by Derek Halsey
Sonny Landreth has honed his slide guitar playing skills for 41 of his 54 years on Earth, and along the way has become one of the best in the world at it. Even so, there are still a lot of folks out there who are not aware of his talents, or his contribution to his craft. That is why Eric Clapton said of Sonny, “He is probably the most underestimated musician on the planet, and also probably one of the most advanced.” With Sonny’s new live album, however, titled Grant Street, he is set to turn more heads than ever.
Sonny is a Mississippi native, born in Canton, who moved to Louisiana as a youngster. His family settled down in the town of Breaux Bridge, just outside of Lafayette. It was there that the region’s traditions of good music and good food seeped into his life, and he has lived in the area ever since. He started playing the trumpet while a kid, but soon moved on to guitar by the time he was 13 years old. As he worked his way up to becoming a known musician in the area, he found himself tapped to be the guitarist in the band of the legendary zydeco master Clifton Chenier in the 1970s. After recording a couple of solo albums of his own, his playing caught the ear of John Hiatt, who hired him to play guitar for him in the 1980s. From there he scored many session gigs that added to his resume.
But it was his amazing albums of the 1990s, Outward Bound and South Of I-10, that showcased just how unique and special his approach to playing slide guitar was. He had mastered a way of playing guitar while using his fingers to form chords behind the bottleneck slide he was using up front. Add to that his zydeco, Cajun, blues and rock influences and you have a picker who is making history. But, back in those days, his productions in the studio were far and few between. He would go years before releasing new material, and admitted to being a bit of a perfectionist. But now, that has all changed as he has purposely put himself out there more in recent times. In the last three years he has released three great albums, has toured in America and overseas, was a big part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar festival gig last summer in Dallas, has recorded with Jimmy Buffett and John Hiatt, and has tried to stay busy.
His new album is called Grant Street, and it is a live album taken from two nights of concerts recorded at his home venue, the Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette. The album is pure Sonny, backed up by his excellent band of David Ranson on bass and Kenneth Blevins on drums, and was recorded using no overdubs. What was played is what we get, and we are lucky for that as this is one CD to be cranked up loud when spun. I talked to Sonny from his home somewhere in-between Breaux Bridge and Lafayette in his beloved Louisiana.
Sonny, good to talk with you. My uncle, Stephen Smith, who lives in Gretna now, has lived in New Orleans since 1969 so I have been making the pilgrimage to Louisiana for a long time. But, I have yet to explore the western ‘Acadiana’ side of the state where you live. What is going on in Beaux Bridge, Louisiana?
Not a whole lot, to tell you the truth. I live right in-between Beaux Bridge and Lafayette. I have quite a few friends in Beaux Bridge, as well as my neighborhood hang at Café des Amis where I like to go and eat dinner. You need to make your way up here sometime.
There is no doubt that I will. I love your new CD, as it is a good dose of ‘live’ Landreth. I think it is cool that it was recorded at your home gig house there in Lafayette. I interviewed JJ Cale not long ago, and he talked of going back to jam at his home venue of the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, where he played when he was coming up. It sounds like the Grant Street Dancehall was the same for you. What was it like walking the halls of that place back in younger days?
Oh, I had my own key. One of the original owners was a good friend of mine. It was really an amazing time because no one realized, of course, that the grand opening night was the beginning of a new era of music in Lafayette. It just really clicked. It was a real creative time for a lot of great musicians in the area. And then the owners, the one that was doing the booking, did a great job of bringing in a lot of the great blues acts.
Did you get to meet many of those blues guys?
Absolutely. And, not only did I get to meet them, but I opened up for a lot of them. So, we sort of became the house band to open up for a lot of my heroes. I’d finally get to meet them and talk with them a bit. One of the biggest ones for me was Ray Charles, we opened up for him on two nights, for two shows. I had already met BB King a couple of times before. Some of the cats that I had never worked with before, like John Hammond, Jr., came through and played. Actually, for him we did kind of a Delta acoustic thing. We all liked to go out and eat a lot in Beaux Bridge, which was very cool. I didn’t open up for Muddy Waters, but I got to meet him. A lot of times I was in the thick of it backstage, hoping that some of that cosmic dust would rub off on me.
I am that way as well. One time Tony Rice had a sore shoulder and asked me if I would carry his guitar for him up some steps to an elevated stage at the Floydfest Music festival a couple of years ago. He had his legendary pre-war Martin D-28 with him, and it was a pleasure to do it.
There you go. That’ll work. What an amazing player. They had a nice article on Tony in Guitar Player magazine, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of it yet. I’m saving it for the plane tomorrow.
Who turned you on to Tony Rice?
Well, I always dug bluegrass. Many years ago, I guess it was 1970, one of the shows that came through here at the Performing Arts Center had several bluegrass groups in it, and I was always fascinated with it and always loved it. When I was a kid my grandfather used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry all the time on the radio. And the Louisiana Hayride as well. So that is in there to, that’s definitely an influence. Even with Chet Atkins, that is the finger-style approach that I have. Of course, you don’t think of Chet as bluegrass, but if you look at a lot of the people he worked with over the years, it all goes back to roots music from different parts of the country. There is a connection with real music like that that is very soulful.
Can you read music, Sonny, with the guitar?
Yeah, I do pretty good. I did some scores for Mike Post a few years back, for his TV work, and I actually did better than I thought I would. I retained more than I thought I did. I have some friends that do that for a living. They are the ‘A’ team in Nashville. These guys can read anything you put in front of them. I mean, just like that. I’m not like that, that’s not my thing.
You recorded this live album with no overdubs, which is cool. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, well, that’s what I decided to do. I was tempted to do otherwise. I’m not going to point any fingers, as that is just an individual call. But, when it gets to the point where you’re replacing whole sections and multiple players, and all of a sudden, ‘Well, the drummer wants to redo some of his parts,’ you know, then you lose it. There is definitely a feeling when playing live, an energy about it, something happens in the spur of the moment, you’re feeding off the energy of the crowd, and I play completely differently in front of an audience than I do sitting on the couch at home. I play differently when I overdub a session. But with playing live, there is definitely more pressure. That is the reason why I wanted to record two nights, and take the best of those two nights. We played on Friday and Saturday, but most of it is from Saturday. And there was a healthy bit of editing in terms of getting the best of the two nights, and I don’t really have a problem with that. What was heard there over the course of the weekend, that is the main thing.
Who has been an influence on you as far as how far to go with the available technology that you can use with the guitar?
I think Hendrix was real important to me in that regard, because I got to hear him play live once. It was 1967. I was a teenager. Me and my buddies were totally freaked out. We went over there early in the morning and hung around all day, and everybody was running around trying to find Hendrix. This big English roadie was chasing us all out of the hallway. Lo and behold, I’m down in the little gift shop of the hotel and he walks in. It was Hendrix, and I actually met him and I shook his hand. I actually heard him listening to tracks that he had cut that I recognized later on Electric Ladyland. He had a reel-to-reel recorder in his room and before they could chase me out of the hallway I got to check some of that out. Unfortunately, I missed him when he was playing in Houston, and I know he was playing ‘Voodoo Chile’ live then, and I was playing some chicken shit gig up in Fort Poke, Louisiana and missed it.
One of the songs that you chose to play on the live album is a song you wrote that has become a swamp classic, “Congo Square.”
Well, it’s been there for a long time. It’s a funny story, when I finished the tune there were two people that I had in mind, the Neville Brothers and John Mayall. Fast forward many years later and they both end up recording it. In fact, I got to work on the session with Mayall, and that is how I met my co-producer Bobby Field. That just goes to show you that the sky’s the limit. And when you tap into it, and there is something about synchronicity, that is the thing that still fires me up and keeps me going.
Did you do much research on the history of the area known as Congo Square in New Orleans?
I just heard about it growing up in the area. And, as I got more and more into the song I learned more about it, and it’s such a profound time in the history of New Orleans. With all that was going on at the time, what Creole meant, different points in history with the experiences of the slaves, it’s sick, man. It goes deep. The slaves ran away and took up with the Indians out in the swamp, and you’re talking basically about the Mardi Gras Indians. That’s how that all started. The Neville Brothers are a direct line back to that culturally. That’s deep.
Concerning your songwriting, I want to ask you the ‘Richard Rodgers Question’; Rogers, of Rodgers and Hammertein and Rodgers and Hart fame, was asked in an interview about how he wrote songs. Did the songs come to him out of the blue through inspiration, or did he have to work at it? He said he had to force himself to sit at the piano and work at writing music. How is the writing process for you?
I wish I could have one formula to make that happen, that I could really count on. It comes in different ways for me. But usually, early in the morning when I first get up is when I get ideas. What I would typically do is get up and get a cup of coffee, and get open to that, and get an old tape player or recorder and get the ideas down while they are still in my head. Sometimes I get words that come to me. Words are the toughest thing for me, because to write really great lyrics is a tough thing to do. The music comes a lot easier. Sometimes it’s almost like I have to work at turning it off. ‘Make it stop! I want to get some sleep now.’ (Laughing) A lot of the times I’ll be driving down the road and something just hits me. I used to carry around a pencil and writing pads and get ideas for songs and then write them down. But, it is usually better when I am with a guitar.
For a while there, it was a long time in-between recordings for you. It seemed like it took forever for a new Landreth CD to come out. Now, you have stepped up the output, and you are everywhere these days.
Yeah, I know. I admit that I have made an effort to be, although I can’t even begin to use the word, prolific. My friend, Michael Doucet of Beausoleil, has already made about 35 albums and I’ve made, like, eight? Eight is not bad. You start getting to eight and you’ve got a little catalog going there (laughing). But, I’ll be 54 years old in February. There are two things, really; what I am finding out is that I’ve done the pensive thing, taking my time to make sure everything is done right. Now, I’m finding that I do better with my back against the wall. And if I push myself more there are weaknesses and things that aren’t so great, but in the big picture more creativity gets accounted for than otherwise. The other thing, on the practical side of it, is you really have to keep an album out there to stay at the level we are at now. Of course, you always want to go to the next mark, but it really is a case of ‘What have you done for us lately?
I love the grooves that your band lays down behind you on the new CD. It is true power trio smoke. Tell me about your bass player, David Ranson, and your drummer, Kenneth Blevins.
David is amazing. He is truly the unsung hero of the bass world. And the producers that have worked with him, at first they weren’t sure about him because they didn’t know about him. But the more they worked with him they’d go, ‘Wait a minute. He’s like another Duck Dunn.’ He is the foundation. If he didn’t do what he does live, then I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. You can’t take off without the foundation. It’s really about the groove. Kenneth and Dave just clicked from day one. We have chemistry between the three of us.
But when you think in terms of a rhythm section, Kenneth is the grease master. We came across him back in the 1970s in Lake Charles (Louisiana) and we were really impressed with him, and how tasteful he was, and he has got all of the chops, and has got character. That is what I look for. A lot of cats have chops, but to actually have an identity and have character, and to be able to play a song as if you’re telling a story, that is what it is really about, whatever your instrument is. When Kenneth went to New Orleans he started hanging out with drummer Johnny Vidacovich. That’s his buddy. And Kenny became the ‘other’ New Orleans drummer. I love Johnny, and I’m doing a gig with him and George Porter, Jr. in January.
Johnny Vidacovich is a hell of a drummer. And, George Porter is a hell of a bass player, original member of the Funky Meters and everything. And, on occasion I talk to George’s band mate in his group PBS, guitarist Brian Stoltz, who played with the Neville Brothers. He is another great Louisiana guitarist.
Cool. I love Brian.
I love going down to the New Orleans Jazzfest in the Spring, but I always seem to miss the day that you play there. For a while there it seemed that you always played the Thursday set of the festival.
Yeah, I did that a couple of times. We’ve been promoted up after playing there every year for the last 25 years. (Laughing) We are going to play on the first weekend of the festival this year, on Friday-April 22. And, we are going to cram in the Grant Street - Festival International de la Louisiane gig the next day in Lafayette. I also play with this Cajun jam band called Les Traiteurs. A ‘traiteur’ is a medicine man, or healer. And all the money goes to a benefit.
You are known for your innovative finger-style playing. Did you ever play with a pick?
Oh sure. Absolutely. But, the slide became the thing for me. We were talking earlier about all of the influences and styles, and I think it is possible to go in too many directions at once. And I think that bottleneck slide helped me to crystallize all of my influences, and helped to set me on my path. And, with songwriting as well.
Sonny, you played at Eric Clapton’s huge Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas last summer. I talked with JJ Cale just after that weekend and he said the great thing about that event was seeing all the other musicians backstage. In fact he talked about seeing you there.
Well, we did a gig together years ago in Montreal. So, he came up to me in Dallas and said, ‘Sonny, remember me? JJ Cale.’ I said, ‘Do I remember you? Are you kidding?’ I said, ‘The last time we played together was in Montreal.’ And I swear, I had just told someone that earlier in the day. I love him. It was just on and on and on. I had never met Steve Via. I finally got to meet Larry Carlton. We’ve had mutual friends for years. Alexander Dumble built the amps that we both use. And there were a lot of connections like that. And, there were other friends of mine there, like Jerry Douglas, and Vince Gill, Eric Johnson, and it was great to get to hang with them. And the setting, with all these other players there, it was just really cool. And Joe Satriani, I didn’t get to meet him there, but a week later I am in Europe playing this festival in northern Italy and G4 was playing, and we played earlier in the show, and he comes up to me and is super complimentary and a sweetheart of a guy, and I think that was really indicative of what happened that day.
Tell me about playing with and knowing Jerry Douglas.
I love him, he’s a great player. I played on one of his albums, and he came down here and helped us out with our benefit concert that I’m involved with (the Medicine Show Tribute for Tommy Comeaux). Man, I heard him on some records, and I said, ‘Who in the hell is that!’ And I kept hearing about him, but the person that turned me onto him was my best friend Tommy Comeaux. Now, Tommy was killed going on about eight years ago. He was a bicycle enthusiast and he would get up in the morning and ride all over and he got hit. He had gotten to be good friends with Jerry. Tommy probably met him through Beausoleil. Tommy played with Beausoleil for many years and was one of the early members of the band. Tommy was a remarkable human being, he was a doctor, he was a musician, he did so much for people all the time. He was the kind of guy that was there for you no matter what. He was always looking out for you, your family, and just an incredible human being. Those of us that were close to him, we wanted to do more than the typical funeral, so we formed a committee, and that became the benefit I mentioned. The money goes into an endowment for traditional music at the university in Lafayette. There are tons of things that we do under the umbrella of it that is really cool. We have it every year right around Christmas. It’s called the Medicine Show. We get local groups together and everyone donates their time and talent, and it is an amazing night. It has gotten to be a traditional thing. Were up to number eight, which is hard to believe, but... (www.tommycomeaux.org)
So, Tommy turned you onto Jerry Douglas?
Oh yeah. He loved Jerry, was a huge fan, and of Tony Rice. Tommy loved everything from Hendrix to Bill Monroe. He played with Beausoleil, and he was also in the roots music world, and they would play all of these festivals and he would get a chance to meet a lot of people. One thing led to another, and Jerry just blew me away. I think Jerry Douglas, honestly, I can’t think of anyone that has accomplished more, and when you think in terms of the whole package of an extraordinary musician, producer, writer, all around great guy, he’s the ideal. ‘Here kids, you want someone to look up to and emulate, here’s the cat.’ He’s got it all. Again, he is one of these guys, and there are a lot of guys with chops out there, but man, he’s just so soulful. They ran a piece from one of those Mountain Stage shows, I’ve done a bunch of them too, and I just happened to be home on a rare occasion and I was flipping through the channels and boom, there was Mountain Stage. They started taping them for television a few years ago. It was a great night, it was Leo Kottke, and then Jerry in his band, and it was typically extraordinary. And it just makes you think, ‘Wow, man, here is a guy who not only has all this talent, but he pushed the boundaries of the resonator guitar,’ as in the Dobro played lap style. I can’t say enough about him.
Do you own a squareneck Dobro?
No, I don’t, and he is the reason I don’t. I never could play it. I mean, I started out playing lap slide. I had a little Fender lap steel, but I quickly moved over to bottleneck, which I had my eye on. Once I got turned onto that, that was that.
I was a little too young to see Duane Allman live, but you did get to see him pick. What was it like, and how did the experience influence you?
I sure did! Man! My friends had been telling me about this band that had been playing in New Orleans at the old Warehouse, a venue down there, and unfortunately I missed out on the early days of that. I missed out on some really great stuff. The thing is, I was gigging all the damn time. They actually came up here and played in Lafayette. The university used to sponsor concerts up here in a God awful sounding arena, and they played and man, I’m telling you! I had bought the albums, they had their first two albums out then, but hearing him live, and watching him play, it was like a spiritual experience, really. He made me want to go home and crank it up, and that was an influence in and of itself. But he played so tastefully and so soulfully. I mean, they were great. Dickey Betts was great. The band was great. And that was the thing that impressed me the most, with all of these great individual musicians, they were a ‘band.’ That’s what impressed me the most. So on the one level, Duane inspired me individually to want to improve, and then on the level of the group it inspired me with a goal to set.
How close were you to the stage that night?
Well, I got pretty close. I went up pretty close, but my friends were back there, and I had a date so I had to go back and not overlook her and all of that, but it was great. The cool thing was, he came out and right off the bat he played three songs with the slide, he played bottleneck on three. He retuned to his guitar, and never used the slide again. The rest of the set he just played flatpick. That is how they did the set that night. The thing that hit me was, his reputation was so much about the slide thing that he was like, ‘Look, there’s more to me than just that.’ Here again, he was about the band and what they did in the set. I’m sure in the early days he was probably offered deals at the label to do a power trio thing, but he wanted a big group, and as a leader he just really showed that to me that night.
What was Duane Allman’s demeanor like that night? Did he play with confidence?
Oh, absolutely. Total confidence. When those guys got on stage you could tell there was a vibe there, man. ‘This is our life, this is what we do, here it is.’ They wanted everybody to have a good time. He would cut up a bit. Finally, right before the encore he came out and started doing a muscle-man pose, putting his hand behind his arm to prop his bicep up, and he was goofing and said, ‘Look, we are skinny dudes, and we need our rest, so we can only play one more song. And, we got to get in that truck back there and drive down the road.’
Did they play a long time that night?
Not really. They didn’t let them play too long that night. But, I saw them again before Berry Oakley died and they must have played three and a half-four hours.
Do you mean you saw the band with Berry still there, but after Duane died?
Yeah, I caught that in-between where Dickey just took over the whole thing. They didn’t have another guitar player. It was weird. I didn’t know what to think either, and I only had these two shows to judge anything by, but they just went for it. Because of the loss, there is no way that they felt like they could ever replace Duane Allman. So, they didn’t. They took the band as it was and they just stretched the thing. Dickey would launch into a five-minute solo at the beginning and after the song. But I got to say, man, some of it was here or there, kind of new, and then they would hit on something and it would just be genius. It literally blew me away, under those circumstances, you know what I mean? They were dealing with grief, a huge tragedy and a huge change, and you’ve got to be practical and get back out on the road, and I think they went to the music and each other as a means to deal with it. It’s the thing to do. I think it propelled them to push more. I mean, what are we talking about but grace in the face of adversity. I think that is a good lesson there.