The Time of His Life
by Derek Halsey
There are times in a lucky musician’s life when good things happen, one right after another. I use the word ‘lucky’ because there are far more musicians who don’t make the big time than who do. When Gritz Magazine interviewed guitar great Derek Trucks a few weeks ago at the end of March of 2006, it was at a focal point in his life and career that amazed even him. As this conversation took place Trucks was experiencing all of these realities at the same time; he was riding high on the release of perhaps the best album the Derek Trucks Band has ever put out called “Songlines,” only days earlier he finished the yearly 14-night run at the Beacon Theater in New York City as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, he just appeared on the Late Night With Conan O’Brien Show with his own group, he just signed a year’s contract to be a member of Eric Clapton’s 2006-07 touring band with rehearsals about to start in Europe, and on top of all of that he is a 26-year old man who is married to the beautiful and talented singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi with two wonderful kids to round out his young family.
At 26 years of age, Derek Trucks has long outgrown the ‘prodigy’ moniker that was thrown at him in years past. It is impressive that he started playing onstage at 11 years old, but that also means he has been in the business for 15 years now. He jammed with Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band before he was a teenager, which turned the heads of a lot of people. While it is true that his uncle, Butch Trucks, is an original member and still a drummer of the Allman Brothers Band, Derek’s appearance with the group was more than a case of familial ties. Even then, he could really pick. That got the attention of Buddy Guy, who brought him out to play, and Col. Bruce Hampton, who brought him in to record. In 1999 Derek permanently joined the Allman Brothers Band and, with the help of Warren Haynes, Marc Quinones, and Oteil Burbridge, brought young blood and new life to the group. But all along the way he has kept the Derek Trucks Band together.
The members of the Derek Trucks Band include Derek on guitar, Kofi Burbridge on keyboards and flute, Yonrico Scott on drums and percussion, Todd Smallie on bass, Mike Mattison on lead vocals, and Count M’Butu on percussion. “Songlines,” their new album that was expertly produced by Jay Joyce, is simply incredible. It is a true group effort that encompasses everything from smokin’ rock to the blues, from funk to jazz, from the reggae of a Toots Hibbert song to an incredible electric slide guitar take on a 700-year old Pakistani melody called "Sahib Teri Bandi/Maki Madni.” Trucks shares his thoughts on this groundbreaking new album in this interview, and also talks about everything else that is going on with him during a time in his life that he will never forget.
Derek, the new album is wonderful. You have to feel good about the outcome of this project.
We’re excited about it, man. The reception so far has been really nice. It’s good to get that kind of feedback because we all felt really good about the record. But, you never know how people are going to react to it. So, it’s nice that so far it’s been well-received.
Other bandleaders might have put all kinds of guitar histrionics on a CD such as this with their name on it, but you and the band kept to the groove. This CD is a real group effort.
Yeah, it definitely is. I wanted to make a record that I would also enjoy listening to. There are not many ‘guitar’ records with guitar all over the place that I really want to listen to that much. Even when you think back to those great Hendrix records, and obviously he was a guitar player first, as well as a songwriter which probably ties for first, and a singer a close second, but none of those records are too guitar heavy. He’s serving the tunes. Obviously it helps to have written some of the classics that he wrote, but everything is in its place. If there is a crazy guitar solo needed, it’s there. If it’s not necessary, it’s very understated. With this record, we were kind of taking that route, thinking about the records that we’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of times as opposed to the ones that you check out two or three times and say, ‘Wow, that’s great, but I don’t really need to hear it over and over.’ We wanted to make a record that you want to listen to more than just a few times because it has layers, and it gets better on each listen. It’s something to shoot for. I think the next few records that we do, we want to try and stay in that mindset. And then, when the time seems right, you might branch off and do some other things. That is the mindset of the group at the moment.
Derek has been playing since he was a child. (Photo courtesy Artimus Pyle)
And, you don’t want every album to be a music lesson either…
Yeah, exactly. There are plenty of people to check out if that is what you are looking for.”
This is an album that you can dance to. It has a lot of great grooves on it. What is your approach to the groove?
I think it all goes in with trying to serve the tune. You want everything to be in its place. When we would start to record a tune each day we would strip it down and start from the percussion up and rethink all the grooves and make sure that it was solid and it would carry the tune. Then, everything that you put on top of that is icing. So yeah, that was very much a focus on it.
How happy are you with your band right now after all of these years?
It’s in a great spot. Everything is moving along and the chemistry is right. It’s where you hope to be after being on the road this long. A lot of the time, things would have imploded by now. Part of the beauty of the slow build and the slow climb is that you really appreciate the small steps that you take. If you take a step that is a little bigger than normal, you really feel it. Everyone is receptive to it, and you notice it. I’ve seen a lot of acts that start from nothing and then overnight they are the flavor of the month and you kind of get calloused of things that way and don’t appreciate it the same. I’m happy it happened the way it has.
You have been on national TV before, especially with the Allman Brothers Band. But, what was special about your appearance on the Late Night With Conan O’Brien show recently was that it was your own band’s name on the marquee.
Oh yeah. It didn’t take but about 12 years (laughs), but we got it done.
After you played and came over to sit by his desk, it looked like Conan was picking your brain about playing the guitar. What was he asking you?
He’s a guitar player, so I think anytime he has a guitar player on his show he always wants to talk. I know when Susan was on he had her over to the chair also, talking about guitar stuff. Yeah, he was just asking about things and we were talking about players who he enjoyed. He’s a nice guy. A really nice guy.”
When he was talking to you I saw him moving his hands around like he was fretting a guitar……
He sits around with a guitar during the rehearsals for the show. He sits at his desk with a guitar that is not plugged in, kind of warming up. He’s got two or three nice vintage Strats and Telecasters in his dressing room. He is a full-on guitar player. He has a few electrics sitting around.
When I reviewed your album “Songlines” I said that it would have kicked some ass in 1972. I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that you were going for a retro sound in any way, but meant that if it came out in those times it would have stood on its own against everything else that was going on back then.
Nice. I think that, unfortunately, in this day and age there is not a huge amount of great records being made, especially from bands in our genre. It seems to be a kind of lost art. People are…..I don’t know. They just don’t focus on making records the same way. It’s a different process. I don’t know if it is because anyone can make a record and get it pressed these days. I don’t hear a lot of records coming out that I really get excited about. It’s not because there isn’t any great players or ideas out there, there just seems to be a lull in the art form. We kind of focus in on when it was really happening.
And, there are exceptions. I think the Ray LaMontagne record that just came out is an amazing record. But, I think with 'Songlines,' we were trying to look back to when it was happening and hopefully shoot for that.
It looks like the 2006 Allman Brothers run at the Beacon Theater was a hell of a deal. Tell me about playing with all the special guests that showed up.
It’s a blast. It’s an honor to be able to ask around and come up with guys like Roy Haynes or Jimmie Cobb, or Bernard Purdie, Jerry Jemmott and Cornell Dupree. Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop (Perkins), Taj (Mahal). You know, there were some amazing sit-ins.
What did you think of Elvin Bishop and Peter Frampton?
He played great, man. He was also a great guy to hang with. I was surprised by a lot of the guys that sat in. Frampton as well. It’s really great when everyone’s talking about guests and you throw out an idea or you start making phone calls and Taj shows up, or Bernard Purdie, Jerry Jemmot and Cornell, those guys from all of those great King Curtis and Aretha Franklin records that hadn’t played together in 15-20 years and they have a reunion onstage at the Beacon. Those are special moments.
From the reviews I read, it was the band that was turned around and watching jazz great Roy Haynes do his thing on drums as much as anybody else.
81 years old, man, and whooping ass, you got to see what he’s eating and drinking (laughs). That’s impressive. I love him. I went out and saw him at three shows last year when we were in New York. He was playing the Village Vanguard. I’ve seen him quite a few times in his own element, so it was just a blast to get to stand onstage and play with him. He’s seen and done it all.
Did you bring any songs to the Beacon sets this year, or is it mostly Warren Haynes who takes care of that?
Everybody brings tunes in. I think the common perception now is if anything new is happening, it is coming from Haynes. But, that is not actually the case (laughing).
Kirk West brings a lot of the tunes in. A tune like ‘The Weight’ I originally had in mind for Susan. A tune like ‘Anyday’ we’ve been playing with our group and Oteil brought that in because he had tunes he wanted to sing. ‘Highway 61’ was a tune that Butch wanted to do. I think it is a great tune to play. ‘Shake For Me’ is a tune that Butch brought in because of John Hammond. So, everybody is bringing a lot to the table. It’s very much a band effort for the first time since I’ve been in the group.
Everyone’s bringing equally to the table and it’s nice to see.
Ok, I came up with an idea. There are a ton of other great musicians out there who appreciate your work, so I got the idea of asking a few of them to come up with a question or two for you. The response was immediate. First up is Dobro great Jerry Douglas. You appear on his latest album called “Best Kept Secret,” and he has long been a fan of yours. His question for you is- “When your at your highest level of playing, when you can’t do anything wrong and you’re almost standing off to the side and watching yourself play, what do you think about? Do you think about being airborne or gliding? Do you see any colors or landscapes? Do you hear the music of jazz or Indian Classical musicians like Nusrat Khan or Ali Akbar Khan?? What happens?
You know, it’s weird. There’s been times where…… I remember the first few times I really had that experience, where you’re almost watching yourself. It kind of freaks you out for a second and you end up kind of coming out of it. But then, the more it happens, you just seem to watch it more. It’s really a trip. Sometimes when you get done with a solo that happens like that, especially playing with somebody like Oteil where he’s right there with you anywhere you’re going, even when you don’t know where you’re going, but he seems to be right there following you, the solo is done and you almost exhale. You’re kind of worn out from it, but in a really good way. Those are amazing experiences. That is what you look for. Sometimes you are hearing influences, whether it is a sarod player or a Pakistani vocalist or a great horn player. Sometimes you’ll have images of influences that you have. Other times it’s completely free of all that. It’s special when it does happen. It happens in waves, though. There was about a solid week at the Beacon where at least once or twice a night it would happen. It is the same with my group. It will be three or four nights in a row where it feels like any idea that you come up with comes out effortlessly. Other times you have to, not necessarily force it, but you have to work a little harder.
Did that happen during the first week or the second week at the Beacon?
It was somewhere in the middle of the run, from Roy Haynes to Bernard Purdie.
Second question from Jerry Douglas - “Would you like to able to sing and use your voice as effectively as you play your guitar?”
I actually don’t really have that desire. I guess in some ways it would be liberating to be able to unleash without an instrument. But, being around the vocalists that I have been lucky enough to be around, like Susan, I kind of live that through other vocalists. I hear what they do and I feel like if I was supposed to do it, I would have taken to it. There is something about being behind an instrument that is kind of a buffer zone, and there is a comfort area there that I really kind of enjoy. It’s almost like the Wizard Of Oz being able to hang behind the curtain and pull the strings.
Here is a question from Col. Bruce Hampton……
“(laughs) These are good ones. I like it. Jerry Douglas and the Colonel!”
Hampton’s question is – “Who pitched two no-hitters in the 1950’s in the American League?”
That’s beautiful. (laughing) Virgil Trucks. 1952. The second one against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. He’s my great uncle. He’s still alive in Birmingham, Alabama. I got to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park when Ted Williams inducted Virgil Trucks. Ted Williams has his own Hall Of Fame in Florida, and Virgil couldn’t make it so Butch and I got to throw out the two first pitches. That was a blast. Susan sang the anthem, and we got to throw out the first pitch on Virgil Trucks Day at Fenway Park! Ted Williams said that he was one of the two hardest pitchers to hit against, so he was a bad-ass.
One of the other musicians that you just jammed with during the Beacon run is Brian Stoltz, the guitarist for Porter, Batiste, and Stoltz (PBS) and the funky meters. Just like you, Brian has an interest in the ancient music of India and Pakistan. As you know, he was a part of an album of 5,000-year old Indian chants called “Pulsation of the Maha Kumbha Mela” put out by the Himalayan Institute. He says that he came to see you play in New Orleans a couple of years ago at Tipitina’s and was blown away when he heard some Indian ragas in your music. That was when he went out to the car to find a copy of “Pulsations” to give to you. Do you enjoy folks giving you unusual music like that, and do you still have that CD?
Yeah, I do, actually. I think it is still on the bus. Yeah, anytime I can get my hands on something like that. There’s something to a melody that hangs around that long. We just started to delve into that, playing these melodies that have been passed down whether it’s a Qawwali tune or a tune like ‘Greensleeves.’ I think it resonates with people because there is a reason why a melody will hang around that long. So, those are great places to mine for music. That stuff is great to dig into.
Pedro Arevalo not only thumps the bass for the Dickey Betts Band, but also plays a diversity of music in other groups that run the gamut from reggae to latin jazz. Both of you just did a CD signing together in New York during the Beacon run. His question for you is – “Do you plan on going deeper into the ethnic music someday, perhaps on a solo album?”
Yeah, there’s a lot of plans like that. This is such a busy year that there’s not really a whole lot of time to do anything else between the three bands. But, I’m building a studio behind my house so I can, first, have an excuse to stay home. And also, to be able to roll tape at any time and any ideas that you have, to just throw them down. Over the years I’ve collected all kinds of great vintage gear, B3’s, old Wurlitzers. So, when that’s up and running, that’s kind of the idea, to delve into a thousand different things. Nowadays, when you can record to a hard drive, you don’t have to worry about a hundred dollars a roll for tape, so you can just go and put things down. Some of it is going to work, and some of it is going to be terrible, and some of it will be great. But, you can constantly record, and that’s something I want to do in the not too distant future. It’s been months and months getting it together.
Taylor Rorrer is a bluegrass and blues guitarist who plays for the Hungry Hash House Ramblers and the Ramblin’ Blues Band. His question is this – “Do you approach your solos for your own band differently than you do when playing with the Allman Brothers?”
Some of them I do. Sometimes with the Allman Brothers, some of the classic solos, you want to at least quote it. A lot of people get to come out to only one Allman Brothers show a year, and when you hear a certain tune you want to latch on to some of it. So, you might state the beginning of the solo the way people remember it, and then go off to the races. With your own group you might approach it a little differently. But, on the same hand, if we are playing an old blues tune I might quote Elmore James, or I might quote Taj Mahal playing a harmonica solo. So, it’s similar in that light. Also, playing onstage with that rhythm section with Oteil, you’re pretty free to go anywhere you want. That is also true with Rico and Kofi and Todd and the Count. It’s somewhat similar. It’s not too different.
I have heard many musicians over the years talk about playing their instrument as if it was another instrument, and how that helped them. One excellent example of that is the legendary Doc Watson who had to learn to play his guitar like a fiddle one night when the fiddler didn’t show up for a gig, and his flatpicking changed and took off from there. Do you ever play your guitar as if it were another instrument?
Yeah. When I’m thinking as a vocalist, about all the singers you listen to, a lot of times with a slide guitar that is where I am coming from.
I have heard you mention Dr. Ralph Stanley before in past interviews. Do you listen to bluegrass and old-time mountain music?
Yeah, especially the last four or five years. I think Ralph was the gateway for me. When I heard him, it’s such an immediate sound. It reminded me of hearing John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, or Mahalia Jackson for the first time. You immediately know it’s the real deal. So yeah, I definitely listen to him. He’s one of my all-time favorite vocalists. I listen to Tony Rice. Mark O’Connor is a bad-ass. Sam Bush was actually at the show last night in Savanah. It was good to see him. Sam and Edgar Meyer and Darol Anger were playing the same festival we were playing. It was good to see a few of those guys out. Those guys can play.”
Derek, you recently were in the studio recording some cuts for Eric Clapton’s upcoming album. The producer of this new project is JJ Cale, whom we interviewed here at Gritz a couple of years ago. He is such a nice and unassuming guy.
I love him. He came out to our show in San Diego recently, and it was a blast to get to see him and hang out.”
I also heard from the grapevine that the one and only Wavy Gravy of Woodstock fame came out to see one of your shows.
Yeah. (laughs) He was at our show in San Francisco. He hung on the bus for a while and he’s a character. He’s crazy, and a funny guy, but real easy to hangout with. He’s about what you would imagine him to be.”
Well, you are about to leave on quite the adventure as you become a part of Eric Clapton’s touring band for a year. Have you guys worked out the tunes that you’ll be playing on this European tour yet?
Not all the way. There is a list of tunes that we might play, but that’s all I know right now. Rehearsals start real soon, and I’m getting excited about it. I started listening to a lot of his older records just to get back in the mindset. But yeah, it’s an exciting time. It’s an opportunity I didn’t think would ever come up. So, when it does, you got to seize it. You got to make it count. You got to do it right. I’m hoping that musically the sparks are flying.”
Derek, thank you, Bro. It was good to talk with you again. Safe travels.
It’s good to talk to you, and it’s great to hear all the questions from everybody. That’s beautiful. Thanks, man. I’ll talk to you soon.”