"I guess they call it The Wooten Brothers, but in the beginning, it was more like Regi Wooten and Friends," says Regi Wooten of his days as a high-energy, super-funky guitarist just starting to make his way in Nashville. An audacious stylist, the guitarist is known for his innovative and improvisatory approach to funk music — not to mention keeping company with his four equally talented brothers. Twenty years ago, The Wooten Brothers Band began playing a weekly engagement at Nashville club 3rd & Lindsley, which had opened in April 1991. They're still at it, and celebrating two decades of futuristic funk, pop and R&B at the venue with an anniversary show this week.
The oldest of the brothers Wooten, Regi helped teach the rudiments of music to his bass-playing brother Victor. Roy — known by his musical sobriquet "Future Man" — took up percussion, while Joe became a keyboardist who currently plays with Steve Miller's band. The saxophone-playing member of the family, Rudy, died two years ago. Bouncing around the country in a military family, the brothers lived in Virginia and Hawaii before settling in Nashville.
As Regi says of those early days in Music City, "I told them, 'If you move here, I have a gig for you.' " The Wooten Brothers played their first show at 3rd & Lindsley in February of 1992. Victor and Roy had already joined banjoist Béla Fleck's acoustic-fusion group, The Flecktones, while Regi viewed Music City as territory for a funk band that was as progressive as Fleck's group.
"When I moved to Nashville, I saw all the colleges, and I knew there was country music here," Regi remembers. "But I wanted to sound different. I remember looking all around, and I didn't see other people doing what we were doing." What they were doing was old-school funk, soul and R&B — if you've ever seen Wooten take a careening solo during The Wooten Brothers' version of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," you've seen funk guitar taken to new extremes.
Wooten comes by his chops by dint of that old-school approach to playing and showmanship. "I used to play Virginia Beach, and I knew how to fill up the clubs, keep 'em on the dance floor," he says. "It's the pop-R&B sound — Prince; Earth, Wind and Fire. Those are the standards you have to play, every time."
A well-known guitar teacher, Wooten has a philosophical bent. "Sometimes people come to me not wanting so much to learn guitar, but to talk about a book they've read or a concept they want to discuss, or their taxes," he says. Wooten's style combines the linear approach of Frank Zappa with a feel for soul-influenced rhythm-guitar licks.
For 3rd & Lindsley owner Ron Brice, two decades hosting the amazing brothers has been a journey of weekly discovery. "I'd known about them — I think they were playing at a place called The Grapevine, down on Elliston Place," says Brice. "The first three years I owned this place, I actually bartended on Wednesday nights. So I saw every show there was to see of the Wootens, the first three years."
Regi says he's not sure who will show up for the anniversary show, but that's in the nature of how The Wooten Brothers have done things over the past 20 years. As he says, "It's gonna be a lot of people. I hope to have some funky dancers who come out. I always try to get the audience onstage at some point."