Bassist Dave Ranson was one of the first to be blown away by Sonny Landreth’s six-string prowess. He was 12 or 13, and he went to a party where the budding virtuoso, a whole year older, was playing with his band.
“He might’ve been 14, maybe even 15. I know I wasn’t drivin’,” Ranson recalls, thinking it was a tune by the Ventures he first heard coming from the youthful combo. “We just went, ‘Wow! These guys are good.'”
More than three decades later, Ranson observes the ripple effect night after night from his onstage position as Landreth’s musical alter ego. “To watch people watching him, that’s hilarious,” he says. “You see people just standing there with their mouths open. It’s really great.”
After shows, witnesses have been known to tell the bassman, “I play a little slide guitar, but after hearing him, I’m going home and break all my slides.” “If I’ve heard that once,” Ranson relates, “I’ve heard that a million times.”
The recent release of Levee Town, Landreth’s Sugar Hill debut, confirms that there’s much more than just technique behind the glass of the bandleader’s slide.
The record opens with a mythic tale of an Atchafalaya Basin flood, and pulls roots influences from Clifton Chenier to Duane Allman through tales of zydeco rides, romance and the mysterious allure of the Deep South.
The disc offers brilliantly produced readings of a dozen original tunes, all colored by Landreth’s unique gifts as sonic painter. His guitars, vocals and lyrics speak in rhythmic slurs by turns floating and biting. From the acoustic-electric bottleneck blues of “Broken Hearted Road” to the ethereal pulse of “Love and Glory,” the disc is the culmination of decades of musical innovation and what nearly everyone interviewed for this story identified as a core issue: finding your own voice.
Meet the neighbors
Writing the title cut triggered a circle of inspiration for the 49-year-old songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, bandleader and producer.
“That’s the first time that I actually wrote a song where when I got through with it, it sparked a whole concept,” Landreth says. “I had a concept of an album of these story songs. And I had this whole idea about a setting in and around a fictitious town based on those in our area, about all these characters, about them and their experiences in and around this town. And it just seemed to offer, you know, a lot of potential.”
Landreth was born in Canton, Mississippi, and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, as a kid and his Faulknerian vision offers listeners “something to sink their teeth into. And I really wanted to stretch the seam with the solo sections of the songs, and with the narrative form of the songs, which–what that amounts to for me–is a lot more words. But there’s a cadence to that, there’s a rhythm to that.”
And that rhythm sends John Hiatt’s “designated driver” on a tour of tales and sonic textures that mixes the influence of The Band with the rattlesnake rhythms of zydeco, the swagger of swamp pop and a floating Cajun waltz.
The trio comes out blasting on the title cut, which features Hiatt on backing vocals and a two-minute outro guitar solo, one of several such eruptions on the disc. The first single, “This River,” follows, crackling to life with a percussive acoustic guitar lick, Ranson’s fluid bass lines and Landreth’s dueling electric guitar riffs. From there, the record runs through roots rockers, ballads and a pair of full-tilt instrumentals, picking up backing vocalists Herb Pedersen and Jennifer Warnes early on, and closing out with saxophonist Jon Smith and trumpeter Steve Howard on two cuts.
The middle section of the record features cameos from Bonnie Raitt (who backs Landreth’s vocal on the swaying “Soul Salvation”) and fiddler Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil and Cajun accordionist Errol Verret, who are paired on the gorgeous “Love and Glory.” But the album’s core sound is the touring trio of Ranson and drummer Michael Organ powerfully augmented by longtime keyboardist Steve Conn.
Raitt describes Landreth’s fifth “official” release as a “killer record by one of the most astonishing guitarists I know. I’m a huge fan of Sonny’s singing and writing as well as his slide playing and am thrilled he asked me to be part of the record. Let’s hope this one finally gets him riding the acclaim he so deserves.”
The disc is his first since 1995’s South of I-10, and it ably mixes co-producer Mike Post’s interest in “widening the street” with co-producer R.S. Field’s mojo hand.
‘Turning With The Century’
When nearly two years of touring wound down in 1996, Landreth had only two new tunes written and needed to regroup. Session work with a variety of artists, writing and a 10th anniversary reunion with Hiatt and the Goners all piled on the plate, and Levee Town began rolling down a serpentine road from La. to L.A. and back again.
Sessions with friend, noted TV soundtrack producer and longtime Louisiana music fan Post led to an invitation to begin work on the record at Post’s studio on the Left Coast. “We mixed six of the tunes and the consensus was that we’d just gone a little too far from the center,” Landreth explains. The Breaux Bridge, Louisiana based slideman decided to bring the project home, reuniting with Field, who produced Landreth’s two previous albums, to re-mix a couple of cuts and work on the rootsier side of the record at Dockside Studios in Milton, Louisiana.
The resulting hybrid showcases several significant Post contributions, among them the half-time feel on the verses of the rocker “Turning With The Century” and the Dixieland “tailgate” rhythm of “Angeline.” The record also offers seamless shifts into the double-clutchin’ sound of “The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile” and the blistering blues of “Broken Hearted Road.”
Landreth says his goal is “just to always keep pushing it. I could say, well, I’m a blues guitar player, so I’ll make blues albums for the rest of my life. And that’s a beautiful thing. I have the most respect–and that’s where my heart is, really. But I sort of hear the call of the wild, you know. It’s kind of like when you really get into seeing where something can take you–it’s kind of like the writing process, it’s the same thing with discovering new techniques and new sounds, and going in different directions with the actual performing end of it on guitar.”
Much of Landreth’s inspiration this time around was literary–Joseph Campbell, Richard Ford, Jane Roberts, Darryl Bourque, even The Portable Plato. Armed with his talent for getting inside songs and leading a band, Landreth worked on the new disc while touring and recording with Hiatt and simultaneously beginning Levee Town’s follow-up, an all-instrumental outing. That album is about half recorded, he reports, and a collection of original blues tunes may follow on its heels. This way, Landreth hopes to avoid running out of steam after spring and summer touring in support of Levee Town.
But the wild card in all of this may be the John Hiatt album, which features Landreth, Ranson and fellow Goner (and Louisiana native) Kenneth Blevins on drums, but has been shelved while Hiatt tours in support of the more recently recorded and released acoustic album Crossing Muddy Waters, just out on the Vanguard label.
It was Hiatt’s change of plans, however, that offered Landreth a chance to open the floodgates for the release of Levee Town.
Buckwheat Zydeco says, “Talent and personality, that goes hand-in-hand,” and Landreth’s bandmates are quick to explain that his gifts extend far beyond the world of music.
Journeyman drummer Michael Organ signed on for a three-week tour in ’95 and has been part of the team ever since. “The thing about Sonny is he’s a great artist, he’s a great musician and a great songwriter. And when he puts something down it’s going to have its own identity, its own pulse, its own phrasing.” But, he adds, longtime partners Landreth and Ranson both leave room for him to find his own voice and become part of the music with them.
“Sonny has perhaps been my biggest influence, musically and personally,” Steve Conn explains. The man behind some of the most intricate chord changes he’s ever heard, he says, is “very concerned with the way everyone is treated, from the big fish down to the tadpoles. That’s very important to me. He has always done a lot of things in his life that I just talked about, and seeing him actually live it has really affected me. Sure, he’s a musical genius, but that is not as important to me in the long run, and it won’t be important to any of us at the final bell.
The pair met 25 years ago, and have played together ever since. “He hears the whole song,” Conn says, noting that during a session for his River of Madness disc, Sonny wrote a chart with nothing other than the letter A on it.
“I mean, you know, you come up with a lick and that’s really cool,” Landreth explains. “And you can put it down on tape, and that’s cool too. But to kind of take it to the next step, there has to be something behind it. Not like it has to shake the world, and it’s not like you have to make a big statement, but it’s coming from someplace. ‘Cause I know for me–and especially with instrumentals–the whole time I was growing up I would hear something that really would just draw me in and it would immediately make a mental image or a picture. That’s a real intimate experience, and I think music is that for people.”
Playing bottleneck–and exploring the chordal tunings that accompany the style–offered Landreth a chance to find his own voice on the instrument, an otherworldly burst of sound that channels all kinds of melody and percussion instruments.
His trademark slur, he says, emanates from time spent as a schoolboy trumpeter. “The phrasing that comes about from having to take a breath has its own warmth–to me that makes it very vocal. And [by] slurring, you make the most of the phrase, you know, and [it] ends up behind the beat: you anticipate it sometimes and you’re on the back of it other times. It’s like you elongate even that one beat. It’s kind of like, if something tastes really good, you can either just scarf it down or you can take your time and reeeaaaaallly stretch the moment.”
Landreth’s rhythmic feel comes from native influences, especially time spent on the bandstand with another great channeler of styles, late zydeco king Clifton Chenier. “There’s rhythm in this area that we draw from we don’t even think about. It’s by osmosis, it’s part of our daily routine. My attempt to emulate that–when I was actually consciously thinking in terms of I couldn’t play rubboard or fiddle or accordion–that desire to pushed me to discover some of the new sounds and new ideas and those techniques. And I think it’s just the sound of a frustrated wanna-be on several other instruments.”
And when Landreth discovered a way to play behind the slide–allowing fretted strings to pass beneath the glass and combine with the sound of the strings touching the slide–a world of possibilities were opened to him.
“He called me up one day and was just all pumped-up telling me about that,” Atchafalaya Basin resident Ranson remembers. “He was really excited. And then when I heard it, I saw why.” One thing led to another, and Landreth began developing a vocabulary of techniques and tunings to channel his unique vision. Since that time, the frustrated multi-instrumentalist has found ways for his playing to suggest a range of instruments being played simultaneously.
“Sonny plays with all that technique and still with just so much soulful feeling,” Ranson adds. “And a lot of technique players, they just lose that. Sonny lacks neither.”
Dobro ace Jerry Douglas concurs. “I think that the reason he sounds so different is ’cause of where he’s from. I can hear fiddles a lot in his playing, just from the way he raises the notes. Slide is just another voice you can have. You can really make a guitar sound like a person, and he knows what that’s about.”
Perhaps what’s most amazing is that so much of Landreth’s sound–which integrates rhythm and lead lines as well as a wide palette of instrumental colors–comes primarily from the action of his hands on the strings, long before the signal even sees the sweating tubes of an amp’s power section. Through fingerpicking and a combination of palm and thumbpick techniques, Landreth alternately coaxes ghostly overtones and roaring, full-throated harmonies from his instrument.
Coming across these discoveries have further fueled his quest. “That’s the nature of inspiration. Once you experience that, you want it again, like a lot of things in life. And you should always think in terms of ‘Well, if that happened, then what else is there?’ I think it’s when you quit asking questions, you’ll quit finding answers. I mean you really have to open yourself up to the possibility of the moment and what that can bring.”
Landreth’s attempt to capture his most inspired performances led him to record a good bit of Levee Town in his home, in between studio sessions. “It’s almost like you wanna get it right before that part where you know it too much. There’s just something about being on the edge. You’re in this space where it’s a gray area, you’re sort of flying by the seat of your pants for inspiration and you either fly or you fall by what you come up with. But when you really nail it, when you really ride that, when you really feel it, that’s really the magic. And you [can] go back and try to recapture that, it’s impossible. I’ve never been able to do that, not completely.”
“It’s a lifelong goal to be able to achieve that, to be able to tap into it whenever you want to and to be able to hold on to it. It’s like you’re not trying to analyze it while you’re in the heat of the moment, but it’s kind of like you’re focused in a different way, and it’s more instinct, it’s more inspiration.”
“I read one time, John McLaughlin said this: ‘Your role is to play to inspire yourself and your fellow musicians and others.’ And it’s like a wheel, it’s like one thing does lead to another and one thing inspires the other.
It’s just like the flood headed for Levee Town, and you better watch out for forces of nature. They just might change your life.