Sonny Landreth played his first gig when he was 14.
“We played for my parents’ parties, and played all the Ventures’ songs. They paid us to stop, to be honest,” he laughs.
Nobody would ever pay Landreth to stop playing these days, though. He’s a musicians’ musician, keenly exploring new musical paths, listening for new voices that he can speak with his slide guitar, and searching for stories that weave the universal blues themes of hope in the midst of despair.
Landreth’s latest album, Bound by the Blues, showcases these many facets. While the album gallops off with a blazing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” and features a shuffling, reverberating version of the Charles Segar and “Big Bill” Broonzy tune, “Key to the Highway,” the album’s title track captures Landreth’s musical and lyrical vision not only of the entire album but also of the insidious power of the blues. He slyly pays tribute in the song to blues heroes:
“Lightnin’ falls from the sky/Muddy Waters on the rise/In songs that get us through the times/Bound by the blues.” Landreth’s minor-key blues drives the tale of being united in our good times and bad times by the blues: “You and I have felt before/The tide of trouble upon the door/Though we be from different shores/We’re bound by the blues/…Sister and brothers/Of every color/Bound to one another/Bound by the blues.”
When Landreth wrote this song, he couldn’t have foreseen the rise of a political administration that sows division, but his prescient words illustrate Landreth’s compelling way with words and his canny ability to tell a story that resonates with everyone seeking some common ground in the midst of divisive times.
Even when he was a child, Landreth wanted to play the guitar.
“Back then parents could buy these plastic guitars with an image of Elvis on them; my mom and dad bought one for my brother and one of me, and we yowled at the relatives,” he laughs. His dad finally bought him a guitar, and he and his friends started playing together in a band: “one weekend his parents dealt with us, and then my parents dealt with us the next weekend,” he laughingly says of those early days.
When he was 16, he began experimenting with the slide, “much to the horror of my family,” he chuckles.
“I didn’t have anybody to teach me, so I had to find my own way with playing it,” Landreth recalls. He made his first slide, one he still uses: “I got a handlebar from a bike and got a hacksaw and cut myself a little slide. I actually used in on the new album on the acoustic side; I still favor it for the tone. My dad also made me some slides back then.”
But guitar wasn’t Landreth’s first instrument. He started out on trumpet, and he fell in love with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Landreth’s keen ear and restless desire to compose music grew out of the influences of his jazz and blues heroes.
“When I was working in a record store, the fellow there turned me onto Chet Atkins, and then I got turned onto acoustic blues,” he recalls. When he started playing guitar, he applied the lessons that Atkins, the blues guitarists, and his favorite jazz musicians had taught him.
“My jazz and blues heroes—and the time I had spent playing trumpet, flute, and piano—helped push me to reach for a higher purpose in my music. Classical jazz is all about articulation and dynamics,” Landreth says, “and I could take all that and apply it to guitar. I think that helped make me to come at the guitar from a different perspective.”
Playing slide, says Landreth, “gave me a way to combine all these influences. I had to pull it together stylistically to form a concept and to form all these layers of sound.” Landreth lyrically describes the impact of these influences on him, and the key to his own playing: “The sound of the guitar emulates the human voice; all great acoustic bluesmen do this. I noticed that’s what my jazz and blues heroes were doing, trying to emulate the human voice; they’d use the slide as a profound and emotive form of call and response, and this is why I especially I got into playing bottleneck slide.”
These influences deeply imbue Landreth’s playing, singing, and writing.
“Lyrical quality and vocal quality are the most important things. When you’re playing slide guitar, it not just the frets that designate the notes you’re playing. I got turned onto using chordal tuning; it opens up the sound more, and I can play more solo parts. You’re playing melody, rhythm, and bass parts at the same time. You combine the fretted fingers with slide notes that are floating above the fret board.” One of the most powerful aspects of playing slide guitar, though, according to Landreth, is that it “lends itself to story song.”
As a songwriter, Landreth also weaves these influences into his music and his lyrics. Like the acoustic bluesmen who’ve shaped him so deeply, he’s after authenticity—capturing the truth of an experience as close as possible—and universality—capturing the themes of an individual experience that transcend that experience and reach us all.
“I always wanted to write my own songs,” he says, and he reiterates that his early experiences of playing jazz helped push him toward a musical form that expanded the creativity of the music. Songwriting, he observes, is the “truest level of creativity, but songwriting is a total mystery.” For Landreth, there’s no program for writing songs: “I woke up at 4am one morning and wrote most of ‘Love and Glory’.” “You just got to let it happen; you have to be willing to go for it, when an idea comes to you.”
For Landreth, the music has always come easy.
“I have hundreds of song ideas. Songwriting is like playing a live show—you have highs and lows. You have to open up to the possibilities, and those can come at a gig or when you meet somebody. Some of the greatest things happen indirectly, but they can blow by you if you’re not paying attention.”
Writing songs, he points out, relies on intuition, on being able to catch that just-right tune and lyric when it comes your way and being true to what rings most truly to you; those are marks of songs that have a universal character and stand the test of time; “I’ve always wanted to write a song that stood the test of time,” Landreth says.
Landreth’s playing, singing, and writing have indeed stood the test of time, and other musicians have acknowledged his work by recording his songs or writing songs that they admit are influenced by Landreth’s songs. Landreth’s had the opportunity to play with the father of British blues, John Mayall. “Harry Shearer discovered my song, “The Center’, which I made in 1981, and played it on his radio show. John heard it and invited me to play on some of his sessions. It’s so funny that he and I were at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, and he came up to me and said, ‘I always play your song ‘Congo Square,’ but I don’t want to play it tonight if you’re planning to play it,’” Landreth laughs.
Vince Gill says that his song “Tell Me Lover” is based in part on Landreth’s “Congo Square.”
“I found out in the mid-90s that Vince was a big fan,” says Landreth. “I love Vinnie; he can play anything,” says Landreth. “A lot of those cats in Nashville started out in rock and roll, and I love his chicken-pickin’ and his approach to the tele,” says Landreth. In addition, Landreth points out that he has been fortunate to be able to do Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival since 2004. “The magnitude of that event is just overwhelming,” he says. “There are really such precious moments.”
One of Landreth’s greatest influences was Clifton Chenier. As a teenager in Lafayette, Louisiana, Landreth went to see Chenier at a club, but Landreth wasn’t old enough to get into the place, so he stood at the door peering in and listening to the music.
“He saw me at the door and invited me in.” Landreth eventually started playing in Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band, and Landreth acquired new skills during that time, including the ability to change keys and musical styles quickly and smoothly. Landreth recorded Blues Attack in 1981 while he was still playing with Chenier, and in 1985 one of his best-known songs, “Congo Square,” appeared on his album Down in Louisiana.
“Clifton had a profound influence on me and my music,” Landreth says, “and he was such a welcoming presence in my life.” That same year he met Chenier, Landreth also got to meet B.B. King. “Me and a buddy of mine went down to New Iberia to see B.B. King. King finished his set and went over to the bar and sat down. I was bold enough to go over and introduce myself to him, and the conversation we started that night sort of continued because I got to know B.B. over the years,” Landreth says.
“The last time I got to play with him was at Madison Square Garden, and he didn’t seem to be feeling too good that night. Not long after that night we lost him.” In that same year, Landreth met B.B. he saw Jimi Hendrix in Baton Rouge, and though he didn’t get to know him as he did Chenier and King, Hendrix influenced the young Landreth in myriad ways that he carries with him even now.
While these three influences stand out for Landreth, he also points to Jose Feliciano, Scotty Moore, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Wes Montgomery, Andre Segovia, and Mike Bloomfield as deeply influential for him and his music. In addition to his own solo work, Landreth contributes his singular style of slide guitar to albums by Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt, Eric Johnson, Gov’t Mule, Mark Knopfler, Little Feat, Josh Hyde, and Buckwheat Zydeco, among others.
Landreth is excited about his new work these days. In January, he and his band, which expanded to include Steve Conn on keys and Sam Broussard on guitar, played three shows at “this beautiful theater here in Lafayette,” says Landreth.
“We wanted to do both acoustic and electric sets to capture our true sound. It was so much fun. For the acoustic set, we added this cool resonator guitar that had an aluminum body with a vintage auto hubcap for the plate; the bass player played a ukulele bass, which gave us this new dimension of sound.” The plan, says Landreth, is to do a double album with one side of acoustic material and the other side of electric material. Landreth hopes to have the album ready in time for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
When Landreth looks at the state of the blues today, he’s encouraged.
“I’m energized by the amount of interest and the diversity of it. Blues is so universal and powerful that it speaks to everyone about grace in the face of adversity.”
He points out that the title track of Bound by the Blues addresses this issue.
“The blues speaks to everyone; blues unites us in a way that is totally unique; it’s some powerful stuff; blues is a cultural agent that goes so deep.”
Does Landreth have any advice for young musicians starting out in the blues?
“Listen for that inner voice, that thing that teaches you; follow your heart and stay true to it.”
Visit Sonny’s website at: www.sonnylandreth.com
Interviewer Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.
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