Tom Hambridge, the producer, has an uncanny way of getting inside the minds of Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Susan Tedeschi and a myriad of others he’s produced. And when he’s wearing his singer/songwriter/drummer hat and making music for himself, as he does on his latest CD, The NOLA Sessions, he soars without a net and never looks down.
“I love taking something that doesn’t exist, creating it, and seeing it right to the end. I not only do the recording and the tracking and the writing, I do the mastering. I go right to the end, right to checking the liner notes. I want to make sure we don’t forget anybody. So, I love that process.”
When Sony first called Hambridge about producing Buddy Guy, they asked him what kind of record he’d like to do with Buddy. Hambridge gave it to them straight.
“I said, ‘I’ve had the opportunity to tour and open for him and see him in shows, and I’ve never felt they were able to capture that danger, that recklessness, that unabandoned (sic.) Buddy Guy on record and I’d love that, but I’d also love to get a little deeper in this content.”
A decade, five albums, and three Grammys later, Hambridge has produced Buddy Guy’s career defining album, The Blues Is Alive and Well. He co-wrote12 of the 14 autobiographical cuts and somehow managed to coax several guitar runs that take this 82-year-old guitar genius into new territory as if blues’ hottest man alive were 23 again and anxious to conquer the world. Not since Rick Ruben took control of Johnny Cash’ muse late in his life, has a producer so captured an artist’s essence like mercury in a sieve. But Cash sounded like drift wood at that point. Buddy Guy sounds like he has more than “A Few Good Years” left in his bag of tricks.
I know Buddy Guy. I wrote his biography, and I can’t begin to imagine any producer pulling this off.
“He can be set in his ways as anyone would at that age, like I am, the way I like my coffee or whatever,” explains Hambridge with careful understatement. “He’s been successful doing it his way for so long, but when he trusts you, he’s willing to try things, and I think our – gosh, what’s it been now – 15 years or whatever I’ve been working with him, he has built up this trust where he can say to me, ‘I just want to play my Stratocaster. I just want to do that. I don’t care.’ I can say, ‘Well, you know, why don’t we just try this? Why don’t you just pretend we’re back in 1953, and try this thing and maybe not play so many notes on this.’
“We got a trust, and I can just speak my thoughts to him, even to the point he might say, ‘I’m not sure about this song,’ and I can say, ‘Well, let’s just try it, you know,’ so we’re just able to stretch things a little bit and get right down to what feels good.
“Anyways, it’s been a blessing working with him, because there’s a lot of great artists I work with that are so set in their ways, or want to change all over the map and know their audience is not going to accept that. So, I’ve had rockers who want to come in and do love songs, or a whole album of love songs, and I’m like you (can easily) do that. But he’s a joy to work with as you know. It’s been great.”
One of Hambridge’s secret weapons as a producer is that he is completely colorblind when it comes to injecting rock and roll urgency into real deal blues, just as Buddy Guy always has been. Buddy Guy is as home with Keith Richards as he was with Muddy Waters. And Tom Hambridge has zero reticence rocking out with legacy blues artists and would-be legacy blues artists like Susan Tedeschi.
Hambridge produced Susan Tedeschi’s Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling CD Just Won’t Burn in 1997. He also wrote two singles for the album, “Rock Me Right” and “It Hurt So Bad” which he says have gone on to be recorded by more than 60 blues bands. But at the time, the record label wanted no part of “Rock Me Right.”
“I remember the record company being all up in arms that you’re gonna offend all the blues people, and I said, ‘Why am I gonna offend all the blues people?’ and I said, ‘It’s called “Rock Me Right,” and it’s rockin.’ First of all, two things. I think this record could sell a million copies,’ and they said, ‘Well, we just want to sell about 5000.’ And I said ‘Well, I think everyone who hears this will like it. People who are not even in the blues club yet, people outside the club who maybe want be in the blues club that don’t even know it exists ’cause they’re listening to other people might get off listening to this, get off on this song.
‘“And the other thing, if you want to be a stickler about it, “Rock Me, Baby” by B.B. King had the word rock in it,’ and they went, ‘Yeah, ok.’ And I went, ‘You know, I don’t think we’re that far.’ Then, of course, it sold a million copies. They’re probably two of the most recorded blues songs. Probably 50 or 60 new albums come out a year that are licensed with one of those songs on it. New blues artists.”
In 2016, Hambridge produced Mike Zito’s album Make Blues Not War which debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Blues Charts. Next to Buddy Guy’s The Blues Is Alive and Well, this is my favorite example of Hambridge’s ability as a producer to bring out the rock energy in artists who consider blues fans to be their base market.
“I hope the world gets to hear that Blues Not War record ’cause there’s so many different cool sounds and sides in that record, and I do get people who will email me and say, ‘Man, I heard this song, I didn’t know who it was. It sounds like you, but it didn’t sound like your singing.’ ‘It was a Mike Zito song off his new record. I guess now he’s got a new one out.”
Hambridge considers his ability of think outside the genre box as his “secret ingredient” as a producer. “If I’m gonna bring “Blue No More” into play for Buddy, I’m not thinking, ‘Is this a blues song? Is this a jazz song? Is this a rock song?’ I’m thinking this song is going to touch people when Buddy sings it.
Hambridge paraphrases the song on The Blues Is Alive and Well. ‘When I reach heaven’s gate, they might not know me because I won’t be blue no more. You know after all the hurt that I’ve been through, none of my songs will sound the same because all of the heartache and all of the pain will be taken from me and I won’t be blue no more.’
“And you know, I’m just thinking about it in terms of touching people, making them either laugh, feel good, wanna dance, whatever, and it’s I’m not thinking it’s gotta be in this bin in the record store, or it’s wrong.”
Hambridge writes 60 songs for every 12 that appear on any one record. One reviewer documented that in the two years between 2014 and 2016 alone, Hambridge produced 17 records, received 27 award nominations, six of which he won, played drums and/or sang on 19 other artist’s albums, made numerous TV appearances, toured extensively and released his seventh solo album, The NOLA Sessions.
No one would ever accuse Hambridge of being buttoned down, but he’s much more focused and “professional” in the classic sense of the word when producing others than he working on his own. “I wanted to do everything backwards,” he says about his own The NOLA Sessions. “I wanted to do it the way I never do it. So, when I do my own records, everything is wide open. I can say whatever I want. I can sound however I want because I’m not trying to work for somebody and make sure I keep them on track. I am completely wide open. So, I can do a blues song. I can do a strip down and just do an acoustic ballad. I can write a very introspective thing that no one is going to understand but me, and I don’t have to worry about it.
“I just booked four days in New Orleans, and of course the record company said, ‘You’re gonna bring down all of your people, right, that you do all these (recordings) with.’
“I said, ‘No, I’m just gonna go down there by myself.”
“What are the songs?”
I always have the songs prepared in advance for everybody to be on the same page and love them and pick the ones they want and I said, ‘No, I’m gonna write ’em when I go down there.’
“I just thought I want to meet the engineer for the first time. I don’t want to see the studio before I book it. I’m gonna play drums they have there. I don’t even need to see it. I ’m not bringing any equipment, and then I just call these musicians that I’ve never met and see who comes out, and that’s what we did.
“Fortunately, the record company trusted me. They knew that I wouldn’t completely let ’em down, and so that’s what I did. I just called Allen Toussaint, Sonny Landreth, Ivan Neville. These are the guys. Call these guys, and I wanted a different band every day, and whoever shows up shows up, and they might not know who I am. They might know who I am. I don’t know. I’m always buried. My head’s underneath the (sand). I’m just making albums.
“If I’m producing a George Thorogood record or a James Cotton record or whoever I’m working with, Gregg Allman, I am so in tune with them and what their sound is and their history, where they’re from, where they grew up, what they’ve already done, what they haven’t done yet. So, there’s a million things I’m thinking about sonically, how to change it, but don’t lose the magic they have. I’m constantly in touch with that artist and their music, and I will write songs with them or search for songs that pertain to where they’re from and are in their situation. So, they’re not gonna sing about something that is completely foreign, you now, in a different language.
“When people would say to me, ‘I want you to produce a record for me,’ I’d say, ‘What do you want to record?’ They go, ‘I want to record “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Stormy Monday” and all classic songs, whatever, and I’d say, ‘You know what? Why don’t we write a couple of our own, and hopefully 30 years from now they’ll be “Stormy Monday.” It’ll be our own,’ but a lot of people are shut off by that. Elmore James was able to create that just because he wasn’t trying to do that. You know, people had to write those individual songs.”
In 2013, Hambridge produced James Cotton’s last album, Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator Records) including the song “Bonnie Blue.” It was a Grammy nominee for album of the year. “That was so wonderful and meaningful and emotional because when James came to me, (he asked) ‘What kind of record?’ I said, ‘I want to tell your story,’ and he said, ‘Well, how are we going to come up with songs?’ And that’s a wonderful situation where I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Come to my office in Nashville for two days and just talk to me, and I’ll have the album ready.’ And he said, ‘No way!’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s all ya gotta do, just come to my office.’ So, he came to my office the first day and we just talked.”
By that time, Cotton’s voice sounded like a 1965 VW stripping gears. “I was able to say, ‘James, write it down. I don’t understand what you just said there. What did you say?’ And he said, ‘Bonnie Blue. That’s the plantation I grew up on,’ and I said, ‘That’s a slave plantation?’ ‘Yeah, Bonnie Blue.’ And that is one of the things I get a chill just thinking about it.
One of the songs on the album is “Bonnie Blue.”
“He said, ‘I can’t sing. How are we gonna make a record when I can’t sing?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna call some friends of mine and when I tell ’em what I’m doing, and it’s for you, I think they’re all gonna come out.’ ‘No, they won’t come out.
“First guy I called was Greg Allman. He said, ‘You gotta send me the song.’ I sent him a song I wrote called “Midnight Train.” He called me back personally. He said, ‘You tell me when and where and I’ll do it.’ I called Warren Haynes, I called Delbert McClinton. I called Keb Mo. Everybody I called said, ‘I’m there.’
Hambridge is one of very few blues musicians who have gone to Berklee College of Music and made it through to graduation. Most quit when they make a musical connection and join a band. Hambridge went through college and joined a and at the same time, and what a band it was. “I was playing all the way through. I started playing drums when I was five years old, so I started playing music professionally, getting paid when I was in the third grade. I’ve never had another job. So, when I went to Berklee, the first thing I did was get a gig. I was touring with Roy Buchanan, Chuck Berry, and my professors would let me go and do that.
They were like, ‘You’re kidding me. You play with Roy Buchanan? Yeah, go ahead. I won’t fail you.’ So, I was just enjoying being in Boston and learning all this. There was so much vibrant music happening all over the city, and I played with John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys. A lot of local bands that were just great, you know. There was such a scene.
“I loved everything about being in Boston and going to Berklee. I took art history courses and just all kinds of stuff. I took piano courses, and I just loved it. So, I think it wasn’t like I was a professional musician. I felt like I was a professional musician, and I was just learning and being creative and going to class and whatever I could pick up I was picking up at the time, you know, in the gig that night, in the class that day, whatever, at the jam session.”
Imagine playing with a guitarist as spectacular as Roy Buchanan while still in school. It was a baptism by fire. “When I got the gig with Roy Buchanan, I remember being in Alston, Mass, and I was known as a pretty reliable drummer, played with a lot of different people, and I got a call saying, ‘Would you like to audition for Roy Buchanan for a tour?’ And I remember thinking, oh, my gosh, I remembered my brother played those records and “The Messiah Will Come Again.”
“I called my brother, and I said, ‘Can you send me some of your records?’ This is crazy, right? And he sends me some of the records, and then I got the call. The audition was going to be on this day. Then, it was gonna be pushed back. Then, I went and auditioned, and he wasn’t there. But his band leader was there, and I played like an hour and he said, ‘Man, you got it. You’re in.’
“Then I was supposed to rehearse with the band for the tour. Then, we didn’t rehearse, and it got to the point where the first shows were at Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, two sold-out shows. The next show was the Lone Star in New York. Next show was the Bottom Line. I mean, the tour started in Cambridge, and I said, ‘When am I gonna meet Roy, and we’re gonna rehearse these songs?’ And they said, ‘Oh, like the week of,’ and then a couple of days before, then it was supposed to be the afternoon of the first show.
“I met Roy backstage five minutes before we were going on for the first show, and Roy walked up and said, ‘Hey, Tom, I guess you’re our new drummer. Looking forward to playing with ya.’ And I said, ‘Me, too. Do you know what we’re gonna play,’ and he said, ‘Wha’dya know?’ I said, ‘I know “Hot Job,” “Peter Gunn.”’ He says, ‘Let’s start with “Peter Gunn,”’ And I walked on stage, and that’s how I started.
“After a while you seem to work with musicians who understand that if they trust you enough, they know you come with a whole tool belt of stuff in your whole life. So, you can adapt at a certain point which is what we did. I went out on stage and we just followed him and played musically, and by I think the second night we recorded Live at The Lone Star.
“And that was the show that in the last two or three years was on an album that came out of unknown classic recordings by Roy Buchanan, and on that record was the song “Amazing Grace,” and they said that was the only time they’ve discovered Roy Buchanan ever played “Amazing Grace” live, and it was the second night of the tour. I remember he just started playing. I got brushes and just started playing it. It’s on the album, and it sounds spectacular. I just figured he did this every night.
“I was just the new guy, but that shows you how it all goes down, and history is made sometimes which is what I love about music. You get great musicians in a room with somebody like Roy Buchanan or a Buddy Guy or whoever we’re talking about, and you can make magic, and that’s what I love about music. So, that was nice.”
Tom Hambridge is a workaholic who believes in what he does passionately and works at it almost around the clock. “Every day is pretty different. I try to write a couple of songs, I try to write every day, but sometimes life gets in the way, so (right now) I’m in the middle of mixing a couple of albums that I haven’t got done, backing a record this week, writing a song with an artist who is flying in. I’ve got to do a Bobby Rush overdub for an album.
“It’s constant. I feel totally blessed, and I love what I do and at times, people do call me a workaholic because when everyone is wrapping up and saying, “Boy this is an unbelievable day, and we’ve got an early start tomorrow. I can’t just wait to hit the bed and crash out. What are you doing, Tom?’ And I go, ‘Oh, I gotta go to another session, and I’m tracking something tonight,’ and they do look at me like I’ve got three heads sometimes, but I really love what I’m doing and so I just try to fit the sleep in wherever I can and just go after it, you know?
“It’s not a game. It’s a business. It’s a craft and you first have to keep writing. You just have to keep writing better songs. A good copywriter gets his songs turned down 99% of the time.”
Visit Tom’s website at: http://hambridgetunes.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.