by Dr. Matt Warnock.
Born in Mississippi and raised in the cultural Mecca of Southern Louisiana, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth seemed destined to be a musical talent from a very early age.
Growing up surrounded by the jazz, second line and R&B of New Orleans, the Delta blues of his home state, the exciting rock ‘n’ roll music being heard on the nation’s radio stations, and local Zydeco bands, has led Landreth to become a diverse musician solidly grounded in the blues music that he loves.
His multi-fingered approach to the slide, where he mixes fretted notes behind the slide that he keeps on his pinky finger, has redefined the public’s perception of what a slide guitar player can accomplish. Though he is a virtuosic guitarist and performer, Landreth is also an accomplished songwriter whose writing adds a new dimension of musicality to his guitar artistry.
Recently, Landreth has begun releasing new and archived material through his own Landfall Records label. Landreth’s first album, From the Reach, on his new label features an all-star cast of musicians alongside the virtuoso slide man. Guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford and Mark Knopfler, as well as perennial favorite Dr. John, showcase the vast diversity of Landreth’s musical background and tastes. Each guest artist brings a new approach to their songs and no matter what style they play – blues, jazz-based rock or country – Landreth is right there with them.
In 2009, Landreth opened his extensive vault of recordings and decided to re-release a forgotten gem, Levee Town. Before going through management and PR changes in 2001, when the album was originally released, Landreth wasn’t happy with how the album’s release had been handled. With a lack of publicity, the record faded into the background and fans were not able to easily get a hold of this collection of well-written Landreth originals.
After changing his management and PR firm, Landreth felt it was time to revisit the album, add a number of extra bonus tracks for his fans to enjoy and put it out on his new label. The result is an album that features Landreth doing what he does best, singing heart-felt melodies and showcasing the extraordinary slide guitar playing that he has become known for worldwide. Currently on tour in support of his latest album and working on his much anticipated signature guitar with Fender, Landreth is keeping his eyes focused on what lies ahead as he delivers standing-room-only shows around the country.
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Matt Warnock: What was your initial inspiration to pick up the slide and start playing in that style?
Sonny Landreth: Mostly it was picking up on the Delta bluesmen at an early age. That music was just really exciting for me. It was like discovering a whole new world. I didn’t even know what slide guitar was per se, but I kept reading about it and got deeper into it by listening to it on those different tracks, by those different players. That was what got me hooked.
I couldn’t have articulated it as a kid, but it was the vocal quality of the sound of the bottleneck and all the various sounds that these incredible players were making that really got my attention.
Matt: Have you always played with the slide on your pinky or did you come to that method after experimenting with other fingers?
Sonny Landreth: Well, actually I started out with a lap slide. I had a little Fender lap slide I used to play. I took what I had learned on that after about six months to a year of playing and applied it to the bottleneck approach. But I did start with the slide on my little finger, even back then. I don’t know if I can remember seeing anyone play slide like that, but I had read about it, so I did experiment with the slide on the middle and ring fingers, but the little one always felt right to me.
Matt: You have also become known for using a combination of fingers and slide in your playing. What inspired you to experiment with this approach?
Sonny Landreth: It was a couple of different things but it mostly came out of a desire to play minor chords in a song where the guitar was tuned to an E major chord. I was playing in a blues band back then and I would always change positions to get those minor chords.
Trying to figure it out, I began looking at the 12th fret and I could see that G# there, with the slide across all six strings on the 12th fret, and I starting thinking that if I just reached back and grabbed the G natural behind it than I could play the E minor chord. Once I did that I began to think, “Well if that’s there, than what about all this other stuff?” More than anything it gave me a direct line to a whole new approach, but it also opened up the potential to new possibilities. I think that approach says more about slide guitar and the immense possibilities for creativity, different sounds and techniques that are there to be had. That was very exciting for me and it helped propel me forward.
Matt: While most people associate slide guitar with blues music, you bring many other styles of music into your playing, in particular Zydeco music. Is this a result from your growing up in Louisiana?
Sonny Landreth: Fortunately, growing up in Southern Louisiana there’s such a great influence from the culture and certainly music is a big part of that. So I grew up listening to all kinds of different styles of music. New Orleans was just a few hours away and we were in and out of there all the time. I heard jazz there and second line, R&B, there was also rock ‘n’ roll on the radio all the time. I had begun playing trumpet when I was ten, so I had the academic background as well in classical music, and in jazz, those directions too.
All of this stuff was happening at once, but locally there were also these great Cajun and Zydeco bands playing around so I was exposed to that music too. I really came from the blues. It was my foundation, and through that I filtered in all of these other styles of music. I think that I’ve really kept that influence in my playing. If you were to really analyze it, the blues is still at the core of what I’ve done.
Matt: On your CD From the Reach, you played with guitarists from many different backgrounds. Players such as Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Vince Gill and Robben Ford all have very different and often unique approaches to music. Did you find that you slipped into their personal styles a little bit as you recorded with each of these different musicians?
Sonny Landreth: I found that it was a very natural fit with those musicians because I am so intimately familiar with their music. I think if you really look at it, at one end you have one of my original guitar heroes, Eric Clapton, who I’ve been listening to since I was 16 years old. Then you have other players who share a lot of the same influences as I do.
In the case of Eric, he helped influence me to listen to various types of music, and with some of the other guys, we grew up influenced by similar types of music. For example, Robben Ford started playing on the saxophone. I think that since we both come from a wind and brass background that we have a different way of phrasing, something that we were able to connect between us in our guitar playing. With a brass or wind instrument, we had to breathe between phrases and I think we’ve both adopted that approach to our guitar soloing as well. Playing a lot of different styles of music, because of the influences that I’ve had, I felt made it easy for all of us to find a common denominator.
Matt: All of the players on the album, including yourself, are very busy with touring and being on the road all the time. How difficult was it to get the recording finished once everyone had committed to the project?
Sonny Landreth: A close friend of mine who had a lot of experience with collaborative projects like this said to me, “Everyone might want to do it but management and labels may get in the middle and it might not work out as planned. I just want to prepare you for that as a friend.” But I have to say, the whole thing went off without a hitch. Each and every one of them was so enthusiastic and energetic about doing it. I mean, I couldn’t even finish a sentence with Vince Gill. I said, “Vince I’m making a new album this year,” and he said “I’ll do it!” [Laughs]
That type of thing fired me up even more and I feel that it was meant to fall in place like it did. One thing I should point out is that I don’t think that a number of years ago a project like this could have been so easy to do. Advances in technology have really made this type of thing easy and affordable to do. That’s where working with Pro Tools and other technology was really a strong point. This way, everyone was able to come off the road after a long year touring and go into their studio with their engineer who they felt comfortable with. So my job was to get the tracks to the other guys in a way that would allow them to get into that space where they could be comfortable with the music and just do their thing. The edge I had was that I was very familiar with the music.
So when I wrote songs with these guys in mind it really helped make it happen, along with the technological aspect. I could ship them, literally, mixes where they could hear the exact tracks we had laid down and mixed, which just made the whole process flow a lot smoother and not take forever to pull off. In fact that part of the project took less than a year. Looking back, I’m still a bit astounded at how quickly it came together.
Matt: From the Reach was the first album you released on your own record label. Why did you decide to start up Landfall Records?
Sonny Landreth: It’s just come to this point in time in terms of the business, where I am in my career and looking at the big picture. For me, it really comes down to artists owning their own masters. If there’s one thing I could change in my career, turning the clock back, that would be it. I can’t stress enough how important that is. The issue is that when guys are coming up, especially when I was starting out, finding success meant taking advantage of any time someone opened the door to let you do anything. Whether it was recording a tune or sweeping the floors, we took the opportunity.
Now, with the nature of major labels these days, with the digital age having turned that upside down, I think it’s a good thing. I think what’s happening for a lot of us, especially those that have been doing it for a long time, is it gives us a chance to be in control of our own material, especially the masters. I have older albums that I don’t own the masters to and therefore I can’t produce and manufacture new copies of them, since they’re out of print. For me, it’s not a matter of the money. It’s that people want to hear those records and unfortunately I can’t give that music to the people.
If you put all my records in order from the first to the last, it’s almost as if my life’s flashing before my eyes, so it’s also important to me as an artist. It’s very important to keep control of that because if you don’t have it than the decisions are being made by other people regarding your life’s work.
Matt: You’ve also re-released Levee Town on your own label with some added bonus material.
Sonny Landreth: There’s a good example where revisiting is a good thing. That album was first released in 2000, it was released on Sugar Hill, and at the time I had just gone through changes with my management and booking agency. When that was released, we literally had one gig booked and there was no publicity. It was really disheartening since I had spent the better part of three years writing the music and recording that album. So I felt that album never really got its due.
The re-release gave me the opportunity to make up for that, and I wanted to release some other tracks that I had lying around on two-inch tape. I went back to this batch of tunes and I thought, “Wow, it still holds up.” So I got some of my friends to add acoustic rhythm parts and some keys. I re-cut the solo on “For Who We Are” and I re-sang the second verse on that song, which I really never liked. So those are some good examples of how it should work. A lot of people didn’t have the chance to hear the original album and I had some other tracks that I thought people would dig, and this was the right opportunity to get this material out to the people.
Matt: You’re currently on tour playing across the country. What guitars are you playing on the road with you right now?
Sonny Landreth: Fender Strats. I love Fenders and Gibsons. I grew up playing Gibsons. I’ve got a lot of them, but I had settled in with the Strat a number of years ago. In fact, I’ve been working with Fender on a signature model that should be ready to go into production next year. I do love my Les Pauls, but for me it’s kind of just apples and oranges.
When we do a bus tour, I can bring my own gear and a lot of guitars, but right now we’re flying mostly so I’m limited to what I can bring with me. So right now I’m playing Strats. I send my love to the people at Gibson, but when it comes down to it, the Strats cover all the bases for me.
Matt: Are you playing vintage Strats or newer models?
Sonny Landreth: I used to bring my ’66 out on the road with me, but I quit doing that. Since I’m working with my good friends at Fender on the new guitar, I’ve been playing various prototypes of the signature model. Fender has never put out a slide-specific guitar in the past so we’re all really excited about it.
Matt: Can you talk about your involvement with the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Foundation?
Sonny Landreth: Tommy Comeaux was my best friend and just an incredible person. He was a doctor but he also played music, including as a member of the multiple-Grammy nominated Cajun band Beausoleil. So he was a doctor, musician and humanitarian. When he died tragically 11 years ago, a group of his friends got together and we came up with the idea to establish a charitable endowment at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette to support traditional music, which we understand has never been done before.
Tommy loved all kinds of music so this foundation will allow students to be exposed to different types of music that they may not have had the chance to hear otherwise. All the proceeds from the t-shirts and caps and stuff I sell at my gigs go to his foundation. I also have to put in a plug for my fan club the Krewe. They network all over the country, show up at all the gigs and donate their time to help out with this cause. Because of their efforts and people’s generosity, we’ve been able to donate a sizeable check to the foundation each year.
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