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StarPolish Interview: Sonny Landreth

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By James K, Willcox, courtesy of StarPolish

We are very excited to feature a new cool-guy article each week from StarPolish, now home of the legendary Velvet Rope, and THE premier site dedicated to educating and empowering artists, with an emphasis on artist advocacy and artist development.

Sonny Landreth

Recording a highly regarded album using stellar sessions players can be great experience, but the down side is that when it comes time to tour in support of the album, studio musicians are frequently either unavailable or too expensive to bring along on the road.

That was the dilemma confronting a newly rejuvenated John Hiatt when it came time to hit the road in support of his breakthrough 1987 album, Bring the Family, which featured a dream team of studio players that included slide guitar wizard Ry Cooder, bassist/songwriter Nick Lowe, and renowned drummer Jim Keltner. For Hiatt, the question was how to recreate the simmering smokiness, soulful grooves and straight-out rock n’ roll of the album in a live setting. And in particular, who was ever going to be able to step in and fill Cooder’s inimitable shoes?

Through mutual acquaintances, a largely unknown but locally heralded Louisiana guitar player and songwriter named Sonny Landreth — and his band, the Goners — nabbed a chance to audition for Hiatt’s touring band. After heading down to Nashville, where Hiatt was based, they launched into a song from the album. By the time they were finished, Hiatt had cancelled the rest of the auditions, and Landreth and the Goners were Hiatt’s new touring band — and launched into national recognition.

That Landreth was more than up to the task was no surprise to the initiated. Anyone who has heard or seen Landreth play guitar — particularly slide guitar — walks away knowing that they have experienced something remarkable. From glistening glissandos to searing leads — interspersed with otherworldly behind-the-slide hammer-ons — Landreth is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and one of only a handful of slide practitioners who are helping to reinvent the instrument.

Landreth’s singular abilities were evident early on. At the age of 17, for example, he had a chance to sit in with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier — a turn that promptly resulted in Chenier inviting the young guitarist to join the band, making Landreth the first-ever white band member.

But despite his obvious instrumental prowess, Landreth brings more than chops to the table — he brings an incredible musician’s ears that enables him to somehow unerringly always play the right note, whether he’s sympathetically accompanying another artist, or ripping up center stage with the Goners on a set of original songs.

As a result, it’s no surprise that Landreth has emerged as a much-in-demand session player for artists that span the gamut from Beausoleil to Dolly Parton, or from Muddy Waters to Mark Knopfler. It’s also why a multitude of more-famous contemporaries frequently describe Landreth as one of the most criminally underrated guitarists playing today.

These days, those kinds of accolades keep Landreth extremely busy. In addition to recently completing another tour with Hiatt and being in the midst of one with the Goners, a few weeks ago Landreth learned that his album, The Road We’re On, nabbed a Grammy nomination — his first — for “Best Contemporary Blues Recording.”

But as we found out, Landreth isn’t just a great musician — he’s also a great guy, as he proved when the tape of his original StarPolish interview — conducted just prior to a show at the Stephen Talkhouse out in eastern Long Island more than a year ago — was stolen from a car. With typical graciousness, Landreth agreed to a follow-up interview with StarPolish editorial director James K. Willcox a few months ago, answering many of the same questions with understanding, consideration and a sense of humor.

Back at the Talkhouse

STARPOLISH: When I first met you, it was before a show at the Talkhouse out on Long Island, a place I’ve seen you play before. It seems to be a decent venue for you — and it appears to be more packed each time you come through.

LANDRETH: Well, it is a really cool place. You can run the gambit between the worst of places and the best, and sometimes a venue will just have a vibe and the people who run it are really nice and it really is a great experience. And that’s been the case there for us; we really had a great time.

STARPOLISH: Do you think it’s because you’ve become sort of like a regular there, that having people know that at least once a summer you’re going come through helps you out?

LANDRETH: Probably so, I guess. I kind of picked up on an element of community [out there]. Everyone lives in the area, so there’s kind of a small-town feel to it, which I like; it’s more personable that way. So I would think that that would play into it as well.

STARPOLISH: The funny thing is that it’s in one of the richest areas on Long Island, so there’s this weird — but cool — mix of people. Half of them are fishermen and laborers, and the other half are rich people from Manhattan who have vacation houses there. But somehow it seems to mix a lot better than in other places I’ve been, where there’s a real tension between the townies and the city people.

LANDRETH: I recognized that as well, and I think that’s what makes me appreciate it even more, because once upon a time many years ago I lived in a tourist town in the mountains in Colorado, and you would have the local gang who was there all year round, and we’d tough out the winters together. Especially where I lived — you would only work three months out of the year, in the summer. The winters are so harsh, so there is a real common bond that develops between everybody. And like you said, there are the people that have the wealth — they have their houses and businesses there — who only come up there for a portion of the year, and the rest of us are left to deal with things on our own. And the big part of that was having fun and playing gigs, and everybody coming out and supporting [us] anytime we played. I worked two or three jobs during the day just to get through, because you had to get through that nut just to get through to the summer.

Playing with Dave

STARPOLISH: Since the first interview was lost, I had a bit more time to do some research on you, and one thing I found out was that you met your bassist, Dave Ranson, I when you were both pretty young — I think he was 13 and you were 14. And he said in an interview that you were already playing in a band at that point…

LANDRETH: Actually, it was before that. See, he was in a band — he was playing in a band before I did; I was just learning how to play, I think I was 13, and he was a year younger than me. I saw their band one night at a party we used to do — get-togethers at a parent’s house — and I guess that’s how we met.

STARPOLISH: Since you started so young, I think it would be interesting to ask if, when looking back to when you were 12 or 13 years old and just starting to play, the life, and being on the road, anything like you imagined it would be back then? Did you think that far forward in terms of it being more than just a fun thing and being a career? And if that’s not the case, when did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

LANDRETH: I think in the very beginning it was just a matter of that I needed to do it. It was almost like I was possessed; I had this energy to tackle this thing of learning how to play the guitar, putting a band together, writing songs, recording songs, putting out an album and hitting the road. And I was so consumed with the actual reality of pulling that off that whatever was out there was going to be whatever was out there. In a way, there is kind of like a built in comfort zone, that you only deal with what you know about. And there is that element of adventure and excitement, and the element of anticipation and mystery, that actually probably helped push us along, so that when we finally got seriously into traveling as a band and making a go of it as a band and trying to project ahead to a career, it’s been a bit of both. Some of it has been what I had hoped for, some of it is what I hoped it wouldn’t be. And then there is always the element of surprise in a good way, and those are the times and moments that you look back on that really made it worthwhile. It really is a kind of adventure… in a way that really kept me going.

Getting the Hiatt Gig

STARPOLISH: How did it go from playing locally to being the back-up band for John Hiatt?

LANDRETH: That’s a really smart question, because it came at a point in time that was very crucial. The band that Dave and I had, called Bayou Rhythm, had been out on the road for six-and-a-half, seven years, and we’d reached the point where we had done all that we can do with it — we played bars all over the place. So I decided to come home and regroup, sort of sit down and have a talk with myself and try to figure out which direction to go in and how to go about things, and what I could do to improve things. More than anything I just needed to take a break. As is the usual case, when you slow all the extraneous travel down that you are so involved with, then other things come up and you begin to be clear about things. I really just got into writing and practicing and really preparing myself; part of it may have been intuition, thinking there was something else coming up for the band. At that point in time — to make a long story short –I met John, and I put the band together for him with the Goners…

STARPOLISH: He had heard about you?

LANDRETH: Actually there was an album called Way Down in Louisiana – it’s kind of a story…

STARPOLISH: Wasn’t that originally released in 81 and then re-released in the 90s?

LANDRETH: Actually, Blues Attack was 81, Way Down in Louisiana was in ’85, and like you said it was re-released a couple times since then. But back then, it might have been the summer of 87, basically a record executive for CBS, an A&R guy, heard the album, he took it to his boss, and they called me and I got to know them and they put me in touch with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel — they had called me in to do the session. And Ray put me in touch with John, because at that point it was the end of the summer and John needed a band to support the Bring the Family album because obviously he wasn’t going to be doing it with the stellar group he had put together. So that’s how we met. I went out to do this audition in Nashville and I got to the audition and told John, “I’ve never done this before, but I know the kind of band you want to have.” So I told him about Dave Ranson on bass and Kenneth (Blevins) on drums. So he said, “Well, come up and we’ll do another audition,” because they had already been auditioning a lot of bass players and drummers.

STARPOLISH:So you flew up to Nashville?

LANDRETH: So then we flew up to Nashville, we met in an SIR rehearsal hall, and we kicked off with “Memphis in the Meantime.” We finished playing the tune and John said, “Cancel all the other auditions, this is the band right here.” Because the chemistry was so obvious right on the spot, and we knew we had something special.

STARPOLISH: It’s funny, because I loved the album, but couldn’t imagine him going out on the road without Ry Cooder on slide and Jim Keltner on drums, and expected to be disappointed. So when I saw the show with the Goners, I was totally surprised how great the songs sounded live.

LANDRETH: Well, to finish the long-winded answer to your question, from that point it took us out of the bar scene, and the next thing I know we are on an international stage, because we played all over the U.S. and Canada for six weeks, then we flew over to Europe for six to seven weeks. Because of the attention he got with that album… it was very much a critic’s darling, and the album was very well received, the journalist all jumped on it. And because of who he had on the album — Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Nick Lowe — people were coming out to the gigs just to see who he had [playing live]. It was also very much the thing you said, that people didn’t expect much since those guys weren’t there, but maybe they couldn’t help themselves because they were such Hiatt fans. So they came to check it out. In a way, because of Ry playing on the album, it put more of a spotlight on us, and more of a spotlight on me, and it actually helped me.

STARPOLISH: It seems like it was a pretty good springboard for your career, what you’ve been able to do since.

LANDRETH: Well, I’ve thanked John many times for opening the door for me. That gave people the opportunity to hear me play in a setting that was a larger venue, in larger context.

STARPOLISH: I’ve seen you play with John a couple times — it seems like every once in a while you guys regroup, and the chemistry is always there.

LANDRETH: For example, we worked together for two years, and then didn’t play together for 14 years, maybe more.

STARPOLISH: Wow — but aren’t music years are like dog years… (laughing)

LANDRETH: (Laughing) You’re right, a lot happens in 10 years. So we just picked up where we left off… that’s the beauty of that.

Sideman versus Leader

STARPOLISH: One of the things that’s interesting to me is that you seem to be able to balance careers as both a sideman and as a leader of your own band. Is it difficult doing that? And do you enjoy doing both? I’m also curious how it works: Do you look at the sideman thing as a way of paying the bills, or is it an opportunity to play with musicians you really respect and enjoy?

LANDRETH: Well, I do really enjoy it. It’s given me a lot of opportunities to play with my heroes, and meet my heroes and work with them. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, it’s kind of like a dream come true. That’s the real payoff for me, and in terms of the financial realms it’s definitely helped me out. And it’s given me more exposure, too. It is a bit of a stretch, because it takes a lot of planning; the logistical aspect of that is pretty thick. But I do honestly enjoy it, and I just don’t want to miss out on anything. There’s fun to be had, new experience to learn from, an opportunity to meet people I just don’t want to miss out on, and although that’s kind of a blessing and a curse, I’ve been blessed in that regard.

STARPOLISH: So is that something you see yourself continuing to do?

LANDRETH: Oh sure, as long as they’ll have me, I’ll show up.

STARPOLISH: I think one of the other things we talked about last time was gaining a rep as a preeminent slide player. As great as that is, is that limiting at all? Do you feel you are pigeon-holed as a slide player, and that people may not regard you as a complete musician or songwriter?

LANDRETH: Well, that’s actually true, you do run into that. And I prepared myself so much for it. I find what happens is, people can’t get past the initial phase of what they hear on recordings and what they hear with the effects of the guitar; they don’t catch the lyrics at first. But I also find that given enough time, it hooks them in the long run, and they become fans and turn up at the gigs and know all the words to the songs. It’s really a great affirmation to get that level of feedback on a person-to-person basis. Having people come out to where we play, and coming up to me after the show and talking at length about specific songs, that really makes me feel good. It is a bit of a challenge, though, and in some respects it’s held the perception of the image, and it’s really hard to break away from that. It’s not really that big of a surprise; I did anticipate it.

STARPOLISH: I think a lot of guitar players that I talk to sometimes feel a little frustrated. Steve Morse said the first 30 rows of his shows are always guys looking at his fingers. He thinks of himself as a writer or musician who uses his guitar as the main instrument, not just a guitar player. But a lot of the people who buy his albums, who are really vigorous fans, are huge guitar fans, and they turn other people onto his music and bring them to the shows. So if that’s the huge price he has to pay, he’s OK with it.

LANDRETH: I totally agree with Steve; he’s a fantastic musician, and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I do believe you have to own up to the overview of it all, and the fact that you have people who show up and support you at all is such an overwhelmingly wonderful thing in this business, because for every one musician that gets the opportunity to have an audience, there are tons of others that don’t get that. It is so hard in the business to make a go of it. So if you have a constituent, if you have a loyal fan base, it’s a blessing. I think it’s the probably the key.

Majors and Indies

STARPOLISH: Going through the different albums you have, I noticed that Way Down in Louisiana was recorded for Epic which is a major label, you did a couple for Praxis/Zoo, and now you have two albums out for Sugar Hill, which I guess are more indie labels. There’s a lot of debate among our community about working for a major label versus working for an indie. Do you have any sort of feelings about that, and the differences you experienced being on a major label versus a label like Sugar Hill?

LANDRETH: I was just having this conversation with a friend the other night, and I think the best way to think of it as is a work in progress, because I think there’s so much going on right now, a lot of change, definitely something in the air. There are definitely things going on with labels today, and the whole nature of the business on the Internet. But what I can say is that my experience with a major label is that they had such a huge system in place, so when I made albums for BMG, I also had my songs published through BMG, so in effect they were my publisher. So what that meant is in terms of distribution — for example, in Europe — is that when they are ready to have an artist on the road and do the drill, they can just put “product” in stores.

On the other hand, with an independent it’s a lot more of an uphill struggle. You have different people in different territories that they have to deal with on an individual basis in a way that the major labels don’t. It’s just a whole different kind of thing. On the other hand, with the independents you have a more personal touch. You’re on an everyday basis with the people and you become friends with them, kind of like family. There’s a real value to that I don’t think you can attach a dollar sign to, and I definitely felt the old cliché of getting lost in the corporate wheel in the way it worked at BMG. As far as I knew, they didn’t even know that I was a writer for them. Most of the time, at least I got the check — at the least I had that, don’t get me wrong. So you would look at that as an advantage, and then you look at the disadvantages and you size them up on an individual basis and get the opportunity to make the most of whatever your situation is.

I will say this much: in either case, I was given the opportunity to be free to create in a way that I wanted to. I didn’t have anyone standing over me telling me what to do, or telling me, “No, you can’t do that” or “Here’s what you have to do,” and I’ve been very thankful for that. In the long run you have to still get out on the road and play, and I still think it’s the nature of the experience people get at a live gig that people can’t get necessarily on a disc, and that’s still the main part of the whole equation.

CD Sales and Touring

STARPOLISH: Plus the reality for most musicians is that live shows are where they make their money, not CD sales.

LANDRETH:That’s the tough thing. Once you factor in how that works, and how the system that’s been in place works, and that how the artists gets paid for their music is shameful… We can go on all day about this. There are things in place that go back to day one with phonograph records…

STARPOLISH: Like breakage deductions for CDs?

LANDRETH: (laughing) Breakage, three-quarter rate, return policy… You take the total amount of the CD, and see how much the artist might actually end up with. And to top the whole thing off, any label will recoup all of their expenses — that bus ain’t free, those promotional runs are not free, hotels and all that… expenses that add up, and that’s all going to come out of the portion of the pot that you’re supposed to get in the first place. They don’t take it out of the portion that they make, they take it out of yours. So it makes it very difficult. I think the whole thing is way-upside-down. And I do believe there are good things going to happen in terms of shaking all of this up.

STARPOLISH: A couple of labels are finally beginning to address that; at least a few labels are saying that they’re going to change their contracts. So even if nothing happening immediately, at least I think they are becoming more aware, and people in general are becoming more aware of what artists actually receive on record deals.

LANDRETH: Yeah, hopefully in the long run they will make some changes.

Challenges

STARPOLISH: Since we’re talking about the business part, what aspects of the business do you feel are the hardest? What would you say is the biggest job for you?

LANDRETH: In the beginning it’s knocking on the door and having anyone hear it. Because you’re trying to get yourself out there, and get your music out there and make a name for yourself, and let’s face it: you’re one of a sea of faces and songs. And it all piles up, like in that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is looking for the ark, and it’s all cradled up and stored in some titanic warehouse full of other crates just like it. That’s the way I always envisioned what happens to the song and demo tape you send to a record company or a publisher: it ends up on their desk or the floor or the trash can in about 10 seconds. So that’s the hardest thing in the beginning. The real payoff is if you can be real persistent, and if you can hang in there, because you are going to do it no matter what. Not because you are going to get rich playing music, but because it’s in your soul. It’s like what I was talking about earlier — it’s almost like you’re possessed; you just have to do it. And if you make your way through it and you have enough experience, the real payoff is that people will come out to hear you play your songs, and the notion that when you write a song and it kind of has a life of its own, it just goes out there into the universe and makes its way into someone’s life.

STARPOLISH: You have a great official website , plus something called Slidelines? Is that a website?

LANDRETH: Well, actually there’s only one official website. Slidelines is the name of the newsletter that Tom [Mouton] puts out; he does all the text for me.

STARPOLISH: I guess a good question for you would be how involved are you in the website, and how has the rise of the Internet and the ability to have a website affected your career and your relationship to your fans?

LANDRETH: The actual creation of the website has been in the hands of some wonderful people. Megan Barra designed it, Scott Long constructed it, and Tom handles all the text. But believe me, I am involved in every aspect of it. I was very keen on getting it off the ground. The potential of what you can do and convey and communicate to people is so significant that it bears the time and the trouble and the expense. Besides it being a very convenient way for people who are interested to find anything out about an artist — they can log on to a website and get so much information — it also is a great way to really breaks the ice and get more of the picture.

The end result of all of that is the amazing connection that you make with people on an individual basis. For example, we play a gig in Montreal, at the Montreal Festival, during the summer, and there are literally thousands of people that show up for the gig, and it’s just an amazing experience. And that night they’re already communicating back to my website that they were there, and posting their individual stories of what they got out of it. I mean, the next day they are telling me about it. I think that’s amazing… that type of immediate exchange is incredible.

STARPOLISH: It also seems like it breaks down some of the barriers between an artist and the fans…

LANDRETH: Well it does, because all that stuff we were talking about — everything that gets in between… I think this is part of the change going on, and you have a more personal connection to people. And that’s what it’s really all about in the first place — and that’s what I like about it.

STARPOLISH: Is it also a way for artists who are not on a major label, and who might have some of the distribution issues that you eluded to earlier, to sell albums and merchandise that they otherwise couldn’t under the old system?

LANDRETH: Not really, because the task at hand to distribute an album is so complicated. I think everyone was hoping that, Wow, all artists get their own website to sell their own products and everyone lives happily ever after. I do think it’s evolving in that direction, and for some people it’s happening right away. For example, Emmylou Harris — that’s a beautiful way for her to do that. If you have a name already you have a lot more going for you than someone who doesn’t. That was another fortunate thing for me.

But we’ll see, the jury is still out on that for me as well. We do a certain amount of [online] sales, but I think it’s more about people coming out to hear you live, and they’re excited at that moment and that’s when they want to buy the CD if you have it available. Things are also changing with the mom-and-pop stores — we just lost Raccoon Records here in Lafayette, they’d been here forever; they were the last one to go. They just can’t do it anymore, because the chains and MP3s pushed them out of business. So that’s the sad part of it. You just hope that all the stuff that’s in the air will land in a good way, and overall I have a good feeling about it.

STARPOLISH: Two quick questions: one, I really enjoyed a lot of the acoustic stuff that you’ve done, such as “Son of a Native Son” and “Jukebox Mama” on the new CD. Have you ever thought about doing an all-acoustic album?

LANDRETH:: Oh yeah, sure. You know, my first official album was an all-acoustic record, the Crazy Cajun Sessions that got repackaged and released as Prodigal Son. Half of that was an actual album I wrote, conceived, recorded, and produced in Houston, Texas back in 1973, and it was all acoustic. So yeah, I’ve kind of wanted to get back and do that at some point in time. That’s always the back of my mind, along with other ideas, such as an instrumental album, or a guest album with friends of mine, who are a lot of fun to work with. Hopefully there is enough time in the day — and the life — to do that.

STARPOLISH: Finally, looking back, is there any general advice that you can offer to maybe a hot local player who’s looking to maybe build a career?

LANDRETH: Well, you have to be prepared to hit the ground running. And the main thing is the songwriting; that is the most important part of it all, not only because it’s the most you get involved with creatively — you are literally conveying from your heart and soul directly to others — but it’s the thing in the long run, if you get other people doing your songs, and you’re out there playing them yourself and you develop a catalog to fall back on, that will help fill in the cracks financially.

The one thing I tell people is that you can’t rule out the “one thing leads to another” law of the universe. You hone your chops, you work on your songs, your craft, your voice, your whole act, and you put it out there whenever you can and never, ever underestimate who may or many not be in the audience. Because you just don’t know who’s going to be out there.

And when you get a little bit of a break — and sometimes it doesn’t seem like much — you might meet someone else, and that leads to another project and that leads to another project and so forth. And you just can never rule out what can happen from that mysterious project. It’s just magic, and you have to open up for it. And you have to be prepared for the harsh experiences — but at the same time, keep believing in yourself and just project it out there.

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  • jorge luis

    hola