Sonny Landreth

by Roger Catlin

Sonny Landreth's distinctive guitar style was somewhat self taught: He blended the fingerpicking of Chet Atkins with a commanding Delta blues slide, all of it marinated in the Zydeco he grew up with in Louisiana, where he still lives. Landreth, 65, may have first attracted a wide audience when he and his band The Goners backed John Hiatt for his successful "Bring the Family" tour, but he also toured with artists as varied as Michael Murphy and Jimmy Buffett.

On his latest studio album, 2015's Bound by the Blues, he pays homage to a pair of late guitar legends, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom he met when he was a teenager. As we spoke with Landreth he was putting in some winter shows in preparation of recording a new live album.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): How are you doing?

Sonny Landreth: I'm doing pretty good. Going down the list, getting stuff done.

Songfacts: Where am I reaching you?

Sonny: I'm at home. I live in between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Ever been down this way?

Songfacts: Yeah. Interesting country. Do you live far from where you grew up?

Sonny: No, actually I was raised in Lafayette, six miles down the road. It's something like halfway between. One direction is Lafayette and the other direction is the little town of Breaux Bridge. It's about two hours from New Orleans.

I was coming up when all that was happening: the awareness of the culture and the music here.

Songfacts: When did you first hear slide guitar?

Sonny: Most people listen to the old Delta blues albums and even on up until the electric age of Elmore James. But I had more heroes than I could count.

Songfacts: You were really out on your own there. There wasn't really anyone you could emulate who did that kind of thing, was there?

Sonny: No, there really wasn't. No one ever showed me anything on slide. There was no one around here that did that. There were plenty of fiddles and accordions and other instruments. I was playing trumpet in the school band, which probably helped me. It forced me to come at it with maybe a different approach.

I was speaking to Robben Ford about this one time, because he started out on saxophone. And I think the fact we both began on wind instruments, that helped us to come at the guitar with a different perspective, because you think like a wind instrument player: you have to take a breath, and incorporate that it into the phrasing.

There is that vocal quality that is so important — especially with slide for me, and that's what hit me the most. Looking back on it in those beginning days, the slide with those Delta bluesman, it was like their second voice, and they would use the different sounds they could make to tell the stories, because they were story songs, very much in the story song tradition. That was really most effective. That spoke to me as well: to learn to sing your instrument. I got onto that early on.

Songfacts: Were you writing songs back then too?

Sonny: Yeah, I was always trying to write songs. Even on trumpet, I'd write these little things. I started studying the history of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and so forth and fell in love with all of that. Then I'd try to write these minuets out, literally write them out for trumpet. I don't know what they sounded like. It'd be interesting to go back and hear it now, for sure.

But I think it's just part of that fire to want to write and create music. That's what that was all about, and that was the medium I had at the time. Then as I got into guitar that was a natural progression to take that forward.

Songfacts: You were also interested in classical and jazz?

Sonny: I certainly had great exposure to it. Playing in a school band, back in the day it was called "stage band," but the jazz band and orchestra would play all of those incredible charts of Ellington, Basie and all the greats, and at one point I was playing both trumpet and guitar in my bands. The thought of it now really boggles my brain that I had actually done that, but it was good. I'd learn things in school and take that and apply it to songs in the band that I was working with in the day. It was a real creative time of exploring and discovering, so what the classical and jazz world gave me was a much stronger sense of dynamics and articulation and methodology - just the notion to set the bar really high.

The great classical or jazz musicians, that's a real high level there. Perfection is a big part of their world of course. They live and breathe it. I actually had to kind of loosen up and lose some of that a little later on to really plunge into the blues, because I was a bit academic for my friends at the time, and I didn't want to put a slight into their way of thinking. But that was good too, to sort of unlearn some of that in order to open it and experience it a bit more.

A wide audience first heard the snarling slide guitar of Sonny Landreth on John Hiatt's 1987 tour for his critically acclaimed album Bring the Family, stepping in with his band the Goners to fill the superstar backing on the album from Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. His work was such that he went in the studio for the followup, Slow Turning, the following year. Landreth returned to play on Hiatt's The Tiki Bar is Open and Beneath This Gruff Exterior in 2001 and 2003 respectively.
Songfacts: You've played with a lot of people, but John Hiatt was significant.

Sonny: John, I'll never be able to thank him enough. He more than anyone opened the door for me and my friends.

I put the band together for him. He's just one of the greatest songwriters ever, of our time or anytime, as a singer/songwriter and as a player. The cool thing was we hit it off, and there was such a great chemistry with the Goners because we had all grown up listening to a lot of the same music. We just connected. He was all for me trying anything and encouraged it. The band we had, we were playing in bars and that sort of thing, and had done all we could do, traveling around for several years. And then for his album Bring the Family, we were brought in and toured. That album had such critical acclaim with Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe. People had been huge fans of John's for years. He had been making several albums with critical success, and everyone wondered who was going to be in the band.

So he brought us onto an international, higher level. A whole other level. It was the first time I got any attention like that. That was huge for me.

Songfacts: Was it daunting to step in where Ry Cooder had been?

Sonny: It sure should have been. He was one of my big heroes. But when we got in the middle of songs with John, we knew something was happening. I don't know if it was instinctively or what. We got so much into that, there was a confidence there and you're in full creative mode and you're all about these songs and coming up with new ideas for riffs and techniques and sounds. It's all very spontaneous and all very raw. I think on an emotional level that really connected with aficionados of his and the critics alike.

And I had developed my thing on slide for so many years, and at that point I was so far into my own thing that I was confident about that. But looking back on it, I should have been more shaken by it. I will say at one point we were out in LA - we had been out on the road for many months to a year. We were delirious, we'd gone coast to coast in a van in both the US and in Europe and wound up back in LA, and I forget the venue, but as we're walking out on stage, John mentioned that Ry and Jim Keltner were out in the audience. And I said, "Great, you tell me now?"

We hadn't had any sleep and it was OK until we got to "Lipstick Sunset," and the iconic solo that he played on that song, and its tone and phrasing, it's beautiful, it's gorgeous - classic Ry - and we started the song and then I realized I had a guitar that was Ry's guitar, but he gave to John. It was a '65 Strat and I totally forgot that until that moment. I had to admit I got a little rattled playing "Lipstick Sunset" on one of Ry's former guitars. But it all worked out OK.

Landreth performed before some of his biggest audiences playing guitar for Jimmy Buffett, who recorded Landreth's "USS Zydecoldsmobile" on his 2002 album Far Side of the World. There followed appearances on occasional Buffett tours, one of which was captured on Buffett's 2005 album Live at Fenway Park.
Songfacts: I'm not as familiar with the time you spent with Jimmy Buffett. It must have been unusual just from the size of the audiences and the kind of audiences it was.

Sonny: Oh yeah. It was very different. I met Jimmy, it was with John. We had played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival one year, and then Jimmy came up and introduced himself, and then we re-met years later. The promoter brought Jimmy out to the side of stage when I was playing a set with my band, and then we met again, and he invited me to play on what was going to be his next album. Then he called me, and he ended up using one of my songs, and then he asked me to join the band.

I was totally honored and flattered, but I said, "I can't because I'm doing this thing with my band." But he said, "No man, just do your thing, whatever you want, come out to play when ever you want."

So that's how we left it, and he sent me the dates for the year once they got into that season. And it was great. In between what we were doing with my group, they'd fly me out to play Jimmy's shows.

We had done lots of festivals for years. You go over to Europe and they're huge. So that part of it is fine. It's just his whole crowd, they are very different. They are just all about Jimmy. He said, "I'll be the first one to say it, I've created my own myth." But he had an extraordinary band and we did a lot of cool stuff. It was great to have exposure and play for that may people, and all his gigs are like that. It's a lot of fun. It's a great bunch of people that they're like family, just great musicians, great folks.

Songfacts: Did you play with Johnny Winter as well?

Sonny: We used to drive to hear him play in Houston and Texas back in the early '70s, and I heard him many times over the years. But I didn't get to meet him until we were doing the same festival one year in Portland, Oregon and the promoter introduced me to another promoter who had Johnny booked, playing up the coast. We were going to play those shows as well, so he invited me to come in a day early and to sit in and meet Johnny. I said absolutely I would do that if it was OK with him.

It was really sweet. I sat on the side of stage, and I had his Firebird, and his slide at one point. It was really cool. I think there was some mojo there. Then he walked over and he introduced himself to me. He always had someone with him to help him walk and to get around to where he was getting. Next thing I know, I was going out on stage with him doing encores.

One thing led to another. I'd go out with my band and play with him. We opened up some shows for him and then we did a tour like that in Japan, which was his first time over there, actually. Boy, were they ready for him.

Then Paul Nelson, who is his guitar player, also his manager, he did an amazing job of getting Johnny back out and helping to get his career back on track and doing better than ever. He invited me to play on a track on the second-to-last album. It was a great honor for me. We hit it off. He kept saying, "Man, did you really play with Clifton Chenier?" That's what he wanted to hear stories about. It was really cool to talk about it.

He's from Beaumont, Texas, which is right across the border from Louisiana. There was a club there called the Texas Pelican, and it was literally right on the border with Louisiana and Texas, so a lot of kids back in the day would cross the border into Louisiana, and they could drink at the age of 18 instead of 21. We'd talk about some of those clubs. He grew up playing them too. So there was a real connection there for me with him. He was such a great hero of mine and to get to know him and to work with him was really special.

The news of his passing came to us when we were in midst of recording, and I wanted to do something in tribute because I knew the theme of that album was paying honor to our heroes, so we certainly wanted to do a track for Johnny.

Songfacts: Was Clifton Chenier the first big name you played with?

Sonny: Well, big for me. I was a kid when I first met him, so he was one of the top influences for me. I used to tell people it's like if I grew up in Chicago and Muddy Waters took me under his wing.

But actually the first national touring thing I did was with Michael Murphy, back in the day when he had a couple of hits. One was "Wildfire." That was my first taste of being on a bus like that, going across the country.

Songfacts: How old were you then?

Sonny: Oh, 25, 26.

Songfacts: I heard you were a teenager when you played with Clifton Chenier.

Sonny: No, that got mixed up. I met him when I was probably 16. I met him and B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix all in the same year, believe it or not. It was this serendipitous situation. But I didn't play with Clifton until later. I think it was '79 when I first started working with Cliff.

Songfacts: How did you meet Hendrix?

Sonny: Well, it was when me and my friends were freaking out over Jimi. We were big fans of the first two albums, and we heard he was playing in Baton Rouge. So we got in a car drive to Baton Rouge - back then it was about an hour-and-a-half drive. This was before Interstate 10.

So we go there early in chance of finding him and meeting him. I don't know what the hell we thought we were going to do and how it was going to happen, but we went over there early and there were all these kids running around trying to find him at the hotel. The hotel was right next door to the venue. So we're all upstairs and we make our way to his room. He was sitting in the room and he had a reel-to-reel tape playing and checking that out. Then this big English road manager runs us all off. My buddy was hiding in the gift shop, and lo and behold, Jimi walks in to get a toothbrush and some toothpaste, so there you go. That was our opportunity.

Songfacts: That's great.

Sonny: It's funny you ask me that, because a friend I saw a couple of weeks ago at a benefit, he knew of course that I'd been at that show. He had a poster from that show, in Independence Hall in Baton Rouge, and he gave that to me. Which would have been, I can tell you exactly, July the 30th, 1968.

Songfacts: You also mention Hendrix on the new album.

Sonny: Yeah, that song, the title track, in particular, is in tribute to my heroes, and even to the blues and the Resonator guitar, the National guitar, Jimi is in there. It was just sort of coming at me in a way you would see a collage. It would just go by really quickly, but each one was a vignette. So each verse is like that.

The Baton Rouge gig didn't go so well, but the funny thing was, I got to be friends with Noel Redding many years later and worked with him. We stayed in touch for several years until he passed. He told me he remembered that gig. There was unfortunately some racial tension back then. It was really sad. And then the promoter — we didn't find this out until later — they did two shows that night, and the story I got, he didn't want to do two shows, and he didn't know he was supposed to do two shows, but the promoter forced it on him. I think they were off on the wrong foot from the beginning. It didn't make him any less amazing. It had a profound effect on me. But Noel remembered that gig.

Songfacts: What are your current set of live dates about?

Sonny: Actually, we're getting ready to record a new live album. We're going to record it here in Lafayette. There's a beautiful theater here downtown, the Acadiana Center for Arts. So part of my deal with this label in the Netherlands, that I did my last album with, they requested I do a live album, and I've been thinking about that for quite a while. So we're going to record it here and we're going to take the best of those three nights. So I wanted to get a head of steam going into that.

Songfacts: What are you choosing to record for the new album?

Sonny: Some of the songs we haven't done over the years and some that we have been playing. Some of them really stay with you and just sort of have a life of the own, that just sort of blossom on the road. And others are better just to be left alone on the studio production. But some of these songs I wanted to get live versions of, and some from the older albums, I wanted to do some of them too. Also, we're going to do five or six songs acoustic. That will be fun.

February 1, 2017. Sonny's website is sonnylandreth.com
Photos: Robley Dupleix (1,3) Barry Brecheisen (2).

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