for popular. The pop stations played whatever was popular, every style. I had heroes that I didn’t even know were my heroes just because I grew up on it. The people that I was really conscious of were some of the people like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin. My mom would always play this gospel music every Sunday, Mahalia Jackson, things like that. Then we got into jazz. My dad used to love singing country, so I knew about Burl Ives and different people like that, Willie Nelson of course.

Zibby: You had a 360 immersion, essentially, in music and music culture from day one, it sounds like.

Victor: Fortunately, I did because of my parents and my brothers. Now, I grew up playing mostly R&B because of the dances and things that we got hired to play were mostly black people who wanted to dance to some soul music. It was a lot of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and Jackson 5, of course, and things like that. At home, we were into everything. As we grew, we got the chance to play everything from Van Halen to The Beatles to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and all of the above.

Zibby: How did you go from being a music-loving, listening, playing at dances, to being a five-time Grammy-winning bass guitarist?

Victor: One thing leads to the other. The more you do anything, the longer you do it, the more you learn about it and the more people learn about you, especially if you’re good at it. The five of us brothers, we’re good. I had no choice but to be good in the same way you’re good at English. You don’t think about that, but you’re really good at it. It’s because your family was good at it. You started jamming with them in English as a toddler. I had the same thing presented to me as music. I was jamming as a toddler. By the time I was five, we were out gigging, touring, and things like that. After a while, people start hearing about you. The better you get, you start meeting and getting a chance to interact with people who are better. One thing leads to another. I’m working with this banjo player. That was never in my playbook, that you’re going to play with a banjo player. One thing led to another. We put this band together. A bunch of Grammys later and touring later and albums later, we’re still doing it. Again, awards come from other people. Once people find about you, it’s very possible that you win an award, but you’re not in charge of that. Other people are.

Zibby: When did you discover that you loved to write?

Victor: A book?

Zibby: Yeah. I’m assuming you — I’m shouldn’t even assume that. Let me go back.

Victor: I meant about writing music. I wasn’t sure.

Zibby: Oh, I meant writing your two books.

Victor: You know what? That’s a good question. I don’t really know because I stayed away from it. I’ve been running music camps. I just actually released this year’s schedule today. This will be our twenty-second year of running music and nature camps. Because I learned to play music in a different way, I teach it in a different way. Students, for years, have said, “You have to put this in a book. You need to write a book. This is cool. This is different.” I was like, I don’t want to write a book. I don’t want a Wooten Method. I don’t want to put this in a form that I have to defend. You come to my camp, you get it. We’re cool. The world may not understand what I’m talking about. I don’t want to have to defend it. I stayed away, years, from writing a book until I was in a car with a friend of mine. Picked me up from the airport, and in his passenger seat was a brand-new copy of Richard Bach’s Illusions. What went through my head as I moved the book out of the seat, what went through my head is — I remember reading this book at maybe fourteen, fifteen because my brother had read it. I told myself in my head, I said, I bet I could write this book now. I know this information so well.

The lightbulb went off. That’s the way to write the information these people are asking for, these students. Don’t write an instruction manual, the Wooten Method. Write a story. Let’s call it fiction, but put the truth in there. Let people find it if they want. If they don’t want it, the story’s still cool. Star Wars, any of those movies, the stories are great. There’s lessons there, but you don’t have to get them. I started right away and poured it out over a couple of tours with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. We’d do a gig. I’d stay up all night until sunup just writing. Basically, the book is patterned after the class that I was teaching where we break music into ten equal parts. I show them how we’re not focusing enough on the other nine. We’re only focusing a lot on notes. People liked that, so I wrote a book about it. I was already teaching when I talked about notes. I talked about tracking animals. When I talked about space, I talked about this. I had the parables, the ideas. How to put it into a cohesive story that goes from beginning to end, that was a little bit of a challenge, but I had help, people who knew how to write to step in and say, this is good, this sucks, that kind of thing. I was fortunate to have that.

Zibby: That’s good. Don’t worry. I feel most people, when they work on books, have those people too. It’s okay. When you were writing about how you hear all the sounds in the world and how everything from — I’m going to get the note wrong — the B note of your alarm clock or how you hear things, do you feel like you have a heightened sense of sound like in the Sound of Metal or something? Did you see that movie yet? I don’t know if you saw it. Do you have this heightened awareness, like it’s almost piercing, what you hear? What do you think?

Victor: Yes and no. In other words, I don’t think my hearing is better than anyone’s. I would go as far as to say it’s worse, but I do pay attention. There are others that pay attention more than me. In my years from 1991 to 2001, I studied with some nature teachers, how to live off the land the way our natives — the people that are the reason that we are here, they had to know these skills when there weren’t hospitals, when there weren’t grocery stores, things like that. That’s how my parents grew up. In learning that, I realized the importance of listening. I realized the animals that live outdoors, if they don’t listen, they’re dead immediately. Through these classes, I learned basically to pay attention. One of the things, I think I even wrote it in the new book, came from one of my nature teachers who said, “A few times a day, just stop what you’re doing. Just ask yourself, what am I missing?” Look around. Listen around. Feel around. Oh, the sun’s on this side, not on this side. It’s just really changed my life. It’s totally changed my music and the way I teach it, which is why now I use nature in all of my teachings.

Zibby: Wow. That’s really it. That’s the whole in-the-moment, wellness movement that’s going on right now. It’s just another way to look at it.

Victor: It’s being natural. A deer doesn’t have to take yoga. They just do their natural movements. They’re totally natural. A bird doesn’t have to practice singing. They’re not singing to win awards. They just sing because the sun comes up and they feel it, or to their mate or whatever. When you find anybody in the human world that’s really good at something, especially sometimes when it doesn’t seem like they should be — you do something for the first time and you do it well, what do we say? Wow, you’re a natural. Zibby, you’re a natural. What that means is you’re like nature. Nature is the most natural thing on the planet. The world natural means to be like nature. In the dictionary, it also says natural means without sharps or with flats. It’s also a musical term. Even the dictionary makes the connection with music and nature. When you’re at the height of what you do, we call you a natural. I believe our quest to become more like nature. In music, we’re told to sit in a room and practice, which is the most unnatural way to learn anything.

Zibby: No one wants to do that. You’re obviously a natural at teaching. I could sit and listen to you forever, the way you speak and the tone of your voice and the depth and introspection and your point of view of the world. What do you get out of that? What do you get out of sharing what you’ve learned? Why do it? Why share it?

Victor: I think it was attributed to Einstein that says, if you can’t teach it simply, you don’t know it well enough.

Zibby: I love that.

Victor: There’s a saying. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s so true. You teach what you most need to learn. I can think of so many stories of people who just get into a certain religion or someone who just learned about essential oils or someone who just becomes a vegetarian or someone who just starts taking yoga, they want to convince the world, everybody they meet, all their friends. That’s all they talk about. They talk about it as if they’re an expert. We talk about it because we want to learn more about it. We need to learn more about it. That’s a long answer to say I grow every time I share. I also love seeing the student — I hate to even call them student. I like to see the person that I’m sharing the information with, their eyes gloss over to where me, the teacher, disappears. They’re in their own head, their own body, their own world figuring it out. I love that. I get to see it many, many times a year doing these camps and teaching at colleges. That’s the best, is to see the receiver of the information turn it into their information.

Zibby: Is this a sleepaway camp? Tell me about this camp.

Victor: We started it in 2000. Now we have our own location, 150-acre place on a river just west of Nashville called Wooten Woods. The camp is a non-for-profit. My wife and I, who own it, don’t take any money from it. We have cabins there for everyone to sleep. There’s a bathroom, men and women side. There’s classrooms. There’s a full stage. There’s a kitchen with a chef who cooks for everyone, the best food. He likes to surprise the students on the first night, usually, and cook lobster. There’s lobster and salmon and all kinds of veggies and gluten free, whatever you want. When we do the camps, we’re all there together. Most of the time, we don’t leave the property. We don’t need to. There’s no internet. You can’t really desensitize from it. It’s not like you go to our camp during the day. Then you go to your hotel and turn on the news at night. No, we’re there the whole time. There’s things that I’ve learned through my brother’s teaching or through some of my nature teachers, some little hacks that will get people to receive your information as well as receive each other. We have students from around the world. People come with a wall or a barrier up. We get them to let down that barrier really quickly, to the point where even I disappear. My biggest compliment that I’ve heard multiple times is people telling me, once the camp is over, they said, “You know Victor,” or a child might say, “You know, Mr. Wooten,” which always makes me laugh, “When I first got here, I was like, wow, there goes Victor Wooten.” Then they say, “But now, I see everybody that way.” I’m like, yes, that’s what we want. That’s what my mom wanted. That’s what my dad wanted. Who can’t play music? Anyone. When you’re seen as a good person and then when your good person allows everyone to see everybody as a good person, that, to me, is success.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. What advice would you have for somebody who is trying to write a book?

Victor: Write the book you would like to read. That’s what I did. I wrote it in the style of books that I like to read. It was based off of Illusions, Richard Bach, a teacher and a student. It was also based off of one of my nature teachers, Tom Brown Jr. who wrote stories about his teacher teaching him as a kid. That was my model. Then get help. There’s certain things that I would’ve never noticed except the guy said, “You know what? You have your own style of writing. You really do, but over in this section, you left that style. Did you mean to do that?” I was like, “I didn’t even know I had a style. No, I didn’t mean to leave it if I have one.” It’s always good, whatever you’re doing, to get an outside view, even if the outside view is you. You want to be able to see yourself from the outside, but not only your view because we will overlook certain things about ourselves. I have a good friend who’s done a lot of writing. He was teaching at Stanford at the time. I would write a chapter. I’d sent it to him. I’d type it in Word or whatever and email it to him. He would print it out, read it, mark it in a red pen, and mail it back. I would go, oh, wow, I know nothing about punction, I find out. That would be the one thing, to write the book you would like to read, and get help.

Zibby: Many people should probably seek professional help before writing a book because you’re going to need it to get through the process. No, I’m just kidding. Yes, excellent advice. Victor, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for this very soulful conversation. You’re obviously a very special man. It’s really nice to have met you.

Victor: Appreciate it, Zibby.


THE SPIRIT OF MUSIC by Victor Wooten

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