Quick, what do H.C. McEntire, Skylar Gudasz, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Nathan Bowles, The Dead Tongues, Josh Kimbrough, and Blue Cactus all have in common? The obvious answer is that they’re some of the Triangle’s most notable artists working at the crossroads of indie rock and Americana.
The less-obvious answer is Casey Toll. Over the last eight years, the 33-year-old Durham bassist has lent his discreet but distinct style to records and shows by all of them and more. Most recent was Eno Axis, where Toll’s wide, welling intervals lend majestic scale to McEntire’s tangled art-country lowlands. Before that was Cinema, where his dark, oiled tone fits perfectly with Gudasz’s chrome-and-moonlight sound.
But really, Toll has a way of vanishing into records. His parts help songs stand out without standing out themselves, and he’s sought for the warm but laconic presence that infuses his playing. Though his name has never graced an album cover, his placid patience almost subliminally runs through a rich vein of local music.
He’s the Triangle’s secret timekeeper, and it’s time we learned what makes him tick.
Tall and squarely built, with a soft, faintly bemused smile, Toll is too modest for a flashy origin. He grew up in Wilmington, where he started playing electric bass because all his friends had electric guitars, and somebody had to “bite the bullet.”
In middle school, he played at skateparks in a punk band called Eat Shit and Die. In high school, he was entranced by the high-concept indie rock of the early 2000s—Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica, The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin—but he also earned a little weekend scratch as a bassist for hire in “cheesy cover bands playing beach bars.”
“I feel like there’s always a need for bass players, which is kind of evidenced by why I picked it up,” he reasons.
All the while, he was also learning acoustic bass, first in school orchestra, then under the mentorship of jazz bassist Herman Burney, who was a friend of his parents. This was Toll’s path to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music with an emphasis on jazz performance.
He started to emerge on the local scene as he finished school near the end of the 2000s. He hung around Nightsound Studios in Carrboro, doing session work for jazz and folk musicians. He got hired onto tours by Dallas country singer Kristy Krüger and Brian Vander Ark from The Verve Pipe. Above all, he began his two most lasting partnerships.
One is with Gudasz, now his longtime significant other, in an early indie-folk band called Harmute and on through her two eponymous records. The other is with McEntire, a collaboration that now spans her two eponymous albums and two Mount Moriah albums. Jeff Crawford is the original Mount Moriah bassist who handed the torch to Toll.
“I don’t think I would have been nearly as quick to get a foothold in the music scene here without Jeff’s influence,” Toll says. “Learning his bass lines from the first Mount Moriah record definitely shaped my playing for the better.”
Crawford, who has recorded at his studio with Toll many times since then, calls him “the ideal bassist—very technically sound, but always serving the song thoughtfully without seeking credit.”
“He is definitely an unsung hero and never seeks out the spotlight, so it is overdue for him to receive it,” Crawford adds.
Indeed, Toll never plays six notes where two will do, and he dispenses words just as judiciously, especially when talking about himself. It’s more enlightening to ask his friends and watch them chase him down long corridors of adjectives as if something essential about him were always just out of reach.
Jenks Miller, the guitarist of Mount Moriah, calls Toll “a massively talented, egoless, giant, and giant-hearted guy,” while McEntire ventures “dependable, loyal, mellow, disciplined, and compassionate.”
“He truly plays music for the playing of music,” she says. “He’s not interested in accolades or rubbing elbows up ladder rungs. He’s a gentle spirit, shy—he plays so emotionally yet also technically, tastefully yet also experimentally, and always in service to the song, not his ego.”
In the late 2000s, Toll was working as a booth attendant at a parking garage in downtown Chapel Hill where Miller often parked with a drum kit or amp in his backseat. Gradually, they began to make small talk about music.
“Casey and I are both pretty shy,” Miller says. “I don’t think we knew each other’s names at first. He would squeeze his bass into the tiny parking booth to practice during his downtime.”
In 2010, well before its anticipated debut album came out, Mount Moriah was offered a tour supporting The Indigo Girls. But Crawford, their bassist, was settling in to build Arbor Ridge Studios in Chapel Hill. McEntire had also gotten to know Toll while they were both playing in a concert based on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
“We got on easy,” McEntire says. “It was obvious he had a hunger for music, that he was really talented and had this eager curiosity to put himself in new experiences.”
The next time Miller found Toll in the parking booth, he asked him to join Mount Moriah for the second leg of the Indigo Girls tour. Like Crawford, Miller would leave an indelible imprint on Toll.
“I’d like to think my specialty is finding a simple way to complement whatever else is going on,” Toll says. “I probably learned that from Jenks when I started playing with Mount Moriah, who emphasized the less-is-more approach—to be loud and present but not necessarily play a lot of notes.”
Toll’s first album with the band was Miracle Temple in 2013, where he cautiously felt his way into McEntire and Miller’s well-established dynamic. But while they were drawing him out of his shell, he was expanding theirs.
“Casey was still very withdrawn then,” Miller says. “He barely spoke at rehearsals, and Heather and I really had to work to draw him out. But his musical skill and work ethic were already there. Mount Moriah was writing music that referenced seventies rock and folk and later cowpunk stuff, and Casey had that down, but his jazz background helped push us out of our comfort zone. Heather and I are both largely self-taught. He could suggest chords or bridges we wouldn’t have considered in our intuitive mode of writing.”
By the time of recording How to Dance in 2016, Toll felt more confident as a member of the band—someone who shaped its sound rather than just pulling it off. By then, it seems, he’d grasped what mattered in the music, what it fundamentally was.
“One of Casey’s strengths is navigating a space between the root notes and Heather’s vocal melodies, which were always meant to be the focus of the songs,” Miller says. “This allows the arrangements to support the vocals without requiring as much activity from the guitars. As a guitar player who likes space, that always made me happy.”
That was the last Mount Moriah record to date, before McEntire released her two eponymous albums, Lionheart and Eno Axis, with a whole new band except for one steadfast person.
“He’s been my rock and a best friend for a decade now,” she says of Toll. “Collaboration insists you operate vulnerably and without hesitation, it requests trust and accountability, it requires respect, and it engenders ultimate intimacy. At this point, our connection has moved well beyond a musical partnership: He’s a soulmate.”
Toll still does plenty of work for hire. Last year was largely occupied by touring with the rock band Strand of Oaks. He was also joining a piano player for a biweekly jazz gig at The Eddy in Saxapahaw until the coronavirus shutdown. He’s not too picky about his money gigs, and when he commits, he’s all in, whether it’s a self-released folk session or a big album on Merge.
“Casey was always willing to work on any project, and no matter the level of prestige, he gave each project equal and thorough attention,” Crawford says.
But playing with friends or friends of friends keeps him too busy to do much he doesn’t want to do. For instance, Blue Cactus, the cosmic country duo of Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, originally had a third member, Nick Vandenberg, who wanted Toll for their self-titled 2017 record. Stewart and Arnez didn’t know him but admired his work with Mount Moriah and Gudasz.
“He’s the type of player who shows up to the first rehearsal with charts he made for himself and hardly needs them since he has already internalized the music,” Stewart says. “Casey has the most gentle, clever approach to suggesting new ideas in a way that almost makes you believe you’re the one making the suggestion.”
Josh Kimbrough, whose recent acoustic-guitar album, Slither, Soar & Disappear, was produced by Crawford, found the same balance of preparedness and freedom in Toll.
“We knew Casey would bring a certain magic and X factor to the recording,” Kimbrough says. “He knew the songs and the changes very well when he got to the studio. He brought in a palpable intensity. He was focused on getting inside of each song and finding the right feel. He added the perfect backbone and spontaneity.”
Toll has three basses, two electric and one upright. His oldest electric bass, a 1970s Ampeg model called The Little Stud, has a rich local pedigree. If Toll remembers correctly, he got it for his first Mount Moriah tour after it had been baptized in many Chapel Hill bands by James Wallace and Wylie Pamplin. But over the last few years, Toll has been using a Fender P Bass with a jazz pickup more often.
“I’ve always gone for a heavy, smooth tone,” he says. “I’m trying to get a little bit of a punchier sound, just based on some of the stuff I’ve been touring with. And The Little Stud is super heavy and hard to travel with.”
He’s just as pragmatic about the laminate-plywood upright bass that Herman Burney found for him at David Gage’s New York shop more than 20 years ago. Toll doesn’t even know the brand name. He just knows how it plays. And basses are really expensive.
“Also, I think it sounds great,” he says. “It was new when I got it, so the sound kind of continually opens up and feels more resonant, to me at least, as it gets older.”
He used to stick to electric or acoustic depending on the session, but in recent years, he’s been mixing them up more. He mostly plays the upright with Nathan Bowles and Jake Xerxes Fussell, which befits their old-time context, and mostly plays electric with Gudasz, though McEntire’s latest record features both.
These are the groups that Toll plays in rather than with. He appeared on Fussell’s prior two records, adding his musicological knowledge to that of the scholarly Southern folk and blues musician with the nimble Telecaster.
Fussell, who calls Toll his “favorite bass player on planet Earth” as well as a “superb human being,” knows him well enough to glimpse something mischievous darting behind his mild façade.
“Whenever he speaks, which is sort of seldom, it’s very quiet and sincere, and he makes direct eye contact, and often he’s sort of smiling, and you’ll think that you really need to listen to this heartfelt and tender story,” Fussell says. “But after you adjust your ears, you realize that what he’s telling you is a completely absurd narrative about how the behavior of a certain dragonfly he’s been observing in his backyard has been concerning him lately.”
Through backing Fussell, Toll met banjoist Nathan Bowles, whose cerebral take on string-band music calls for someone who is both earthy and arcane. Toll joined Bowles on Plainly Mistaken, released to national acclaim in 2018.
“Everyone has a different idea of a ‘musician’s musician,’ but I think myself and others enjoy playing with Casey because he strikes a very rare balance of studiousness and playfulness,” Bowles says. “Casey’s a real woodshedder, a dedicated practicer of his craft, but he’s also not bound by strict technique concerns or idiomatic restrictions. He uses his tools; he doesn’t let his tools use him.”
But probably no one knows Toll better than Skylar Gudasz, after their creative, professional, and domestic lives have been mingled for so long.
“It’s endlessly rewarding and of course also very difficult to work in creative collaboration with someone who you’re in a relationship with,” Gudasz says. “I don’t think it can work if you don’t both have the utmost respect for one another’s artistry, because you can’t lie to one another about anything. The creative relationship is kind of another partner in the relationship.”
Gudasz says she trusts Toll’s ear even if they disagree, which they seldom do on creative matters. Instead of driving each other crazy as working musicians, they understand each other’s drives and habits.
“Casey’s relationship to music is so encompassing, with such a complete technical mastery, but he’s also a very sensitive player, and it’s important to him to be both in tune with what the song is trying to do and also to generously listen to what the other players are trying to communicate,” Gudasz says.
To date, Toll’s artistry is defined in relation to others, and at last, we asked him the question everyone asks him eventually: After all the records featuring Casey Toll, will we ever hear the Casey Toll record?
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have those aspirations,” he says. “It’s part of my practice rituals to work on ideas I think could be something of my own. Sometimes they end up being incorporated into projects I’m working on. That’s just the way playing music with a lot of people is.”
Gudasz points out that Toll’s mother is a professional painter, and she thinks this shaped his mindset about music, bifurcated between the professional and personal.
“I think he grew up with this very realistic workingman’s approach to the practicalities of making a living as an artist,” she says. “And I think this also drove home that the art-making itself, and your relationship to your craft, is a very personal practice, almost outside of that—something I watch him engage in almost as a spiritual practice.”
For Toll, it seems, that’s more than enough. If being the X factor on other people’s records is an impediment to developing something all his own, he’s characteristically calm and generous about it.
“It would be [an impediment] if that was a huge desire that I felt like I was missing out on,” he says. “But I’ve been lucky to hit a sweet spot to play with a lot of people I care about, whose music I feel like is really important. I feel pretty comfortable adding what I can.”
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