Billy Cox leads Experience Hendrix through Jimi's best 

A Q&A with the legendary bassist and bandleader

The critically acclaimed Experience Hendrix tribute project celebrates the music and vibes of the late, great Jimi Hendrix with a brilliant cast of musicians. Billy Cox, a veteran bassist from the Band of Gypsys and Jimi Hendrix Experience, leads an all-star roster of heavy-hitters.

The Experience Hendrix project began in 1995 at the Hendrix family's first fully sponsored tribute concert at Seattle's annual Bumbershoot Arts & Music Festival. From its early beginnings as the Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Festival, the tribute concert series grew from a single event into an ongoing concert series.

The 2012 edition of the Experience Hendrix Tour is a three-week run of dates starting March 6 and running for three weeks. This week's lineup at the North Charleston performing Arts Center features Cox as the bandleader with Buddy Guy, Johnny Lang, Robert Randolph, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dweezil Zappa, Brad Whitford, Chris Layton, the Slide Brothers, Mato, and others.

Cox started jamming with Hendrix when they were serving in the Army at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1961. After Hendrix moved to London and formed the Experience, Cox continued to play with R&B bands. When the Experience broke up in 1969, Hendrix invited Cox to join him in the Band of Gypsys. They went on to play at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival. Hendrix died in late 1970, just as the trio was gaining momentum. Cox continued to play with various bands and musicians after Hendrix's death. He was recently inducted into the Musician's Hall of Fame.
City Paper spoke with Cox this week:

City Paper: It's easy to hear different styles of rock, blues, and soul in the music of the Experience Hendrix set. It seems like it all comes together in a very natural way.

Billy Cox: It really does. The main factor in there is that we're all aficionados of Jimi Hendrix. I was one of early specters of what Jimi was all about, and all of these musician gravitated toward this great music that Jim created. Even now, more than 40 years later, the music still sounds as good as it did back then.

City Paper: As one of Hendrix's old bandmates and friends, are you constantly asked about those early days?

Billy Cox: Sure. The questions come from different angles, but it's all about the same thing. What was he like? What kind of guy was he? How did he operate? I could sit here for two or three hours and talk about all of that. But, musically, he was a genius. What makes his music so important — even today —is the fact that he wrote in the now. Artists that write in the now make music that reaches down through the generations and transcends time and cultural boundaries. That's what Jimi Hendrix music is all about.

City Paper: In the world of rock, there's an ever-evolving reworking and reinterpretation of Hendrix's music, but the main stuff is always there — the soul and the expression and the rhythm. It continues to be a major part of the heart of rock music.

Billy Cox: Well, Jimi took the guitar to another level, and threw the rule book out the door. Prior to Hendrix, everyone followed this rule book where you had eight bars here and 16 bars there, and everything had to equal out. Jimi would put things together in seven bars or nine bars, or put a major key up against a minor key, or visa versa. He was free with his music, and he simply played with that spirit that dwelled within him.

City Paper: How did playing with Hendrix influence you as a bassist — and as a musician overall?

Billy Cox: I also become more free with my own playing. I realized that with the bass, I had to maintain things and keep that bottom end flowing. With the Band of Gypsys, Buddy [Miles] would sometimes go to right field and Jimi would go to left field ... those guys would go into space, but I knew that I had to stay on Earth. Playing with Mitch Mitchell in the Experience was like that, too. It worked out well. You know, I'm not a guitarist — I'm a bassist. I've really enjoyed being a bass player over the years.

City Paper: Tell us about your new studio album, Old School Blue Blues [a 12-song collection released on Cox's Gypsy Sun imprint].

Billy Cox: I was thinking that rock music had kind of lost its way and become too technical. Basically, I wanted to get some simple blues feels and take it from there. I wanted to take it back to the basics. Simple blues is where my roots are, and it's what I enjoy doing. I like expressing feelings and life through that.

City Paper: There's an all-star roster of guitarists on this tour, but we noticed that drummer Chris Layton [from Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble] was a prominent part of the rhythm section. It seems like you click well together.

Billy Cox: Chris is an incredible drummer. The musical relationship is great. We've been doing this for the past seven or eight years together.

City Paper: So you and Layton are the anchor, and the special guest guitarists float over you.

Billy Cox: Yeah. More than anything else, this group of musicians embodies the true spirit of Jimi Hendrix and his music. They really are aficionados. It's like watching a great pianist playing Bach, Mozart, or Gershwin; here, you have the songs of a master being played by other masters. If you love Jimi Hendrix and come to this concert, it'll be unlike any other concert experience you've ever had. We have some of the greatest guitar players in the world, and they all add their own flavor to the music. I call it the concert event of the year. No lip-synching, no soundtracks ... this is the real deal.

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