Songwriter Interviews

Billy Gibbons

by Carl Wiser

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The ZZ Top guitarist on his latest solo album, the hidden gem in the ZZ catalog, and having a song synched to figure skating.



The opening lick on Billy Gibbons' second solo album, The Big Bad Blues, will have you channeling your inner Stone Cold Steve Austin: Hell Yeah!

Gibbons' blues is all about high style and good living - the musical embodiment of his hot rod habit. It's a sound that has powered ZZ Top for 49 years now, most profitably in the '80s when it was blended with synths.

That leadoff lick belongs to the opening track, "Missin' Yo' Kissin'," credited to "Miz Gibbons" - Billy's wife, Gilly. It's one of seven originals alongside Gibbon-ized covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Jerome Green.

The Big Bad Blues is set for release September 21. Gibbons, one of the great raconteurs in the business, shared his thoughts on some of the standout tracks and talked about the venue that inspired one of the great ZZ Top classics. Figure skating gets a mention, but we'll start with "Second Line," a song on the album about a New Orleans tradition.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): "Second Line, So Fine" - please tell us about your New Orleans experience and if you've ever been in a second line.

Billy Gibbons: When one grows up on the Gulf Coast, visiting New Orleans is something of a right of passage. When I first got what was called a "drivings license," we realized New Orleans was fewer than 350 miles from Houston across the Texas-Louisiana line, and the Crescent City came calling. The call was answered and, of course, one of the attractions was the sound of that particular town.

We got a first-hand look of the "second liners"... a solid brass band, the march, umbrellas abounding. That's the kind of impression which becomes a lasting one, made more vivid by constant visits to NOLA... even a lengthy residency there.

Our relationship with Quarter City has been one of long standing and it might be noted the first side of ZZ Top's Fandango! was in fact a live recording from New Orleans.

Songfacts: How has your songwriting changed over the years?

Gibbons: I'm pretty sure it's evolved from the sources which can be, well... anything. A turn of phrase, a potential title might spring to mind or a riff presents itself. It's about keeping an open mind and, in essence, "let it happen." We're never entirely sure of how this process actually works, but sho' 'nuff, it does work.

Songfacts: What's the song by another artist you spent the most time deconstructing?

Gibbons: Bo Diddley's "Crackin' Up," recorded for The Big Bad Blues. Bo's upside down/inside out guitar intro required many hours of figuring. When finally accomplished, there was much cause for celebration. You may think you know Bo but you've got to be severely analytical to really know, know, know Bo.

Gibbons says he's still trying to figure out the solo on "The Wind Cries Mary." His pre-ZZ Top band Moving Sidewalks toured with Hendrix in 1968, and the two became good friends. A guitarist they both studied was Jeff Beck.
Songfacts: "That's What She Said" (from The Big Bad Blues) is the first time we've heard "petroglyph" in a lyric ("My baby's on a petroglyph, my baby's smokin' like a spliff"). What's the story behind that song?

Gibbons: "That's What She Said" is the one song that was sifted from an early solo recording session. We were looking for some sort of Dylanesque statement intended to surprise and please the listener while writing "That's What She Said," when the word, "petroglyph," appeared.

Coincidentally, our blues-harp blowing pal, James Harman, who appears on The Big Bad Blues, also maintains an intense connection with Native American Indians. Señor Harman holds an enviable collection with a wealth of splendid, genuine trimmings... silver bracelets, vintage and period perfect handmade moccasins, and oddly enough, a trace study of ancient rock scratchings throughout the desert Southwest. Ironically, James included in his recent recording called "Fineprint" the word "hieroglyphics"! Totally Egyptian! Simply off-the-wall. And, yes, both numbers offer those entertaining wordy additions, making for engaging pieces of "blue-poetry."

Songfacts: What was the place that inspired "Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers"?

Gibbons: On to a gig in Phoenix, we were driving through a West Texas windstorm. We, the band, were waiting to discover a place with some safe ground cover when the late-night lights of a roadside joint appeared. It was just across the line outside El Paso into New Mexico.

We ducked in quick and came face to face with our kind of folks... those soulful souls seeking solace, not only out of the dust and sand, but out of mind. What chance does one get better than that!?!?! We joined the gathering and started scribbling!

ZZ Top did about 300 dates a year from 1969-1976, culminating in their "Worldwide Texas" tour, a massive undertaking with a prairie backdrop and a stage adorned with live animals, including a black buffalo and longhorn steer. Spent from the road, the band ducked out the disco era with a few years off, which is when Gibbons and Hill grew out their beards. Their solid success continued with Degüello in 1979 and El Loco in 1981, but it was Eliminator, in 1983, that made a mark with the MTV generation. The beards, the babes and the car were exactly what the network was looking for, and their videos played constantly. They were the first act to pick up the thread from one video to the next, with the lucky-dog gas station attendant from "Gimme All Your Lovin'" becoming the "Sharp Dressed Man."

When they made their first album in 1970, ZZ Top didn't have a record deal; by the mid-'80s, they were one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Expect something Texas-sized when they turn 50 next year.
Songfacts: What's the best use of a ZZ Top song in a movie or TV show?

Gibbons: Gotta be the use of "Sleeping Bag" from Eliminator in the recent I, Tonya. It's absolutely true-to-life and period correct.

When the recorded ZZ version wrapped up, it became a ZZ favorite. When it became a natural working as a piece with figure skating as a drop, it made us think about taking on recording a ballet some day. Nah, just kidding!

Songfacts: You have some great covers on The Big Bad Blues, including songs by Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. What are the challenges in reworking songs by those artists?

Gibbons: The challenges? They're big! Taking some classic works of art into the ethos of believability requires one simple escape... take it on the total natural. Play 'em with reckless abandon until the feeling takes over. As Muddy Waters once stated, "Don't have to make the best one, just make a good one!"

Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the ZZ Top catalog?

Gibbons: Was just thinking about "It's Only Love" from Tejas. It's a blues/country combo platter that owes something to the immortal Jimmy Reed insofar as "Baby, what you tryin' to do" is a lyric inspired by Jimmy's "Baby What You Want Me To Do." It's "fonky" with an "o."

August 31, 2018
Get The Big Bad Blues at billygibbons.com
Here's our interview with Leslie West

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Comments: 7

  • Gorman from Lancaster, PaThe bearded one is wise...
  • Rick from Los AngelesHe is absolutely correct about "It's Only Love". The whole Tejas album is possibly their best & definitely their most overlooked, but beware - in the 80s they replaced the drums with triggers for the ZZ Top 6 Pack release, and that's the only CD that's available, to my knowledge. Currently you have to get an LP to hear it with the original drums, which is the only way to hear it.
  • Randy from Liverpool, NySaw an Eliminator car just yesterday and thought of Mr. Gibbons. Except this one was white and wasn't carrying a bunch of babes.
  • Shawn from MarylandI love me some ZZ Top. I still remember where I was when I first heard "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" and "Cheap Sunglasses" (Rome AFB, NY). :)
  • Paul from Croydon, PaThanx for the great article on one of rock's very best, Mr. Billy Gibbons. Can't wait for The Big Bad Blues to come out! Peace!
  • Richard Sanguinetti from Taylor, TxHe has a good touch
    You can feel his heart and emotion when he plays
  • Phil from Seattle, WaThank you! I love the guy.
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