Sonny Landreth Revitalizes the 12-Bar Blues Form

Sonny Landreth says the concept for his latest album, Bound By the Blues came about when contemplating how to approach a classic blues song and do something different with it.

Sonny Landreth says the concept for his latest album, Bound By the Blues came about when contemplating how to approach a classic blues song and do something different with it. “I was having a conversation with Roy Rogers a couple of years ago, and we were talking about me sitting in with his band at the King Biscuit Blues Fest in Arkansas. To make it easy on me, we just planned to play some Robert Johnson and Elmore James tunes, but not do some of the more obvious ones, like “Dust My Broom.” I guess that kind of planted the seed, because I started wondering how would I pull it off if I recorded that song. It’s a tough order, because you can’t really beat the original version anyway. But it got me thinking about some of the other blues tunes I had been playing, and I realized that, as the years went by, I’d developed new techniques that I was using to give the songs a different texture, rhythm, or feel that perhaps hadn’t happened before. When I decided to record “Dust My Broom,” I wanted to make it a little more subdued in contrast to the original. So instead of just coming out blasting the triplet figure of the iconic riff, I used a combination of palm muting and raking the strings with the thumbpick to give it a more harmonic twist. ‘Key to the Highway’ is another example of how much a song is evolved because as a musician you evolve. I recorded it back in 1981 on an album called Blues Attack, and it’s completely different than the way we recorded it for this album.”

Setting aside for a moment Landreth’s highly evolved slide technique—which in itself makes Bound By the Blues a unique listening experience—there’s a storytelling element going on here that points to the guitarist’s deep appreciation for the genre. “Blues comes from the story song,” says Landreth. “That’s what it was about with all those delta cats, and that’s what reeled me in from day one. As badass as Robert Johnson’s guitar playing and singing was, it was all about telling a story, and he’d do whatever it took to make the story come alive. That led me to thinking of blues as a universal language, with a common theme of finding grace in the face of adversity. As I got into writing songs for the album, I decided to just let the blues take me where it would, and not worry about it. For instance, I wanted to make the title track a tribute to my heroes, but I was thinking of it more like a film made up of a series of short images. Each verse would kind of blow by, but it would be about something specific— like when Hendrix played in Baton Rouge, and they had a bad gig and had to get out of there in a hurry, or Buffy Sainte-Marie coming from the reservation and bringing that experience into her beautiful, powerful songs. Nobody even talks about her anymore, but she was right there with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan when they were changing the world.”

What can you tell us about the story in “The High Side?”

A long time ago, some friends and I set out to move up to Colorado, and it took us forever to get there because of all this stuff that happened to us. We actually felt like we had a jinx on us for a couple of years, both going and coming back home. It was like a Cajun odyssey [laughs]. At one point, these guys broke into our car and then into our hotel room. The cops were chasing them and it was all over TV. They crashed their car and died, and then we had to go down to the police station to get our stuff back, which included my guitar and an 8-track tape player. Bear in mind this was back in the early ’70s, and we weren’t exactly comfortable walking into the police station in Amarillo, Texas! At that point in my life, pretty much all I was playing was a Dobro and a Martin D-28, so it was important to use the acoustic guitars on that track. I recorded it with a 1997 metal-bodied round-back Dobro tuned to D.

You mention going for a different guitar approach on “Dust My Broom.” What was your setup for that one?

Robben Ford was gracious enough to let me keep his ’58 Strat for almost two years, and that’s what I used. I played it through a Dumble Overdrive Special, which I thought was a good combination since he’s a Dumble cat too. We laid that one down with the band doing what Clifton Chenier used to call a “double shuffle,” where you’re playing a medium-groove shuffle, but with the snare—and in this case, a box—hitting on the upbeat, which gives it a real loopy kind of a vibe. Brian Brignac set up his drum kit in the corner, so we did the Robert Johnson trick of having him play towards the corner. Our engineer, Tony Daigle, was able to pick up up a wave of sound coming over the top of the kit, and he also had Brian loosen his kick drum so it sounded real floppy. Dave Ranson showed up with this little ukulele bass, and the nylon strings made it sound like a cross between an upright and an electric bass. All combined, it gave the rhythm track a lot of character.

What was your effects lineup for the sessions?

Basically my guitar goes into a Demeter Fuzzulator—which I use as a boost for solos—and then into either a Hermida Mosferatu or Zen Drive, then to an Analog Man compressor, a Voodoo Labs Giggity, a T.C. Electronic Chorus in pulse mode—you can hear that on the second solo of “Cherry Ball Blues”—and then to my Demeter TGA-3 amp. The Giggity has survived many changes to my board because it gives you so much more body with single-coils. It’s kind of like a post EQ effect in the studio. I like it near the end of the signal chain, before it goes into any kind of modulation effect.

Was there a particular piece of gear that you used exclusively for this album?

Yes, the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, which is on everything except one song. I just turned that thing loose because it’s so lush and complex sounding. The TTE could be a lifesaver when you’ve got a backline Fender Twin and nothing else—just crank it up to get some tube grit while it does its tapeecho thing.

You do a cool tribute to Johnny Winter on “Firebird Blues.” Was there anything in particular you wanted to express with that song?

I wanted to use the rig that I heard him play in Houston back in 1970, so I got my Firebird and plugged it into a vintage plexi Marshall and a 4x12 cab. I told the guys, “We’re in the key of G, slow blues,” and we just played it like he would do it—real spontaneous and raw. Johnny and I did several gigs and festivals together, we toured in Japan, and I got to play on one of his last albums, Roots. I remember the first thing he asked me was, “Man, did you really play with Clifton Chenier?”

Speaking of legends, you’ve had quite a lot of history with B.B. King too.

I could write an essay on B.B. called “My Life with Riley,” because all these years my path has been in orbit around him in one way or another. I first saw him play at a little club in New Iberia, Louisiana—he was still playing the chitlin’ circuit then—and I was there with my buddy, and we were the only white people in the place. B.B. took a break and I went up to him at the bar, and from that moment on he just took me in like he did everybody. I asked him if he knew Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, and he said, “I sure do, and you remind me of Al Kooper—you look like him!” [Laughs.] One time he borrowed my Firebird because Lucille was temporarily stolen at a gig where we were opening for him in New Orleans. He recounted that on Larry King Live one night. With John Hiatt, we played with him on New Year’s Eve in Chicago at the Union Train Station. At the end of that show, B.B. had us come and sit in with him. I remember playing a solo, and suddenly feeling something tapping my slide. I look up and B.B. is reaching over and tapping on my slide, and he had that huge smile of approval. That was probably the greatest moment of my life!

How would you say B.B. King informed your playing?

His whole approach where he was singing his guitar and having a conversation with it got me to think of the slide as my own voice, and to try to get a vocal quality from it. I loved his phrasing, and, of course, his vibrato was just to die for. I think he got that from trying to imitate his cousin Bukka White. B.B. was trying to get that slide sound with his hand, and I was trying to imitate his vibrato with slide, so it all comes full circle.