ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 13, 1995
By Steve Newton
Unless you’re a devoted follower of critically acclaimed slide guitarists—or the type of music fan that analyzes the musician credits on CD liner notes—you might not have heard of Louisiana singer-songwriter-guitarist Sonny Landreth. He’s been around for a long time, though, and he’s even been up to Vancouver a few times.
He was here working with local country-rocker Sue Medley a few years back, and he’s been through town as a member of John Hiatt’s band, the Goners. Landreth spent two years in Hiatt’s employ, touring and recording on the veteran tunesmith’s breakthrough Slow Turning CD.
“That was really a great opportunity to hear him in the process of songwriting,” says Landreth, on the horn from a Best Western in Sacramento. “You can’t help but be around people like that and have something rub off—and hopefully so! I mean, I figured out very early on that you can really learn something from anyone, let alone somebody like John Hiatt.
“And at the same time, the music was just magical,” he adds. “We had something really special happening in terms of the group with the Goners.”
Landreth—who returns to Vancouver this Saturday and Sunday (April 15 and 16), opening for blues legend Buddy Guy at the Commodore—has had his own tunes covered by the likes of John Mayall and the Neville Brothers. He followed Hiatt’s successful path from songwriter-sideman to solo recording artist with 1992’s Outward Bound, a disc that made several critics’ top 10 lists (including mine).
Both Hiatt and Medley performed on that release, which was coproduced by R.S. Field, also known as the producer and main songwriter for wacky Nashville roots-rockers Webb Wilder. Field returned to share the production duties and offer some acoustic rhythm guitar on Landreth’s new release, South of I-10.
“He’s a real creative genius,” says Landreth of Field, “and he’s great at coming up with ideas on how to let me do what I wanna do yet keep it really organic in terms of layers on the tracks. He knows how to reinforce and get the most out of ’em while still keeping an eye on the original vibe of the song.”
As well as having Field’s extra set of ears on hand, Landreth’s latest project benefited from the presence of Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler, who played on three tracks. The two pickers met in London a couple of years ago when Landreth was touring behind Outward Bound.
“He was a fan of the album,” says Landreth, “so we hooked up and stayed in touch over the phone. He was in the process of working on his solo album—which he’s about to finish up—and he invited me to play on it. So I invited him to come down to Louisiana, and we had a ball workin’ together. I really relate to him on different levels—in terms of his guitar work, his production, his voice, and his songs. I mean, it’s great when you finally get to work with your heroes.”
Like Outward Bound before it, South of I-10 is heavily influenced by the Cajun and zydeco stylings Landreth discovered as a kid in Louisiana. One of the biggest thrills of his musical life occurred when he became the first white musician to join zydeco king Clifton Chenier’s Red Hot Louisiana Band.
“I had first heard Cliff when I was a teenager, and he just blew me away. He was my big hero, you know. He was enormously popular in the area, and when I finally got to gig with him many years later, I figured that was the highlight of my career right there. He’s the best zydeco player that ever was—and I daresay the best that ever will be—so he was a profound influence on me.”
On new Landreth-penned songs such as “Creole Angel” and “C’est Chaud”—as well as J.B. Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie”, the disc’s lone cover tune—Landreth melds the traditional sound of his bayou stomping ground with a scintillating bottleneck style that has been likened by Guitar Player magazine to that of legendary slide technicians Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Lowell George, and George Harrison. He became entranced by the shimmering sound of slide at a very young age.
“The thing I became aware of, both from my jazz heroes—’cause I started out playing trumpet, actually—and in my blues heroes, was their desire to emulate the human voice through their instrument. Like with B.B. King, it’d be the extension of his voice. When I heard that with bottleneck, it had a really human vocal quality about it, and that’s what struck me and hooked me in.”
As if to prove to all the “Sonny who?” types out there that he’s been around for a while, Landreth included an old photograph of himself in the South of I-10 sleeve. It shows a kid in cutoffs and sneakers studiously fingering an old Epiphone Olympic guitar while an equally fresh-faced youngster bangs away on drums. From the linoleum floor and major appliances in the background, it’s clear that the two are rocking out in somebody’s kitchen.
“That’s my best friend Tommy Alesi’s kitchen,” explains Landreth. “Our parents would trade off dealing with us from one weekend to the other, and that was their weekend. Tommy plays drums in Michael Doucet and Beausoleil now—a great Cajun band that’s already been nominated for four or five Grammies—and he and I go way back. I actually had just turned 14 in that photo, and he’s still very much 13. I grew up in one area with many friends from when I first started out, so that’s kinda the theme of the album: really strong bonds, rivers run deep.”