photo by Melissa Clarke
Sonny Landreth put a rock band together for the first time at age 13. It was a 3-piece outfit with two guitarists and a drummer, and they brought the hits of the British Invasion to weekend parties thrown by his parents and their friends, who were in a tight-knit community of State Farm Insurance employees in Southern Louisiana.
“We played the same 5 songs over and over until they actually paid us to stop,” Landreth says with a laugh. “We made 5 bucks apiece, and I thought, this is way better than mowing yards.”
Not long after, Landreth found himself double-booked on Friday nights. He played trumpet in the school marching band and played rock gigs afterward with his band The Lunar Patrol. To make it work, he made a deal with his band director: He’d play the trumpet during football games until the end of the halftime show, then his rock band would pick him up and they’d race to another gig. “What I had was kind of a Sergeant Pepper thing – going on stage in my marching band outfit.”
50 years later, Sonny has certainly earned his stripes. He got into slide guitar at age 16, which led him down the road to a lifetime of blues. He’s collaborated with orchestras, Duane Trucks, and Eric Clapton (to name a few), most frequently accompanying them with his trademark guitar playing, a style that’s been dubbed Slydeco. The success and the confidence of being a world-class musician may be why Sonny comes off as a guy who doesn’t spend a lot of energy worrying. Speaking on the phone, he flows through our conversation with a Lebowski-like “far out, man” zen – his Louisiana drawl accenting his laid-back speech pattern. We spoke about his new album, Blacktop Run and his life and craftsmanship as a musician.
“It’s probably the most eclectic album I’ve done in a while, and a return to form with ballads – similar to some of the work I did earlier in the ‘90s,” he said of Blacktop Run. The record digs deep into his bag of influences and includes his originals as well as covers of songs previously recorded by his friends.
It opens with its title track “Blacktop Run,” a road song driven by Landreth’s signature slide guitar. The song combines the aesthetic of southern California and southern Louisiana, and Landreth has no trouble connecting the dots between the blues in the instrumentation and his vocal melodies reminiscent of Tom Petty.
A few songs later we arrive at “Groovy Goddess”, a song that sounds to me like a backyard barbeque or a dad washing a car in the driveway on a hot day. Landreth said he wrote and began playing “Goddess” over a decade ago, but it had been on the shelf for years. It’s a driving instrumental jam that continually lifts the listener higher and higher on a bed of Steve Conn’s keys and Landreth’s guitars. There’s a vibe to it that reminds me of Booker T and the MGs, and Landreth doesn’t mind the comparison. “Green onions influenced every guitar player,” he said. “It’s soulful. I like soulful music.”
The heavy electric songs aren’t necessarily the norm on the album. Songs like “Mule” and “Don’t Ask Me” harken back much more closely to Landreth’s zydeco roots, layering his guitars with Steve Conn’s bouncing accordion and a backing of drummer Brian Brignac and bassist David Ranson.
Then there’s “Somebody Gotta Make a Move,” a soulful blues ballad written by Conn that allows Landreth to highlight one of his lesser acclaimed talents: singing. “I don’t consider myself a great singer,” he said – but his singing on “Somebody Gotta Make a Move” shows that in the right song, his voice is another powerful tool in his arsenal.
In talking about his voice, I ask Landreth if he would consider Bill Withers (who at the time was still living) among his vocal influences. “I would never think of that,” he pondered. “But now that you say that – I can see why you would see that. (His songs) always stood out because they were so genuine. He was such a great singer with such great phrasing, the way he would deliver a line. And I loved how his songs – he would always strip it down to the core. Almost like a glorified demo. He was great – you had his honesty and it made more impact that way, which is what I was trying to do.”
Landreth says the approach to production varied quite a bit from song to song on Blacktop Run. Some songs, he says, were built entirely in the studio, and others are more reflective of how he’d perform them live. “I have no problem with treating a production like a painting where you’re adding colors,” he says of his process. “I don’t mind leaving a song alone if they are production pieces, and I also don’t mind taking a song with a great amount of production and synthesizing it into a 3 piece band. It’s rewarding for me to get down to stripping it down to the essence of the songs and taking it down.”
While making records is part of his job, talking to Landreth reveals an obsession with mastering the guitar that hasn’t died after 50 years playing. “I like to do different things and stretch out of my comfort zone,” he says. “I’m playing this Bach Piece – Cantata 140. Man – it kicked my ass. It’s so simple and so beautiful, but it’s phrasing and melodic lines were so different on slide guitar from what I would typically do. I’d learn the melody in several positions on the neck and then try to make it seamless so it just flows, like what a cellist would play.”
On pushing himself on his technical skills, he elaborates. “I’m always trying to articulate multiple parts, where you hear the melody and bass and rhythm at the same time. I learned that from Chet Atkins. He was so impeccable, where you could pick out all the parts separate from each other. And classical guitarists do the same thing.”
It’s this commitment to mastery that’s given him the opportunities he’s had. He’s helped preserve the blues, and by combining it with other southern genres he’s created something original and new. After all his musical accomplishments, he’s still laid back. “It’s always a work in progress. There’s no end to try to perfect it and try to do it even better than before.”
Blacktop Run is available now.