By Steve Newton
When Sonny Landreth connects his glass slide to the strings of his Strat, there’s always a good chance a blues-drenched tone will emerge—perhaps blended with zydeco strains befitting the guitarist’s home state of Louisiana.
A blues freak since day one, Landreth composed a love letter to the genre with his latest album, Bound by the Blues. Alongside a handful of originals are gems by the legendary likes of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and Big Bill Broonzy. On the phone from his house in Lafayette, the acclaimed picker—whom Eric Clapton has long lauded as among the world’s best—says that it wasn’t hard to pin down covers like “Walkin’ Blues”, “Dust My Broom”, and “Key to the Highway”.
“I went with songs that had really spoken to me from way, way back,” says Landreth, “songs that are important to me and influenced me, going through all the changes over the years on the road with performing and so forth. And it was actually part of the theme of the album, which is a tribute to heroes.”
As well as the icons mentioned above, special honour was paid to Texas bluesman Johnny Winter, who passed away last year, right before Landreth started working on Bound by the Blues. He was just a kid when he first heard Winter’s incredible fretwork, which he salutes on “Firebird Blues”.
“A buddy of mine said, ‘You gotta hear this guy!’ ” Landreth recalls. “We’d turn each other on to music, you know, and I went, ‘Holy shit, man, this is awesome!’ It was the first Columbia album. So I fell in love with his playing way back then, and we’d jump in the car and go hear him in Houston. I go way back with Johnny.”
Landreth would eventually become good buddies with Winter, touring with him—including a trek to Japan—and performing on his second-to-last album, 2011’s Roots. But he wasn’t trying to emulate his old friend’s playing style on “Firebird Blues”.
“Not so much,” says Landreth, who plays the Imperial in Vancouver this Sunday (January 17). “Right off the bat when I first heard him I related to him because of the fingerstyle slide guitar. That’s my approach too, so that’s a pretty good fit right there. But it was more trying to get the essence of just being in the moment. We were in the key of G—just guitar, bass, and drums, real spontaneous like he would have done it—and I thought that was important, just to keep it really raw.”
While Landreth is happy with how “Firebird Blues” turned out, that’s not his fave tune on Bound by the Blues. He’s more inclined toward the title track.
“It’s something I’ve never quite done before,” he explains. “I came up with the idea where each of my heroes has a verse or a couple of lines, so it all kinda blows by—everyone from Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix to Buffy Sainte-Marie. Of course, you can’t get them all in. There’s no way!”
To hear the full audio of my 2016 interview with Sonny, become a patron of the Newt on Patreon.