Sonny Landreth Interview

Sonny Landreth – slide master, zydeco enthusiast, bluesman – has dabbled in several genres over the course of a decades-long career that started with the release of his debut album Blues Attack in 1981. Thirty-four years down the line, Landreth just released Bound by the Blues, a 10-track tribute to the original Delta bluesmen and contemporary blues artists alike that have inspired his journey. Comprised of covers and Landreth originals, Bound by the Blues demonstrates the give and take that has existed between musicians as long as the genre itself. A week before its release, Landreth spoke with Blues Rock Review about paying tribute to his heroes, the importance of Simcoe Street, and the hip-shaking Ed Sullivan Show guest who first inspired him to pick up a six-string.

How did the idea for Bound by the Blues come about?

I’d done another blues project, and it had been in the back of my mind. I know fans wanted it, too. The more I thought about it, it just felt like the right time. I tend to like to go from one direction to the other with my projects. The last project was Elemental Journey, and the orchestration was a much broader range of compositions. It felt like a good idea to turn around and go back to doing a three-piece, just like we do in the gigs every night. That’s basically what we did. I decided to do half covers of old standards, and then I wrote half the songs inspired by those old songs. The more that evolved, the concept came about. I’m really happy with the way it all turned out.

This album has been described as an amalgamation of your musical roots and inspirations. What does this record mean to you?

Speaking of these old songs, it’s funny how it kick started as an idea. I was talking to Roy Rogers on the phone – we were preparing to do a gig together a few years ago, and we were hive minding what songs we knew that we could do together while I sat in with him and his band. We settled on some Robert Johnson and Elmore James songs, and before we hung up, he said, “We’ll just do some we know, but we won’t do ‘Dust My Broom’ because it’s been done too much. We don’t need to do that one.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right, we don’t need to do that one.”

I hung up the phone, and then that kind of got the wheels turning. The more I thought about it, I was like, “Well, what if I did do that song? How would I do it? What could I bring to the table?” That opened the door. Except, if you think about it, there’s a creative element to coming up with another perspective on a song that’s been done so much – especially that one, with that riff everybody knows. It’s probably one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. You want to treat it with respect, of course, but at the same time, you’ve got to do something that gives it a twist. I got to thinking about all that and looking at the songs I’ve been doing over the years, like “Key to the Highway” and “It Hurts Me Too.” I’ve been playing those songs for 30, 35 years or more. Then I realized how different those songs were, the way I play them now compared to when I first learned them. Along the way it changed. I realized that, as my technique evolved, I brought that back into the fold with these songs and they changed. It’s a beautiful dance, in a way. It became much more personal. In studying these old songs, when you know the history behind them, it’s way more complex. There’s a rich background to draw from. So that made it even more personal. As I got into writing the new material, it just seemed to take a life of its own, and I love when that happens.

When you decide to record a cover, how do you find that balance between conserving the original and making it your own?

Another thing I realized is how sneaky some of the changes with these songs are. If you’ve been playing them over the years, they do evolve: they take on a life of their own. I tend to gravitate toward the songs that do that. There are songs of mine in the set over the years where the same thing happened. I always tell younger players that it’s not enough to learn the song technically: you need to study the history behind the song. There’s so much available now, and it gives you a much greater appreciation of the overview. These people went through the players and musicians, how things worked for them back in those days and how they’ve learned from each other and taken from each other. In a way, it’s a spoken tradition. You want to pay tribute to them, but at the same time you have to trust your instincts to find what works and what’s too much. I think part of it is just, if you play them a lot, they do inspire you and take you to places you might not have thought of otherwise.

Can you walk me through the album and explain the selection process behind each song?

The songs that I covered really came out of a practical perspective. They’re the ones we’ve been playing. I felt like that was a good thing. We literally went into the studio, just the three of us, and cut these live. I did have to redo the vocals – I had terrible allergy problems at the time – so I had to redo all that, but I ended up being real happy with what I got. We took these songs, for example, “Walking Blues,” a Robert Johnson classic. As a teenager, I discovered the version from Paul Butterfield and his band. That was part of the inspiration. The idea was, here’s a song we took, rearranged, I came up with these ideas for it, and then we were out playing them. I had a theme going into the studio when we began to record, and that was a good way to get the whole project started. That would include “It Hurts Me Too,” an Elmore classic I always loved.

“Cherry Ball Blues,” a Skip James tune, came about from a guitar festival I did several years ago with Cindy Cashdollar. We did a duet. The festival was in [James’] honor, so I got to go back to those songs and was like, “‘Cherry Ball’ would be a great one to do,” and we just played it on the spot. That was about seven years ago, I think. It’s been just stuck, and I started playing it with my band. That’s another good example of how one thing can lead to another. I never would have guessed that coming out of that would have been a song so important to me. I really wanted to record it. “Dust My Broom,” which we were talking about earlier, that was probably the one that I wanted to nail the most. We hadn’t been playing that one, so I basically went to some guitar techniques that I thought would give it a different voice.

Sonny Landreth
Sonny Landreth

“Key to the Highway” has been in the set longer than any others. It’s been so long I can’t exactly remember when I first started playing it. But it’s really changed a lot. I actually recorded that song back in ’81 on an album called Blues Attack. It’s in a different key and I did it with a resonator guitar, so it’s a great example of the years in between and the changes made. “Bound by the Blues” ended up being the title track. It made the concept for the album. The notion that blues is a universal language and that people from everywhere relate to the blues…I feel that our experiences bind us. The theme of grace in the face of adversity – that’s something everyone relates to. I thought that was an important point to make. I also wanted to pay tribute to my heroes and their music. That was important, too.

“The High Side” is a song I wrote for this project that is all acoustic. That was basically from some misadventures many years ago, when I was much younger. I was trying to get through the panhandle of Texas on the way to Colorado. “Where They Will” is another one that was really important with this project. There’s an element of just letting it take me where it would, to be open to surprises and wherever they may lead. I think that was a good perspective to have. “Firebird Blues” is an instrumental I wrote for Johnny Winter. He was really important to me, and since this was an album in part honoring my heroes, I really wanted to include him, as news of his death came out before we started recording. So I thought, “I’ll get some Firebird out and a vintage Marshall rig,” which is basically the same setup that he played with when I first heard him in Houston back in 1970. We’ve got a lot of history. We became friends and worked together.

What does that leave…oh, there’s an instrumental called “Simcoe Street.” My engineer moves around every three or four years, and no matter where he moves his studio, he’s always next to train tracks. He had a house across the street that we did the last album in, and he moved into the house he’s in now. It’s on the corner of Simcoe Street, [which] runs right in front of both of them. It’s a real colorful neighborhood; I’ve had a lot of history with that part of town. My family first moved to Lafayette, Louisiana when I was seven years old, and we lived about four blocks down that street. It’s got a lot of meaning for me. And I found my little dog, about ten years ago. He’d gotten run over on the other end of Simcoe Street. I actually named him Simcoe, so there’s another one. That particular song…that’s the only one actually that I went in and I had, as an original, the theme, the name, and the riff for several years – but I had never finished it. What’s great about when you decide to do another project, I get fired up, and that pushes me to finish ideas, some of which I may have had previously. It went from becoming an idea to a real song. We literally worked that one out on the spot. I think that’s all of them.

How has your approach to imagining and recording albums changed since your first release Blues Attack in 1981?

That’s quite a long period of time there between one and the other. Back in those days, in ’81, I didn’t have a clue. Essentially, I was trying to capture the sounds I’d heard in my head, even though I had very few ideas for how to do that. Plus, back in those days, to go into the studio and record an album was a really big deal. There just weren’t that many around. You had to do a lot of work beforehand and a lot of work once you got in to find out what worked and what didn’t. I’ve had the advantage of years of doing that. Of course now, with the technology, you can record an album in your bedroom. I can’t say I foresaw that in any fashion or form, but I do appreciate the technology now. We use a lot of vintage gear, too, with the use of Pro Tools, as well. I think more now, having done all the work I have, it does help prepare you, and you know what to look for and what to watch out for. I think one of the main things is to trust your instincts. Regardless of all the preparation you may have, you should always allow for the surprises that happen creatively. I’ve learned to trust that, and it’s done me well. I go in with a certain amount of ideas about instruments I’m going to use, amps and the like, and at the same time, I like to keep all that handy, so that if something happens in the moment, I’ll just grab it, and it’ll take me in a different direction. For example, I’ll go, “Oh, a National resonator would be perfect on this piece,” and we sort of discover that while we’re in the midst of it. Whereas, with another song, I’d decided to include the National because of the color it gave to that particular piece. Actually, for “Bound by the Blues,” I wrote a verse dedicated to the National resonator guitar because it had such an impact. Historically speaking, with all the Delta bluesmen, they were so fond of the instrument. It’s such a unique sound, so I felt like that was important, too.

You’ve explored several genres over the years, from zydeco and folk to country and blues. What is it about the blues that draws you in?

Sonny Landreth
Sonny Landreth

I think the fact that, when I was a kid, the vocal quality of the guitar, the call and response with the singer’s voice, the story songs…it was like the whole package. There’s such a well of wisdom at the core of it, life lessons. Thinking of it in terms of a universal language, it does speak to everyone. It’s really soulful. It goes beyond all the categories and genres and so forth, and there’s an honesty about that, at the core of it, that shines through for me. Honestly, in everything I’ve done, at the heart, the blues is still there – it wasn’t far at all. It may be in the phrasing, or melody, Sonny Landreththe sensibilities, whatever. The tune could be any kind of music, but there’s always those blue notes right there, and if you massage it right, you can work it into the context of whatever music you may be playing or whatever kind of project you’re working on. I think that’s probably one of things that hooked me from the beginning and that I still love. It’s really a point of reference for me; it reels me back in if I’m going in the wrong direction. I think about what my heroes would have done, or how they would approach something, and it keeps me on track.

There’s this perpetual need to classify music by genre, but it seems that genre boundaries are fluid; they don’t necessarily play by those categorical rules.

Yeah. Some things are obviously what they are, but most of the time I think all that’s very limiting. I know it’s a cliché to say that, but it’s still true. That’s the difference between playing music and the business of music. They’re always wanting to find ways to categorize things to sell it, manufacture it, and so forth, but I think creatively speaking, it’s quite limiting to think like that. I don’t really think in terms of genres. It’s more about serving the song, and again, if you follow your instincts, it’ll take you to the right place. There’s a lot to bringing that all together, so that you’re not going on two different tracks at once. That’s what slide guitar did for me. Growing up, I did feel very comfortable playing a lot of different styles of music. But then I realized, when I got into slide guitar and the finger style approach, that gave me a way to take all that in and crystallize it into a unified sound. That really set me on my path in developing my own style.

Speaking of slide, you have in the past likened the sound of slide to vocals coaxed from a guitar. Are there any particular tones or voices that you aspired to deliver on Bound by the Blues?

I think most of it goes back to the inspiration from the old Delta bluesmen. In one of [the songs] there’s imagery of trains, and since we recorded right next to the tracks, we were not lacking in a point of reference. We’d be mixing and have to stop because the train was so loud. It’s funny, we’d go, “That’s the note I was just playing.” It’s pretty cool when something like that happens. I think it depends on the song, it depends on the lyric, and I just try to find those sounds and tones that support that. Just like the story songs of the Delta bluesmen – it could be the sound of the wind, it could be feet marching, and all of that really adds a lot of imagery to support the song. It’s a soundtrack for the lyrics, and I’ve always liked the imagery.

Were there any difficulties during the recording process for this album?

In terms of finishing the writing, I actually struggled with “The High Side.” For whatever reason, I kept running into a wall with it. But I kept at it, and finally I had something of a breakthrough. I had the concept, I knew what I wanted to convey, but I just couldn’t find a cool way to do it without sounding mundane. When that finally came through, it’s almost like it produced itself, because it was a natural theme for me, to go back to the resonator guitar for that track. The era that the song harkens back to, these experiences that were many years ago for me, at that time I didn’t even play electric guitar. For about two years I was playing acoustic: a Martin D-28 and the first metal-bodied dobros that came out, back in…I think back in ’72 or ’71. So that was a natural fit for that song, and it really helped me paint my way toward finding the right way to do that song. After I got through that, I felt like it was one of the most fun things I’ve done.

Your website identifies a B.B. King concert you attended as a teenager as an influential event for you. Given King’s recent passing, is there anything you’d like to say about him or the musical relationship you had with him?

Yeah; he was a big one for me. I’ve heard B.B. play far more than any other artists in my whole life. It started with…I’d heard that he was playing this little club south of my hometown of Lafayette, a club called Leo’s Rendezvous. I went down there with a friend of mine, and we got in and he just tore it up. It blew my mind. He played quite a long time, and then he took a break. While he was taking a break, he had this guy walking around with these 8×10 glossy photos, which [B.B.] would sign. He walked over to the bar, which was about 20 feet from the stage; it wasn’t even a stage, it was where the band had set up. So I walked over and just started talking to him. He was so gracious. He really took time to talk to me. That began my love affair of him and his music. Over the years, I had a lot of history with him, connections with him, and I eventually played in a band that was on his blues tour; we did that for almost four months. Sharing the stage with him a couple of times, on New Year’s Eve, and also with all the Crossroads stuff for Eric Clapton. So from way back when I was 16, from that point on, the thrill was never gone for me with him. The other thing about him, just looking back in terms of history, the call and response between him and Lucille, his guitar, has to be the greatest run of all time. I don’t think there’ll ever be a conversation like that going on. He took that with him, and he left such a rich legacy. He was just the greatest. We’re very fortunate to have had him, and for so long, with all those shows he did. It’s a wealth of music to go back and take in.

It’s amazing to imagine just chatting with a musician at a bar. It seems like fans nowadays have very few opportunities to do things like that.

It’s true. I was talking about that with somebody just the other day. I was fortunate to encounter B.B. Of course he was well known, but he wasn’t a superstar quite yet; he was still doing the circuit, obviously, playing in that little joint. But that just goes to show: he would play every night. He was always pushing the boundary and perfecting what he was doing. It was really fortunate for me to catch him at that time before he became so big, but I tell you, even later, he would make himself available to people. He would pull the bus up outside and he’d sit on the steps. People would line up, he’d sign autographs. He didn’t have to do that, and he was always like that: always very open and compassionate and caring for people. It was obvious in his performance; he’d put all that into his set every night, too.

Looking back on your career, is there any music-related memory that stands out as having a huge influence on you?

The big one was, when I was a kid, I was originally from Mississippi, and Elvis Presley hit at that time. My older brother Steven, there was always music in the house because of him. When [Elvis] made that first appearance on TV, I was hooked on the guitar, especially Scotty Moore, the guitar player. There were these little plastic Elvis guitars that were popular in the day, so my brother and I would entertain the relatives, yelling and making a racket with those things. [Chuckles] They thought it was really cute back then; I don’t know about later. But it’s funny how that sort of started the whole thing for me. I wanted to play a guitar and I wanted to play in a band. I’ve never looked back.

Interview by Meghan Roos.

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