Every spring, Sonny Landreth, master of the slide guitar and co-composer of the classic “Congo Square,” plays his annual marathon of South Louisiana festival and club gigs.
Landreth’s evocative hybrid of slide and finger-style guitar technique supersedes the instrument. Contrasting plucked percussive notes with lyrical phrases produced by his smooth glass slide, he makes his guitar strings sting and scream, rage and weep.
A Mississippi native whose family moved to Lafayette when he was 7, Landreth can recall black grounds workers singing blues songs on the golf course overseen by his greenskeeper grandfather. And he heard Fats Domino hits and rhythm-and-blues and country records spinning on the jukebox in his grandfather’s drive-in restaurant, The Pig Stand.
Landreth’s exposure to music accelerated dramatically after he moved to Louisiana in 1958. Cajun music, country and swamp pop surrounded him. The national acts he heard on the radio and TV included Elvis Presley, instrumental pop band the Ventures, British invasion groups and, most importantly, finger-picking country guitar great Chet Atkins.
Although trumpet was Landreth’s first instrument, guitar was his first love. His parents gave him one for his 13th birthday. He had carefully pre-selected the instrument at Prof Erny’s Music store. Landreth ultimately fused Atkins’ intricate finger-style technique with the Delta blues masters’ blend of finger-style and slide playing.
In the late 1970s, Clifton Chenier, king of zydeco, invited Landreth to join his Red Hot Louisiana Band. Landreth’s sideman career includes Cajun singer-songwriter Zachary Richard, British blues pioneer John Mayall, singer-songwriters John Hiatt and Jimmy Buffett and many others. His solo career ascended via a trilogy of southwest Louisiana-inspired albums released between 1992 and 2000. Outward Bound, South of I-10 and Levee Town all distill the region’s distinctive flavor.
For his latest album (and OffBeat’s Best Blues Album), Bound by the Blues, Landreth returned to his roots. The recording features blues classics he’s known for decades and original songs inspired by his blues heroes.
Your all-instrumental 2012 album, Elemental Journey, features the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Did you simply want to get back to your roots with Bound by the Blues?
A few years ago, before I sat in with Roy Rogers at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, we were on the phone talking about songs I could do with him. Roy said, ‘Well, we’ll just do some Elmore James, Robert Johnson.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but we won’t do ‘Dust My Broom.’ Everybody’s done that.’
But then a couple of weeks later I started thinking about what it would take to do ‘Dust My Broom.’ You have to bring something new to the table. That intrigued me, so I had to go for it. But anytime to you go back to the well, you want to do something that both pays homage and brings something personal to it. And I always look for the element of surprise. Then I realized how much the way I play these songs has changed over the years. As I developed new techniques and ideas, I added them to these old songs. And then the songs pushed back, in a good way. So that added another layer.
Can you tell me about the album’s title song, “Bound by the Blues,” one of your compositions?
I wanted to pay tribute to my heroes. As I got into writing that song, I knew it had to be the title track. I always know which song will be the title track, and that helps set the direction for the whole album.
Even though you’ve performed blues music for decades, did your perspective on the genre change during the making of Bound by the Blues?
I came away with more respect than I ever had for the songs and the genre. Blues is such a powerful thing to people all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak. Blues music speaks to people because they have shared experiences, in particular with facing challenges. So those are some of the themes that made this project really special.
Growing up in Mississippi and later in Lafayette, did you hear a lot of regional roots music?
I heard it in Mississippi, but not to the extent I heard it after we moved here. I was in culture shock at first. It was like coming to another country. There was always a band playing for a function—maybe at a new Western Auto store on a flatbed truck in the parking lot. Cajun bands played on Saturday mornings. It was part of the community. That became even more prevalent when some friends of mine jump-started the Cajun and zydeco movements here. And there was Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. There was so much music in the area.
Did you also experience music elsewhere in Louisiana?
When I was growing up, we’d go to New Orleans. That’s the first time I heard jazz, R&B and the second line rhythms. It was a rich experience. There is something uniquely soulful about our area that I have not found anywhere else. Either via osmosis or the food, you just get it in you.
Do you think you’d be the artist you are today are if you’d grown up somewhere other than Louisiana?
No. My dad’s job for State Farm Insurance brought us to Lafayette. As the years have gone by, I’ve thanked him many times for making that move. Some of my family in Mississippi lamented that we left there. Not me. No way.
When did your interest in guitar begin?
Elvis Presley’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, really caught my ear. I was freaking out about Elvis, too, but then there was also this guy in the background with the big electric guitar. I liked that sound. I thought, ‘Wow. What is that? I want to do that.’
When did you begin developing your finger-style approach?
The Ventures were the big thing in electric guitar back in the day. But I also saw Andrés Segovia and José Feliciano on TV. And then I discovered Chet Atkins. That was a game changer for me. That’s when I began thinking of the guitar as a solo instrument that produced melody, rhythm and a bass line, all at the same time. I also discovered the Delta blues and slide guitar. I began to put the two together. That’s really what set me on my path.
When you were 16 and 17 years old, you met B.B. King, Clifton Chenier and Jimi Hendrix. What do recall of those encounters?
I’d read about B.B. King in interviews with Eric Clapton and others. I saw that he was playing at Leo’s Rendezvous in New Iberia. Me and a buddy went down to that. B.B. King was still doing the Chitlin’ Circuit. It was a small club. There weren’t many people there, but he played like he was playing for thousands. When he took a break, I talked to him. He was as sweet as he could be and down to earth.
A while later I heard about this guy who plays blues on accordion. I couldn’t even imagine that. So I saw that Clifton Chenier was playing at the Blue Angel in Lafayette. Me and another buddy of mine braved our way over there. Clifton saw us at the door and invited us in. He put us right in front of the bandstand. When Clifton got on the stage and played, I felt like I’d been propelled to another planet. It was blues, all right, but it was more than that. I’d never heard anything like that.
A bit later, Jimi Hendrix played in Baton Rouge. Me and my friends piled into a car and went over there early, to try to find Hendrix. A bunch of kids were already at the hotel when we got there. Hendrix was in his room listening to reel-to-reel tapes. I realized later it was Electric Ladyland.
Anyway, this big English road manager ran us all off. Me and a friend were hiding from the road manager in the hotel gift shop and then in walks Hendrix. I’d already met B.B. King and Clifton Chenier. So I figured I’d meet Hendrix. He was in the gift shop to get a toothbrush and toothpaste. I could see the road wear on him. I could see that being a musician wasn’t all that easy.
About a decade after you met Chenier at the Blue Angel, you joined his band.
The members of the Red Beans and Rice Revue were good friends of mine. Clifton got to be friends with the Red Beans and Rice Revue. One night when I was sitting in with them, Clifton heard me play. He invited me to go play with him at La Grande Boucherie in St. Martinville. And then he invited me to sit in with them in New Orleans the next weekend. That’s when he invited me to join the band.
What was your reaction to the invitation?
That was the height of my musical career. I could never surpass that. And that was a real lesson. I became keenly aware that if you open up to things, one thing can lead to another. At that point I got a strong sense that anything is possible.
I’ve heard that Chenier was an extraordinary performer. What were the shows you played with Chenier and the Louisiana Red Hot Band like?
Clifton totally commanded the audience and the show. And he had such a vast repertoire of songs. He changed the keys of the songs, so he really kept you on your toes. And if he didn’t like what you were playing, you’d know it.
One night at Tipitina’s, our first set was flopping all around. The sound on stage was horrible. But by the time we got midway through the show it became magic. The magic was happening during ‘Got My Mojo Working.’ Clifton grabbed me by my belt buckle and pulled me out to the front of the stage. I’m right in the middle of a solo. He says ‘Young man! Go!’ The crowd started screaming. It was one of those moments.
Was race still a factor when you played clubs in Louisiana with Chenier?
Clifton played in white clubs where other black bands weren’t even allowed. Clifton was the king. They revered him. It was amazing to see how the music and people’s appreciation for him overcame all that. Clifton said, ‘When you play for the white folks, you wanna take a break—especially with the hippies, because they all want to go outside and smoke pot. But, now, for the black clubs out there in the country, you can’t take a break. Because if you do, they’ll all get up and leave.’
So we played four hours straight at black clubs. Sometimes he would break it down to just him and his brother, Cleveland, on rubboard, and ‘Big’ Robert (Peter) on drums, the greatest drummer of all time. It was hardcore zydeco and amazing.
Slide guitar is so essential to your signature sound. What first attracted you the slide?
The vocal quality and the haunting element in it. Also, the effect it has in songs. The Delta cats were all about story songs. The guitar reinforces the lyrics that tell the story. And in the blues tradition, there’s call and response. You sing a line and then you respond to it with your instrument. B.B. King did that. He didn’t play slide, but he was influenced by his cousin, Bukka White, a slide player. The slide works like a second voice.
Why do you use a glass slide rather than a metal slide?
Once I used a glass slide, I preferred the feel of that. It’s smoother and I like the harmonics it creates.
Your playing is so distinctive. What part of your technique is most responsible for that?
Honestly, the finger-picking is the thing. There’s just so much more you can do with it. Again, it gets back to thinking in multiple parts, like Chet Atkins. Finger-picking offered a lot more harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, that you can’t do any other way.
Through the years, you’ve been both a solo artist and sideman. Was working with artists such as Zachary Richard, John Hiatt, John Mayall and Jimmy Buffett both artistically and financially rewarding?
I’ve learned so much from working with other people. You want to keep your antenna up and take it all in. Everyone has something to show you. They may not be as technically proficient as you are. They may be way more technically proficient. They may be all points between. But everyone finds their own voice. It may be as simple as a chord change or the way they approach a melodic phrase—or their sense of rhythm. All these things add up to a greater whole. And when you take all that in, you can interpret it through your own filtering process. That’s all part of having your own voice on your own instrument. That was the thing I started out wanting to do in the first place.
And working with my heroes has been one the greatest affirmations for me. That is its own reward. When you get to know them up close, that cosmic dust rubs off on you.
You’re about to play your annual spring festival marathon of Louisiana gigs. How does it feel?
Yeah, there’s quite a few. But, honestly, it’s not as many as we used to do. I guess at my height of popularity in the area, we would play every night for two weeks. Sometimes two shows a day.
But I always look forward to the season. My connection with Jazz Fest goes way, way back. When I run into people anywhere in the country and in other parts of the world, they say they saw us at Jazz Fest. That festival brings so many people from so many parts of the world together. Between Jazz Fest and Festival International in Lafayette and the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, it’s an amazing cultural experience.
Sonny Landreth performs at French Quarter Festival April 7; Festival International de Lousiane in Lafayette April 23; The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 28.