Derek Trucks on Jimi, Trane, Nusrat, Col. Bruce Hampton and his deeply soulful wife Susan Tedeschi
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
photo by David McClister
Here's an interview that I did for a Downbeat feature on Derek Trucks that appeared in the Sept. 2022 issue of the magazine. As is always the case with these interviews, I had tons more material from my 90-minute chat with the slide guitar great that couldn't make it into that DB story. And so, here's the transcription of that Q&A, in which he waxes on the impact of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and qwwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the Tedeschi Trucks Band's I Am the Moon, a 4LP set released over four consecutive months during the summer of 2022. Derek also reminisces about the profound influence of guitar idols B.B. King and Duane Allman and mourns the loss of his bandmate Kofi Burbridge and his late, mind-altering mentor Colonel Bruce Hampton:
I’m sure the pandemic took you off the road, but are you guys pretty much back on track with touring?
We’re getting to it, we’re close. We had 20 months without a paid gig during the pandemic, so it was a little touch and go there. You know, with 12 band members and 14 crew, it was tough keeping this bitch afloat. But we were able to keep it rolling. I feel like this summer tour that we’re about to jump on is probably the first time that it’s going to feel like we’re back to where we were. Because it was getting to a pretty great spot, then just everyone had the rug pulled out from under them. We’re certainly not unique there.
You were probably averaging close to 300 gigs a year?
Well, early on with my band. We had backed it down with this group...just so many families and quality of life issues. But we still tour hard. I mean, we were out a good bit of the year but it’s starting to feel like we’re getting back to it. It was definitely a strange time.
So at some point in your career, you must be approaching B.B. King numbers on the road.
There were a few years like that, for sure. That was always the high water mark, the B.B. King tour.
That’s why he’s the king.
No doubt about it. Actually, the first performance that me and Sue did coming out of the lockdown was a memorial for B.B. They re-did B.B.’s grave the way he wanted it done and they had a show at his museum in Indianola, Mississippi. They asked me and Sue to be there, so we showed up for that. It was intense, man. It was really incredible bring there. I got to play Lucille and clean his headstone. It felt like the right way to come out of a lockdown.
Well, you knew him. You played with him, right?
Yeah, we became pretty close with B.B. those last few years. Sue knew him a lot longer than I did, but the last three or four years of his life we toured with him with this band. We did some tours and would sit in with him occasionally and had some really incredible hangs. He’s one of those heroic figures. Obviously musically, we all know that. But it felt like that when you were with him, too. He was that kind of spirit. You don’t meet many like that in your lifetime. Actually, you don’t meet any. You meet one.
Yeah, he so influential across the board. Every guitar player who ever picked up a guitar and bent a string owes a debt of gratitude to B.B. King.
That’s right. I remember when he passed away we were on the tour bus heading to Jackson, Mississippi. And I remember waking up in my bunk because there was a B.B. King record playing on the stereo up in the front of the bus. It was like seven in the morning, and I immediately knew that he had passed because I was like, “Who was cranking B.B. at 7 a.m.?” And I stood up and I walked up front and Sue was sitting there. I guess she had gotten a call and she had put B.B. on, and I could just see in her face what it was. And as I walked up there, we were passing the Indianola exit. Man, it was really intense. And then we rolled into the hotel in Jackson and the local newspaper had just his face on the front page. And at the hotel we were checking into, the lady behind the desk was like, “Oh yeah, this is where B.B. would stay whenever he was here doing his show in Indianola.” It’s the closest hotel to Indianola that had room service so B.B. would stay there all the time. And then that day I was thinking how none of us ever knew life before B.B. King. No matter how bad music got, he was a stabilizing force. You’re like, “Well, at least B.B.’s still doing it. And I was thinking about all my guitar heroes like Hendrix and Duane. B.B. was their guitar hero, you know?. He was the guy before the guy. I definitely felt like there was before and after when he passed away. It felt like a different world.
Even guitarists in the jazz world like John Scofield and Mike Stern talk about B.B.’s profound influence on them.
No one gets out without some B.B. rubbing off on them.
Man, I was on the band bus with B.B. in 1980. We were going to a gig at Riker’s Island, where he gave a concert in the women’s section of the prison. I had just moved to New York some months earlier and suddenly here I am on the bus with B.B., rolling into Riker’s for a concert. And those women went wild!
That’s incredible. I have this incredible photo that was taken at Newport of B.B. and our son Charlie when he was three or four. B.B.’s in a golf cart leaning over and handing Charlie a guitar pick. It’s this beautiful black and white photo with George Wein in the background. My son is 20 now and I tell him, “I just want you to know how fucking incredible this moment that was captured is.” And then maybe a year before that picture was taken, B.B. was in Jacksonville and we go and see him. We walked to the back of the bus and our son bounces in and and B.B. goes, “Young man, you know who I am?” And Charlie goes, “Yes, sir! You’re B.B. King." And B.B. pulls out a $100 bill and gives it to him. When we walked off the bus I was like, “Charlie, give me that. That’s going in a frame. I’ll give you a different hundred dollar bill. You ain’t spendin’ that one.” Yeah, B.B. was…he’s family.
photo courtesy of Derek Trucks I saw B.B. a bunch of times over the years. The first time was in 1969 at a concert in the inner city in Milwaukee, where I grew up. It was the year that first Johnny Winter album came out.
And me and my friend Ric Weinman were the only white people in the audience. This was before B.B. crossed over to the mainstream. He was still playing primarily in the black community then.
Yeah, when you hear Live at the Regal, that’s a different energy.
Yeah, or Live in Cook County Jail. Everybody always points to Live at the Regal, but I think Cook County is more electrifying.
Cook County is my favorite, man. That’s the one I go to to this day. If I’m ever feeling uninspired with my own playing I put on Cook County and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s what a guitar does!” His tone is just incredible on that album. And then on “Thrill is Gone,” when he’s speeding up and slowing down the band, it sounds like a fuckin’ train coming to a stop. It’s so fuckin’ good!
I can hear a little bit of “Thrill is Gone” on your new album on that tune “Yes We Will."
Oh, 100%. That was Sue’s song. And when she started playing the riff, that’s immediately what I thought of was just sitting in with B.B.’s band. And our band just kind of naturally fell into that groove so we didn’t even have to say anything. It was one of those where you just kind of look and nod and you’re like, “Yeah, this is where it should be. Let it be here.”
So Sue knew him pretty personally?
Yeah, even before I joined the Allman Brothers in ’96 or ’97, Sue started doing that B.B. King Blues Tour. She did a lot of tours with him and he was just always really sweet to her and really great, even to the point where when Sue was dating somebody early on that maybe wasn’t great to her, B.B. got wind of that and was really protective of her. And when I first started dating Sue, he was very protective of her as well, until he got to know us together. And then he opened up. I really appreciated that. He really loved her and wasn’t going to let me just come on in there without…let’s just say, I got side-eyed once or twice. I love that. He was being protective of her. That’s a beautiful thing. I have a daughter, so I understand.
Well, that’s beautiful that you got to be at clean off his gravestone. That’s powerful.
Yeah, man. Robert Terrell, who runs the B.B. Museum, he was telling us before the show we did that night that one of B.B.’s only request was -- just like the Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” And during the encore there were probably 30 guitar players on stage and there was no one at his grave at that moment. So I was like, “I’m just going to go have a moment with B.” I went over there and there were footprints on the grave. I was like, “What the fuck?” And I was like, “Nope, that’s not gonna happen.” And I was holding Lucille while this was going on, too. So we had a moment.
Let’s talk about your new project, I Am the Moon. It’s such a monumental work -- four separate albums, each with a distinct theme. Was this prodigious output a function of having all that time, not being on the road because of the pandemic and having your own home studio in Jacksonville?
Absolutely. That was one of the silver linings of the lockdown for us is we had never had time to take a deep breath and just write and create and hang together. And honestly, we were talking about taking three months off in the beginning of that year, kind of to lick our wounds after losing Kofi [keyboardist/flutist and charter member of the Tedeschi Trucks Band Kofi Burbridge passed away on Feb. 15, 2019]. Kind of as a band, we just needed to take a deep breath. There had been a lot of loss in a short time [Gregg Allman died on May 27, 2017, Col. Bruce Hampton died on May 1, 2017, uncle Butch Trucks, a charter member of the Allman Brothers Band, died on Jan. 24, 2017] and we just wanted to make sure that our heads were clear and we were doing what we were supposed to be doing as a group. I just felt like after Kofi’s passing we needed time without just running down the road...time to think. But then two months into that, the pandemic hit and we’re just in the thick of it. And Mike Mattison, who’s been with me for maybe 15 years now, he had a great idea before the band could be together of just everyone digging into the same source material so that we had some common thing to talk about. His thought for source material was Layla and Majnun, the 12th century Persian poem by Nizami Ganjavi, for a lot of reasons. We had played the whole Layla record at a show in Virginia [on August 24, 2019 in Arrington, VA as part of the Lockn’ Festival with guest guitarist Trey Anastasio; later released as Layla Revisited (Live at Lockn’) in 2021], and Mike had dug into the lyrical content of that record and then went back to the original poem, which is coming out of the Sufi tradition. Everybody in the band read that poem. There’s been operas written about it, and some people think Romeo and Juliet was inspired by Layla and Majnun. And Mike mentioned how thick the language was and how incredible the poem was. The Layla record that Clapton and Duane did maybe only hit on one note of that poem, which was the idea of this man being in love with somebody he can’t have. But Mike’s first thought was, “Well, what was Layla’s take on this? What did she think about that?” That’s when the light bulb kind of went off. And especially with Sue being the voice of this band, it made perfect sense. And then when I found out that Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Songs was released on November 9 1970, which is on the day that Sue was born, I got chills. Sometimes you just can’t deny what you’re supposed to do, and it started feeling a bit like that.
So you called in the troops and recorded all the new material at your home studio, Swamp Raga, in Jacksonville?
Yes. When we finally were able to get people tested and get them down to the house here, it was just all these song ideas just kind of floating around. We weren’t planning on making a record, we just needed to play. It had been too long and there were no gigs in sight. Everything was still shut down. It was just kind of an excuse to keep moving the boulder up the hill. It just felt like we needed to do something. But it immediately kind of took on its own life. There were a few songs early on that Mike brought in, and then when (keyboardist-vocalist) Gabe Dixon brought in the tune “I Am the Moon,” and that’s kind of when it all crystallized a bit. Because when he was playing his idea for that tune for us on acoustic guitar, I had that same feeling that I had when I was reading the poem. It just kind of put me in that place. And some of Gabe’s lyrics really felt like the Nizami feel -- watching somebody burn out in front of everybody, just the whole thrust of that song. And Sue fell in love with it. During the lockdown she’d walk around the house with an acoustic guitar playing that tune. So then the writing process kind of took on a life of its own and by the time we took a breath, we had 20-some odd tunes and hours of material. And then it was a question of figuring out what to do with it. You know, it just felt like too much for just one record. When we’re recording, a lot of times, at the end of a three or four day of recording we’ll head up to a listening room upstairs and listen back to everything we played. It’s kind of a place to unwind and just talk about where we are in the process. So we listened to all the material and it just felt like too much for one album. And then we realized…we were looking at the vinyl that we’d been flipping through in that listening room, and two albums that were out that we had recently listened to Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. And I remember looking at the running time and just being shocked that it was like 32 minutes and 34 minutes. These perfect pieces of music were really not that long. So that triggered the whole idea of, “This is how we listen when we’re listening to records, and this is how I would like people to hear our stuff, in pieces.” And even the way A Love Supreme is laid out, in four movements — Crescent, Ascension, The Fall, Farewell — that influenced our idea for all of our material we came up with. There’s something about seeing those four movements listed on the back of the album, even before you’re heard it, that makes you think, “There’s some series business going on here.” So all these ideas were kind of kicking around and we had nothing but time to figure out how to put them together. We kept digging into this thing and eventually came up with the idea of doing four albums and putting visuals to each one.
And during this very fertile period of group songwriting, you were also putting up archival concerts the fans to check out while you were off the road?
Yes, at that point in the lockdown, we were doing live streams every Thursday, putting up shows we had done over the last ten years, just for fans of the band to kind of tune in real time together. There’s something that felt communal and nice about people checking in and watching a concert together when they were stuck at home. And so we started thinking that a nice way to release this new material would be in episodes, so that everybody would get that ‘first listen’ experience at the same time. And the label (Fantasy Records) was great about it. No one at the label knew we were recording, we were just doing our thing at home. And when we finally came to them, it was like, “We have a project. It’s four separate records. We don’t want you to put out any singles. And we want to release them one at a time over four consecutive months.” We’re just waiting to hear all the ‘no’s, but everyone at the label was like, “Well, that sounds great!” We were kind of shocked at how it went. Because it usually doesn’t go that way.
It’s a clever idea, and similar to what Steven Bernstein did with his Millennial Territory Orchestra. They put out a series of four records called Community Music and staggered the releases every three months or so.
Love it! And I think that approach gives people time to digest each part, then maybe look forward to the next one. That’s what we’re hoping. I also have this thought of…a lot of times an artist will release a record and right after it comes out, the fans will kind of reject it at first because it doesn’t sound like the artist’s last record. They want the familiar. And by the time they kind of fall in love with the new record, there’s another one coming out. I like this idea. And with us, there’s four albums coming out that are all from the same place in the same time and the same headspace, so I feel like it might build to a thing, hopefully. But, you know how it is. You get done with a project, you put what you have into it, then you turn it loose. Fingers crossed.
The very artful films that accompany each release are also great.
Yeah, I was really happy with the way those came out because it’s not tracking too close to the story where it feels like it’s detracting from the music. It puts me in a good place in between watching it and hearing it. I almost hear some of the music differently because I’m looking at the films. And the director, Alix Lambert, has a long history with Mike Mattison in this band. Mike met Alix when he was in Hungary after he graduated from college and was singing in jazz groups over there. They met in a small ex-pat circle and they were into all these avant garde art projects together there. I think they maybe even got married and divorced in a 24-hour period for a newspaper article. So they have a funny/punk friendship that I really love. And then we had the thought of going to Pasaquan to do a lot of the filming. That felt very tied to Colonel Bruce Hampton and some of our history with him and maybe a little bit to the Georgia outsider art world too.
That tune “Pasaquan” sounds like Jimi's “One Rainy Wish” meets “Whipping Post.”
Totally, and a little bit of the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” in there, too. When we first started playing that groove I immediately thought of Uncle Butch (Trucks) and Jaimoe. And instead of trying to pull away from that, we just leaned right on into it...all the way in! Pasaquan is this place in Buena Vista, Georgia. There’s this great outsider artist from there named St. EOM...Eddie Owens Martin. I almost think of him as like the white visual Sun Ra. He turned his house and property that he lived on in middle Georgia in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s into a safe place for all the freaks in the ‘60s to go hide away. He just painted and sculptured everything on the property. There’s interviews with him where he says, “I’m just a poor man’s psychiatrist. People come for the head work, they don’t come for the arts.” Listening to him speak, and his whole philosophy, just really felt like home. I’d heard about this place forever from our good friend Colonel Bruce Hampton, who was friends with St. EOM, so we finally snuck over there right out of the lockdown. So that place and those stories kind of felt like part of our thing too. There’s just something about this outsider artist in Georgia in the ‘60s that resonates with me. These were brave things to think and feel and do at that time in that place. I mean, Buena Vista, Georgia is in the middle of nowhere.
I can remember seeing Col. Bruce Hampton at the Mudd Club in 1980 with The Late Bronze Age. He was amazing. He was smoking an invisible cigarette throughout the whole set and posing with it on tunes.
There’s footage of the Colonel in The Late Bronze Age with St. EOM sitting in with him. It’s pretty incredible. I think it’s that same time period that you saw him, because he’s doing the no-cigarette mime smoking thing. It’s incredible.
And he had an instrument like a sort of a mandolin or something.
Yeah, it was called the chazoid. It was like a half-mandolin, half-electric guitar that he would run through all kinds of pedals and make space noises. I miss Colonel, man. Colonel was the one who cracked my head open about music. I met Colonel when I was 12 years old. Actually, one of the first times I was at his house in Atlanta, he was playing me a VHS tape of a documentary on Pasaquan and St. EON. That one of the first times I hung with Colonel. Then he took me record shopping around the same time and bought me a vinyl copy of Hampton Grease Band’s Music to Eat. Another time he bought me vinyl copies of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Sun Ra’s Live at the Village Vanguard. We went back to his place and listened to A Love Supreme from top to bottom. That was life-changing shit for me in my early teens. I remember after listening to A Love Supreme with Colonel, I just kind of sat there trying to figure out what just happened. I don’t think it hit me until about an hour later. There was this delayed reaction with that record. But yeah, things were never the same after hanging with Colonel. He really changed the trajectory of a lot of musicians’ lives and careers. He turned you on to what was important and tried to kill the ego side of what people were doing the best he could. He would break you down into a thousand little pieces, and you try to grow back up better for it…or you stop playing altogether, which is maybe what you were supposed to do anyway. He was a trip.
A Zen master in his own way.
Without a doubt, man, without a doubt.
And that's so interesting that it’s all come full circle — you listening to A Love Supreme with the Colonel and now on this new album where you’re channeling aspects of A Love Supreme.
You know, it's funny, I hadn’t thought of the Colonel/Love Supreme/Pasaquan thing until we were talking right now. I’d forgotten about that connection. And Colonel…he’s up in all of it!
I remember seeing your band at The Blue Note in 2003 and you opened the set with Trane’s “Naima.” I also noticed that your daughter Sophia’s middle name is Naima. So obviously, Trane made a big impact on you and has been an ongoing influence throughout your career.
He has. I have this famous Jim Marshall photo that he took of John Coltrane. Sue got it for my 30th birthday, and it’s just a beautiful profile of Trane. And then during the Obama years, we were invited to go by the White House (Feb. 21, 2012) and I took that photo, the framed Jim Marshall photo of Trane, and brought it by to give to President Obama. And there’s this amazing photo of the president hanging up this John Coltrane photo in the West Wing. So I was thinking, “You know what? We got a picture of Coltrane hung in the fucking White House. This is a good day.”
photo courtesy of Derek Trucks
And on your first record, you did Trane’s “Mr. P.C.”
Yeah, those Coltrane records -- Giant Steps, A Love Supreme and Live at Birdland — were just kind of game-changers for me. I stopped listening to guitar players for a while after hearing Live at Birdland. There’s this moment on that album, coming out of a McCoy Tyner solo where Elvin Jones is just ramping this thing up until it’s about to explode, then. Trane comes in with this repeating pattern. It reminded me of the feeling I got when I first heard the Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore, where it felt like the stereo in my bedroom was about to explode. Those are those moments where when you first hear them -- probably mid-to-late teens -- you just rewind it a thousand times trying to find how you can get to that place, how do you tap into that power.
You must have been similarly affected when you first heard qawwali music, especially Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Without a doubt. That was probably the other leg of the stool, for me.
Was that somewhat after hearing Trane?
It was around the same time. And it was actually Colonel’s drummer, Jeff Sipe from the Aquarium Rescue Unit, who turned me on to Nusrat. And then Ali Akbar Khan was a Colonel recommendation. But those two -- Nusrat and Ali Akbar Khan -- that opened up a whole different world. And especially with the slide guitar I felt like you could explore some of those nuances and the microtones, just the way you get in and out of a note. But the qawwali thing that I love so much, which just reminded me of the modal thing in jazz, is where you state this melody and then somebody would improvise and go on this trip for as long as they wanted to before coming back and just grooving down the road. And then if somebody felt so inspired, you just holler out and you go. There's something about that concept that’s always been super intriguing. And at times we try to tap into those things too with our band.
Yeah, I definitely hear that qawwali influence on tunes like “Hold That Line" and "Rainy Day."
Yeah. And I think the beauty of this project, as far as that part of the music goes, is because of the underlying story coming from the Layla Majnun thing, it felt appropriate to go to those places musically. It felt like the story was asking for it and it didn’t feel like you were trying to shoehorn something in. It felt comfortable there. But yeah, those are some of my favorite moments where you can get into those places. Along with the B.B. King Cook County record, for me, there’s an Ali Akbar Khan album called Signature Series, Volume Two that is another one where if I feel out of gas creatively, it’s one of those places I can go back to that just reminds you of the source. It gets you back to that place melodically.
You mentioned Colonel Bruce Hampton was key in sparking your interest in music early on. What about your father?
Definitely. He was the one who took me to the Metropolitan Park in Jacksonville to see Miles Davis and Ray Charles and all the music I saw before I was playing. He was moved by the right stuff. He saw Hendrix open for the Monkees here in Jacksonville. My dad told me it was the first time he had ever dropped acid. Pretty intense.
From the time you were a kid you've been soaking up all this powerful music. And it continues to this day.
Yeah, it’s been a surreal ride. Looking back on some of the people I was able to play with as a kid of nine, ten years old…I got to meet a lot of my heroes. And I feel really lucky that I was born when I was and not earlier or later. I didn’t get to see all of my heroes but I definitely got to feel connected with some of them in a way that I don’t think young musicians can now. At nine years old, I started sitting in with my guitar teacher at this little blues club in Jacksonville called Applejack’s. And I started getting to know the people who would invite me to sit in. I remember sitting in with Koko Taylor at age nine and just meeting all these Chicago blues heroes. And I remember I played with this lady named Diamond Tooth Mary, a Florida blues singer. This was in 1989 and the gig was billed as “The Youngest and Oldest Living Blues Artists Together.” She was 93 and I was nine. Later on, you look back and you just realize how impossible it was that you got to connect with these people. In fact, I was just thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” Really incredible. So I feel like Forrest Gump sometimes, where you just kind of end up in places and you just kind of take it in.
And you played with Buddy Guy as a little kid, too, right?
Yeah, Buddy was always incredible. He always takes younger musicians under his wing and he was always really sweet to me. I was probably 10 or 11 when I was playing with Buddy at a lot of these clubs in Florida. The thing I remember with him is he would bring the band down to a whisper to where you can hear your amp buzzing and humming. And then he wanted it even quieter. Those are lessons that you need early on. I mean, he can be loud and powerful but the dynamic range is what makes it important. The loud parts are exciting because the quiet parts are there. But I think a lot of people miss those lessons. And Buddy was giving it to you in real time, because when the band gets that quiet, if you don’t also get quiet, you look like a clown.
In the remaining minutes, I want to talk about your wife, Susan Tedeschi. She has such an amazing voice. I had heard her records before you formed the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and then finally saw her in person at the 2007 Newport Jazz Festival. She did this song called “Feeling Music Brings” and it felt like she was testifying to something very real that I also felt inside of me. She was like a sanctified preacher in that moment. Where does this white girl from Boston get this gospel feel so deep inside of her?
Yeah, it’s a trip when she taps into that thing. I’ve never felt or heard anything quite like it. I’ve been on stage with her in situations with just the best in the world, and when she light it up she taps into whatever that is. I think she’s definitely in spirit the black sheep of her family. She came from a place where her outlook was different than everyone else’s. So I think that gives you a little punk spirit right out of the gate. But her dad and mom, they were big into the folk music scene early on in Boston. They saw Son House, they saw Bukka White, they saw Mississippi John Hurt. Her dad was at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. So she has that influence in a similar way that I did growing up; she was hearing the real shit. She was listening to the Staple Singers when she was a child, and that’s the stuff that moved her. Then when she was in college she was in the gospel choir with Tanya Hathaway, Donny's daughter. And they once backed the gospel star Shirley Caesar in a concert. So she got the real education, too. She was right in the thick of it once she went in deep musically. So yeah, it’s a wild upbringing.
And she’s got different gears. She can go from Bonnie Raitt to Irma Thomas and then peaking at Aretha.
Yeah, and then her guitar playing is so great. She goes into a Johnny Guitar Watson bag when she’s really feeling it. Colonel Bruce loved her playing more than anything. He used to say, “I don’t know why any of you would ever bother playing after her. She’s got a knife and she’s here to cut all of you!” There was one night at the Beacon Theater with the Allman Brothers and Little Milton was there that night. He had played and we were doing a tune when I look out front at one point. Susan and my brother David were out there having a good time. And I saw that look in her eye like she was wanting to play. So I waved her up and I just felt like, “She’s about to come up here and just destroy this place.” So I gave her my guitar, plugged her in and left the stage. And she proceeded to just humiliate the other guitar players. Milton was done at that point and was by the side of the stage with me enjoying the bloodbath. When she’s locked in, man, it’s something! It’s just coming from a different place, and it’s fearless. She’s coming from that place that great musicians do, where you’re kind of shooting from the hip.
photo by David McClister And her voice is something you can't teach. She’s got something inside of her and it needs to come out.
It’s powerful. I knew it the first time I saw her. But then I remember being around John Lee Hooker or Little Milton or B.B. King, our heroes…and the way they would respond to her when she would sing was different. She was accepted. She was a part of it. And that’s rare air. Gregg Allman, all of them…they knew that Sue was different than the other singers.
You guys met in New Orleans?
Yeah. She was opening for the Allman Brothers at the Sanger Theater. I think it was July 13 or something like that. I had joined the Allman Brothers a month before that, and then Kofi had joined my band maybe a month after that. So it was a pretty pivotal time in my life. Join the Allmans, hook up with Kofi, me and Sue start hanging out. Two children and bands later, here we are. When we got married, it was in the middle of just a ton of things going on. Sue was making a record and Tom Dowd was down here staying at our house in Florida. I was on the road and Sue was sending out wedding invitations with Tom Dowd. It was one of the last things he did before he passed away. He had been working on that documentary film, A Life in Music, so he was thinking about all that stuff and telling us all these stories about working on The Manhattan Project before he got a job at Atlantic Records slinging coffee. And the next thing you know, he’s on these Ray Charles sessions and then doing those legendary Coltrane Atlantic session. Just an incredible character. And a sweetheart too. The first recording I ever did was with Tom down at Criteria Studio with my Uncle Butch. I don’t even know if the record came out, but it was pretty wild being in that studio with Tom. He went out the next day and bought me a Les Paul boxed set and a Robert Johnson boxed set on cassette. It was like, “To keep you on your way.”
Going back to the new project, over what period of time was this all recorded?
I think once we started recording, it was probably about a six month period. But we would do it chunks, like a few weeks at a time and then go back home. And then as soon as we could convince everyone to come down for a little more time we’d get a few more in. And then we started touring again in the summer of last year (2021) so that kind of pushed it out a little further than it would have been. But in some ways, I think that time was good. It lets you step away from it and kind of figure out what it needs. Because the horns and the singers…the stuff they added just felt like it was really a part of the project rather than just some studio musicians layering things on.
When you were generating the initial stuff as a group, were you all living together like a family in Jacksonville?
It was kind of the crew of the band that was within driving distance at the time. So yeah, they were living down here with us. We also did a writing session up at our farm in Georgia, where everyone kind of lived together there. There was something nice about that. We all got to be kind of ‘in it’ together.
How is the TTB different than Soul Stew Revival, which was the previous band that you had with Sue.
In hindsight, that was really me and Sue figuring out what it would feel like to play in a band together. We did a tour or two with Susan’s band and my band kind of swapping opening and headlining each night. We did maybe a tour or two like that, and then we decided to combine the bands, which was comprised of some of her band members, some of my band members. And that was Soul Stew Revival. But once we started the TTB, we really tried to untether from the other stuff and just dove into the band together. Originally, the idea was going to be me and Sue and the Burbridge brothers and a drummer; we were kind of feeling it all out. I think the first session we did when we were talking about putting this band together was for that Herbie Hancock record (2010’s The Imagine Project). We did that tune “Space Captain” for that album, and it was Oteil and Kofi, Herbie, Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Mattison, me and Sue. That was right when we were putting this TTB project together, and that in some way kind of kicked it into high gear.
One gear question. Are you still playing a Gibson SG guitar?
Yeah. I’ve had one or two along the way. The one I’m playing now I’ve probably had a dozen years. Duane Allman’s daughter, Galadrielle, gave me one of the prototypes. It’s a copy of the 1961 Gibson SG that belonged to Dickey Betts and at one point was also played by Duane. It’s the lightest SG I’ve ever felt. The last five years or so that I played with the Allman Brothers, that’s the guitar I was playing. And I’ve stuck with that one. But I have another SG in the studio that I pick up from time to time.
And is that a dobro that you’re playing on “So Long Savior”?
Yeah, it’s an old National.
That tune resonates with the feeling of Son House and all those Delta cats.
Yeah, absolutely. And I just love hearing Sue sing in that place when it’s just wide open and there’s not a thought to it. It’s just so natural for her to be there.
I had a 1928 National Steel triolian that I sold to Billy Gibbons in 1983.
Man, those things sound incredible, man.
I had interviewed him for Guitar World magazine and told him about this guitar I had, and he said, “Anytime you want to buy it back, just give me a call.” I needed it to pay rent back 40 years ago. So I flew down to Houston and did the deal with him right there at the airport. He opened the case, looked at the guitar and handed me a check for $750.
That’s amazing. I think you should call him up and buy that sucker back.
The only problem is it’s probably worth $4,000-$5,000 now.
Find that receipt!
I'll go look for it now. Well, great talking to you, man. Thanks a lot, Derek. I appreciate it.
Good to talk to you again, Bill. And hopefully we’ll see you down the road.
photo by David McClister