No wonder the guitar wünderkind refuses to slow down. Oh, and he just kicked off another marathon tour this past weekend… ya gonna be there, punters?
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
If exceptional accomplishment alone were enough to inspire widespread recognition, then Derek Trucks would likely have several government buildings and national monuments bearing his name. Considering his lineage alone, it would seem he was destined for great achievement. His uncle, percussionist Butch Trucks, was an original member of the Allman Brothers Band, and the younger Trucks was named for the Eric Clapton album credited to Derek and the Dominoes. Naturally then, Trucks’ musical career appeared preordained. To his credit however, Trucks wasn’t content to simply rely on birthright alone. While still in his mid-teens he was playing with the Allmans, and by the time he was in his 20s, he was also leading his own band and playing a key role in Eric Clapton’s touring band.
Trucks’ current day job finds him at the helm of both The Derek Trucks Band and The Tedeschi Trucks Band – the latter, alongside the equally adept singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, his wife and music collaborator for the past dozen years. After playing on each others individual albums, the two officially joined forces in 2011, releasing the band’s debut album #Revelator#, which garnered a Grammy for Best Blues Album, several top prizes at the prestigious Blues Music Awards, widespread critical acclaim and a top fifteen debut on the Billboard album charts. The band also includes drummer Tyler Greenwell, drummer J.J. Johnson, singer Mike Mattison, singer Mark Rivers, saxophonist Kebbi Williams, trumpeter Maurice Brown, trombonist Saunders Sermons, keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge and bassist George Porter Jr., who recently replaced original member Oteil Burbridge.
Trucks, an incessant multi-tasker, regularly shows up on lists delineating the greatest guitarists of our era, and so it’s no surprise that he’s found himself performing some of the most prestigious gigs imaginable — onstage at the White House, the United Nations, the Grammy Award ceremonies and the all-star tribute to blues great Hubert Sumlin staged at the iconic Apollo Theater. In the process, he’s shared the stage with legends like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and McCoy Tyner, to name only some. Meanwhile, Everybody’s Talkin’, a double live album released last May, continued the raves garnered the first time around even as it positioned itself on Billboard‘s chart of best selling Blues albums.
As if Trucks and Tedeschi don’t have enough on their plate already, the two recently launched their Sunshine Blues Festival, three day-long Florida festivals featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band and an array of special guests, including Dr. John, Walter Trout, Sonny Landreth, The Wood Brothers and others. The concerts, slated for late January, expand their roles as entrepreneurs — they already own and operate their own recording studio Swamp Raga located behind their home in Jacksonville Florida — and add to their extensive list of career credits.
BLURT recently had a chance to talk with Trucks by phone during one of his rare days off. Even so, it was obvious that work was still on his mind and this brief respite from the road wouldn’t last long. An amiable individual, his answers were frequently punctuated by laughter. Despite his impressive resume, he still managed to come across as remarkably unaffected and exceedingly down to earth.
BLURT: Let’s start by talking about the festival you’re about to launch. How did that idea come about?
TRUCKS: It’s been an idea we’ve had for a really long time. We’ve really wanted to put a festival together where we hit the road and eventually do it nationwide if we can make it work. So we put some of our favorite bands together that we would want to go see, and this way we can sit out front and watch. We had a long list and we just tried to piece it together. I remembered the Horde tour in the early ‘90s, when I went out with Aquarium Musical Unit and a bunch of different bands who I loved learning from and playing with. Now there’s been a huge influx of different festivals. But with most of them, there are only one or two different bands I really want to see… (laughs)
So you’re very selective.
Yeah, and so we thought it would be fun to do a festival someday where I would want to sit out front all day.
How did you coordinate all the artist schedules?
You just have to start early, maybe a year out or so in advance, and you have to put a wish list together and then start at the top (laughs) and work through it. And starting at the top doesn’t always mean the biggest names… it’s the people you really want on it. We were lucky. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out. We were kind of testing the waters with this to see if it was something we can make work and make fly, and maybe turn it into something more.
So the goal is to eventually take this around the country?
We’d like to. The idea is definitely there, and we’re actively talking about it and kind of feeling it out. It’s a big undertaking, but I bet it will be fun.
You could do something like the Festival Express in the early ‘70s where the Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin and others got on a train and travelled from one end of Canada to another. That would be fun.
Oh yeah. We talked about that too. We did a tour of Europe with our band where we did it by train. An eleven piece band with twenty people in the crew. We took over a whole train car. It got rowdy a few times and I was thinking it could be fun. (laughs)
It seems like fun.
Yeah – 15 bands going country to country or state to state.
It sounds like you’re already having a lot of fun though. You play these incredible gigs… at the White House, at the UN, with all these incredible musicians… You must be on cloud nine.
It’s been an amazing run. When we put this band together we definitely had high hopes for it, but it’s definitely exceeded what we hoped for. It’s definitely an amazing start. Being able to play music you love to play with people you like being around is definitely hard to beat. There’s a lot of hard work, and you’re wrangling a lot of people and things do happen, but in the end, it’s a good day’s work (laughs).
You seem like the ultimate multi-tasker. At one point you were gigging with your own band, you were playing with the Allman Brothers and then Eric Clapton called and you went out on tour with him. How do you keep it all straight? Do you ever start a song and realize you’re playing the wrong tune because you got your gigs confused? Maybe you start playing an Allman song when you’re onstage with Clapton?
Luckily not! (laughs) When you get in that space and you’re surrounded by great players, you learn the tunes and get them in your head. Once the band starts playing, there’s this locomotion that happens and you get on board. (laughs) A lot of times a song will start and you have this one second where you go, “Oh shit, I don’t know if I remember this one!” But once you get into it, it kind of plays itself. A lot of it is just muscle memory that’s always there. But you definitely have to do your homework, especially when it’s the Allman Brothers or Clapton. At one point, I was in three different bands that were touring full time. I would have to listen to the records of whatever bands I was going to play with on the flight over and refresh my memory a bit.
So how do you manage your time? You also have a family and two small children? With all you do, isn’t it a challenge?
For one, it helps being married to someone who understands what you’re doing, because if Susan hadn’t been a musician and understood what the road takes, I don’t know if doing the three bands would even be possible. She understood the opportunities and understands it’s not a 24/7 party. (laughs) When your wife and family are at home, and you’re running all over the world, it’s nice to know that the understanding is out there. So that helps. That’s a big part of it. And when opportunities like that come up, you just have to take them. Those windows don’t open often. So yeah, we really thought about it in ’06 and ’07, when it was nonstop. It was 20-something countries and multiple bands, and that’s when I decide to build a studio in the house. It was a matter of planning ahead and realizing, “This is amazing but I can’t do this every year. We have kids and I want to be home sometimes.” Even when they’re flying out and visiting you, it’s not the same as being home. So building the studio allows me to spend so many more months at home and be productive and work and make records. We’ve been fortunate, but you also have to be pretty proactive to make it work.
You and Susan worked on each other’s records even before you formed the band together. But now that you’re the co-leaders so to speak, has that made a difference in terms of decision making or direction? Do you have to run things by one another and always be in agreement? Is it a big change from doing things individually like before?
It was a big change and it took awhile to adjust to it. You get so used to doing things yourself. The music business and the whole scene can be somewhat cutthroat at times, and it takes awhile to learn you’re in all of it together (laughs) and that even if something may seem a little bit outside your comfort zone, it’s actually in your best interest to have someone look out for you. I think for Susan especially it took awhile to kind of give in a little bit to being in the flow of a massive band and have someone else as a band leader essentially. Still, it’s really been amazing for us personally and musically. It’s been a huge amount of growth and it’s made us closer, and it’s an unbelievable band to be a part of. When you stand on stage and look around and see some of your favorite musicians… to have a band like that and travel with it… especially at our level where we’re just barely getting by with a band like this… people really have to love it and want to be in it and really make it happen. So it’s a good feeling. In a sense, it’s a throwback to a time when people did things because they gave a shit (laughs) and wanted to do things. We’re realists too, and we’ve been on the road a long time, and so we look around and we don’t see a lot of that. We don’t see a lot of bands that are doing it for the right reasons, or artists who are doing it for the right reasons. So when you’re a part of that it feels really good. That’s part of the reason for doing this festival. We try to put like-minded people together who like doing it and feel like it’s important work.
When you and Susan joined forces, you must have had to whittle down some of the players, people that were formerly in her band and people that were in your band. That must have been difficult, right?
It was tough, but when we decided to do it, we needed a break, a change. I had my band 14, 16 years, something like that, so it was time mentally to try something different. So we kind of stopped everything and then restarted. (laughs) But it didn’t feel quite the same. When you play with people that long, it’s a difficult thing to make a move. Everybody was so close in the extended family, so there were a lot of straight, honest conversations, and there was a lot of understanding, even though it was difficult. But it’s worked out amazingly well. I’m still in touch with everybody. When my old band and Susan’s old band found good gigs, we felt really relieved (laughs). We were just kind of hoping it would transition nicely and it’s been pretty great so far.
You did integrate some of the players though.
Well, part of the idea early on was that having the Burbridge brothers together in the band, having Oteil and Koki made a lot of sense. We also wanted to think about a big band, so horns and background singers are always part of the thought process. I love the way Mike writes and sings and so he was a natural fit. Part of it was that even though it wasn’t Susan joining my band, I felt that her having someone from her group that she felt comfortable with was a great way to start it. So that was Falcon, and the way he and J.J. played s well together just out of the gate was magical. So it all happened pretty organically, but every piece had its right place.
Some people find that working with their spouse can be a little weird at times. Do you ever take the band business home with you?
It’s been a lot easier than I thought it would be. I went into it with my eyes open and believing it could cause a lot of added stress. But I think having a big band is almost like having a lot of kids. (laughs) Your attention is often focused on keeping things rolling, and so you don’t have enough time to be annoyed with each other (laughs)
Very diplomatic, sir, Very diplomatic.
(Laughs) But also this group of people is so much fun to be around, and there’s always an outlet, always a place to blow off mild steam if you need too. There are two buses on the road, so there are spontaneous parties starting here and there, and it’s an unusually helpful situation to be in because there’s always a great outlet. It’s oddly healthy too. When I think back to Mad Dogs and Englishmen or Delaney and Bonnie’s band, that was kind of the template for it. But the drug abuse and the whole thing made it harder and more experimental, and it led to a lot of problems in the end. (laughs) I feel like we’ve kind of sanded off a lot of those rough edges but it’s still pretty free-spirited and it still gets crazy, but it never gets destructive.
You’re probably learning a lot from their mistakes.
Well, that was part of the plan all along.
You’ve played with an amazing array of all time greats, Have any of these musicians ever passed on any words of wisdom or, for that matter, any words of caution?
A lot of times it’s just getting time to hang with people like that, and some of the time it’s unspoken and some of the time it’s just really direct. I played in Gregg Allman’s solo band when I was 14 or 15, and he was really open about avoided the potholes that he hit in a way that kind of seared into my brain. Some guys are really open about passing along life lessons, and sometimes it’s just watching how someone goes about his business, rather than having real person to person conversations about their life. They don’t have to say this is what you do and this is what you don’t do, but it’s pretty obviously implied. I think you have to keep your eyes and ears open. I’ve found that most of the true greats I’ve been fortunate enough to be around are really open and want to pass things along. It’s not competitive. Eric knows his place (laughs). He’s not worried about me or any other young guitar player coming along and knocking him off his spot. He’s firmly entrenched where he is, so there’s no hiding the magic. He’s really open with it. It’s that way with B.B. and Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson… the really great ones have this quiet confidence and a lot of times it’s the guys that are maybe one tier or two tiers below that are the real assholes. (laughs) There’s this weirdness, and they get this sense of competition… Alright, no problem.
It’s pretty cool just hearing you refer to them as Eric and B.B…
It’s pretty surreal.
Is it ever intimidating? Playing with B.B. King or performing with Eric Clapton…
From time to time you have those thoughts, but those guys you’re talking about are such open and sweet people that they make you feel like you’ve known them your whole life. There’s none of that separation. And then you go through experiences that kind of steer you to that stuff. I remember when I first played a live show with McCoy Tyner and his band. This was a guy that was in the Miles Davis Quartet and played with some of the most badass musicians on earth. I got thrown in the deep end — it’s like the jazz test — and so I hit the bandstand and they just start calling tunes that you’ve never heard. It’s sink or swim with what you got. At first it’s that deer in the headlights feeling, but then you just relax and you open your ears and you just play music and it goes. Then there’s this wave of acceptance. “You’re alright!” Something like that makes you feel like if there was any fear or any nervousness about sitting in with people you like, it’s alright because I survived McCoy Tyner.
You’re being very modest too. To play with someone like that you have to be at the top of your form. You’ve got to be a real musician’s musician. And the fact that you can just jump into it and go with the flow so easily really speaks to your abilities.
You just have to have your ears open and you can’t just rest on what you think works. You can’t just play inside the box. You have to hear it. I notice that some of my favorite musicians — often unsung musicians, the guys that just have the biggest ears — they can just hear anything and play anything, and it’s not overly flashy. One of the reasons we built this band around Kofi in a way is that he can just play anything. He can play with anybody at any time. You can throw him into the deepest, most turbulent water musically and he can rise above it. And when you’re playing with people like that almost every night, you kind of step up what you do. And then it’s easier to be comfortable in other situations. But I really credit guys like Kofi and Jimmy Herring and guys that I’ve grown up playing with for being able to play that way.
When you’re playing with the Allmans or with Clapton, do you have to stick to the structure of the song in order to please fans that have come to the show to hear a song performed a certain way? Or do you get a bit more latitude?
You always try to walk that line, but I’ve been lucky that in playing with Eric or playing with the Allman Brothers, those guys want you to play you. And I do.
[Yes he do! Tour dates right here…]