Slidin’ Through With Sonny Landreth

Slide guitar master Sonny Landreth, known as the King of Slydeco, took some time to chat with Pollstar about his new album, how he has learned from the greats, and why the blues always seems to come back.

Sonny Landreth
John Davisson
– Sonny Landreth
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Fairgrounds Racecourse, New Orleans, La.

While growing up in Louisiana, Landreth was fortunate enough to see B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Clifton Chenier all perform live in the span of one year, which he cites as a formative experience in his growth as an artist.

Since then, Landreth has had a lengthy career, during which he has collaborated with the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett and John Mayall. Years after seeing Clifton’s live show, Landreth was fortunate enough to earn a spot in Chenier’s band, in which he was the only white musician.

On some albums, like 2012’s Elemental Journey Landreth blends his guitar work into a more orchestral sound, but his last studio effort, 2015’s Bound By The Blues, explores some of his down-home influences.

When we got Landreth on the phone he had just finished performing at

So how did performing at the festival go?

It went great. It was actually at the university here, a real nice venue. Sold out – you gotta love that.

Was it a good crowd?

Yeah it was, we’ve been coming to play here over the years for a long time. Maybe the past couple years we’ve started to come back on a regular basis. So that’s cool.

I actually worked with a great Canadian singer and artist, Sue Medley, many years ago. And [she] was based in Vancouver, so I spent a lot of time here.

So you’re from Mississippi but settled in Louisiana?

Right. I’m from Lafayette. I live closer to Breaux Bridge, it’s about two hours west of New Orleans.

Yeah, my family moved to Lafayette when I was 7 years old and I grew up there, so that’s very much home. Deep roots there. It’s a really great place. Culture is such a way of life and music is a big part of that. I had a great background of influences to soak up when I was a kid growing up.

Can you talk more about growing up in Louisiana and the influence it’s had on you?

[With] all the music there, whole families grow up playing music. With the Cajun and Creole there, it’s just a big part of the fabric of the community. At the same time, for example, in New Orleans we would go back and forth there growing up a lot.  That’s where I first heard jazz, and R&B and the second line rhythms. But as time went on all those different genres, and rock ‘n’ roll, and some of the great stuff that was on the radio, that played into [my sound] as well.

And you had the chance to see legends like Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, sometimes in one year!

That particular year was a banner one for discovery.  At that point I was very much into discovery, and seeking out and going to find some of the greats. As they were coming into our area, then I would go check ‘em out.

Would you consider Jimi a blues artist?

Well Jimi was heavily influenced, because it’s such a deep well. Actually, on a TV show, he played “Voodoo Chile” on one of the network shows on the day. And they asked him what he thought of it and he said, “Well, it’s really like a new kind of blues.” That’s kinda how he saw it. He had a lot of influences too and he brought all that to bear. But he forged the whole thing into his whole incredible sound. I mean, it changed everything. It changed guitar forever.  It changed pop music. It changed notions of possibilities.

To this day, there’s not a guitar magazine that you can’t pick up that at the very least references him .  [He’s] just been a profound influence.

The antics on stage, or his showmanship, which was extraordinary, he took that to extremes too, just like he did groundbreaking techniques.

His whole concept was what was so unique. And he was a rocker. All that infused into the times as well.

Were race relations a problem for artists back then?

I got to be good friends with [Hendrix bassist] Noel Redding many years later. [T]hey did have a bad experience in Baton Rouge when I heard ’em that night. And they couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

Unfortunately there’s always a couple bad eggs in the crowd or however you want to say it.

Anyway, he got tired of that demeanor as well. It was always about the music for him. I think his music was so far ahead of its time and came from a flying saucer and landed. Here is this incredible concept that was so alien to anything anyone ever thought of.

Do you identify as carrying on that blues tradition?

Really, the music has a lot of other influences as well. But that’s as good a place as any to put me. I’m certainly not uncomfortable with it.

Do you feel like it’s necessary to study the greats to do well in the genre?

Yeah, you have to study the greats. That’s part of it and part of the learning process. One thing about creativity is there is no end to it and to presuppose otherwise is just limiting your capabilities. A lot of those that I got to see early on, I was fortunate to have that as a real life experience. Now you can pull anything up online and its right there. But its not the same as going out and having gotten close to them, having heard their sound, felt that energy of the room and having made that trip. It just takes it to another level.  …

With this album we just finished, for example. that’s probably the sum total of these 46 years on the road, and in the years prior to that to study and get my chops together, it’s all a learning process and that never really ends.

When we got to talking about doing a new album I’ve always been more into concepts and kinda struggled with which direction to go at first but ended up with I think a really cool approach. We come and do an acoustic set. Then take a short break, come back out and amp it up and play the electric material. It ended up there was enough to do a whole disc of all acoustic and a whole disc of all electric. We decided to make it a retrospective of my career and songs over all these many years. It’s probably a good example of how you take your influences and incorporate that into a show or set and record it live.

That’s the same thing as that kind of energy I would get from going to hear music. You wanna capture that live, there’s really nothing like that.

And it’s available as a two disc CD package, but it’s also vinyl, so I’m really excited about that.

How do you feel about the direction blues is headed?

I think it’s in good hands in some instances. Some of the young players coming up like Quinn Sullivan, he gets it. He was at the last Crossroads we did in New York City for Eric Clapton’s festival. And Buddy Guy has taken him under his wing, so that’s a good approval rating there.

I’ve noticed over the years, it seems like blues has a 10-year cycle where there’s an ebb and a flow to that, but it always comes back.

I feel that it’s something that speaks to everyone, everywhere, regardless of what part of the world they live in.

It’s about grace in the face of adversity, so those are themes that are common to everyone. Being a universal language, I think that music will always resonate in one form or another. And I think there are some really good players coming up and they get that. For example, where I live and grew up, since music is such a big part of the culture, these kids growing up four to five kids in a family, they all play an instrument, they all have their own groups. They are make their own music, recording, they’re touring. They have one foot in the past in understanding [traditional music]. At the same time they are doing their own thing with the Cajun and Creole music, Cajun and Zydeco. Blues, especially with Zydeco, is a part of that. …

They’re carrying that forward and I really have a great feeling about that. To me that’s a good affirmation.

Are you ever gonna do anything more orchestral or experimental like Elemental Journey?

Yeah, at one point, I gotta go back and suss out some of these song ideas and do something with ‘em. The music part has always flowed for me, whereas lyrics take me longer to ponder and get happy with.

I have plenty of material to do that. And that’s part of the process. At the same time you want to try different things. I want to push the boundaries too, in terms of slide guitar, and how that fits with songwriting and as a concept of adapting to different genres of music.

That’s what I love about it. Over the years of working with so many other people, in the studio, on other projects, playing live. Slide guitar does lend itself to a lot of different styles and genres.

So I’d like to explore that. Wherever that takes me that’s the next direction to set out on.

Is there anyone you would like to get on a stage or studio with who has eluded you thus far?

Well, one is Jeff Beck. And it almost happened a couple times. There was talk management to management but for whatever reason it never took place.

Another one, I sometimes fantasize that I could amass the chops to do a project with Wynton Marsalis. I’m not 100 percent certain he likes guitar that much [laughs]. But I’m a huge fan of his and his music. I actually started out on trumpet and played throughout my school years, two years in college. He won a Grammy one year for best jazz and best classical album, and I don’t think anyone has repeated that.

Can you talk about coming up and getting to play with Clifton Chenier, who was known as the “King of the South” in his heyday?

I was maybe 16 when I met him. It was many years later, I was in my later 20s I believe, [when I got the invitation]. But I had been playing for years in my own bands….

People have asked me what that was like. For me that was like if I had been raised in Chicago and Muddy Waters had taken me under his wing. That’s how big a deal it was for me in my part of the world.

And the thing about Cliff too, he was a big Elmore James fan, and he heard Elmore back in the day and he liked the slide guitar thing. He liked that I played slide and he was looking to add something different to the sound of his band at the time. He was recovering from surgery and his health was beginning to fail, so I think he was looking for something a little extra just to spice things up a little bit. Not that he needed it, but I’m glad he hired me. [laughs]

The height of my musical career was 1979 and that was when he invited me sit in with him. And I thought that was just gonna be a one-off. And then he invited me to go play New Orleans. And then he invited me to join the band, I thought, “Well, it ain’t ever gonna get any better than this.”

How did you finally break through as a solo artist with the Congo Square album?

The original version that we did was called Down In Louisiana. It was released on vinyl in 1975. And when I say released I mean I drove around and distributed it to radio stations and stores and the like.

What happened was other people got a copy of it, and one was an A&R guy at Epic and they got in touch with me.  Simultaneously Bobby Field, who would become my co-producer got a copy. And I was doing session work that led to me meeting John Hiatt and he got a copy of it. So that all kind of happened around the same time. That’s what set me on my path.

That’s why I tell these young players “You gotta get your music recorded and get it out in any way you can. Never underestimate who may end up with a copy and never under estimate who could be in the audience. It might be a completely indirect connection. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody. You’re in the studio meeting producers and other artists and they recommend you to other artists. That synchronicity is really important to pay attention to.

Have you seen how music has improved race relations?

I have in a way. I think it enables a certain kind of ambassador relations in the way of opening doors to people and dropping barriers. … Musicians have always been colorblind in that regard and I hope that that would rub off on other people.

In many ways I see a few things [have gotten] better, but we still got a long way to go. All you have to do is turn on the evening news and see the horror that bespeaks that. There’s still a long way to go.

But I still feel like the blues is a great affirmation. It’s about overcoming challenges and finding joy in the moment, regardless, to overcome [difficulties]. I feel like, being true to that, and being true to oneself, that affects people and that touches people. They get that. If they come out and they can enjoy themselves for an hour and a half or more, and we can take them out of the worst of the world, then I think that’s a good thing and I think we’ve done our job.

Sonny Landreth
Owen Sweeney / Invision / AP
– Sonny Landreth
Pier Six Pavilion, Baltimore, Md.

You can see Sonny Landreth’s full routing on his Pollstar artist page.