Sonny Landreth

I received Sonny Landreth’s new album, Beyond the Reach, with mixed emotions. On one hand, it’s great to see Landreth keeping company with such acknowledged guitar heavyweights as Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, and singers including Jimmy Buffett and Vince Gill, but there’s something about the sleek, stripped down sound of his guitar riding a bass and drums that’s hard to improve upon.

When I talked to Landreth about something else, he was gentlemanly about my review (July 2008), and respected that I had thought about it, but wondered if we could talk about the CD because there was more to the guest issue than met the eye. Considering his guests and career, it seemed only fair.

Why is Beyond the Reach so guest heavy?
That’s a good question because basically, you’re talking about intent. I’ve thought about doing a guest album in the past, but it just seemed right. And usually all the projects I’ve ever done started with a feeling that resonated, and that seems to turn into a vision about the album which articulates a concept. Then I go about trying to chisel that out in the way of the recording process.

I knew with the higher profile with the guests that I asked to come on board, that that would garner attention, but that is a double-edged sword because once you get them, it’s like, “Now what?” So I knew I had to have the songs. That’s probably the most important thing. Then its got to be, “What would make this different than any other guest albums and the duet albums that have been done to no end?” That’s when it occurred to me to write the songs for the guests, specifically, and that really fired me up.

I’ve never tackled anything like that before. In fact, with exception of two of the songs, I wouldn’t have written this batch of tunes if it weren’t for that taking on this whole process. It took a bit of a leap of faith because I hadn’t asked them to play on it yet. I had a good feeling about it though, and that’s because of the great connection that I have with all of these amazing musicians. When I approached them and they got on board so enthusiastically, that fired me up even more.

What songs existed before the guest appearances?

“The Going’ On” and “Howlin’ Moon.” The interesting thing about that is I was never happy about either one of them, especially with “The Goin’ On.” Wendy Waldman and I worked on it a long time ago. There was something about it that wasn’t right, and keeping with how everything else came together on this project, once I got Vince Gill on board for “The Goin On” and I got Dr. John and Jimmy Buffett for “Howlin’ Moon,” then I finished the songs. I came up with better lyrics, some of the changes were better, some of the riffs.

What had to remain to preserve the soul of “Howlin’ Moon?

The call of the wild vibe about it. And when I came up with this song to begin with, I remember thinking, “You know, Mac [Rebennack] would be great on this. It would be great to hear his piano on this, and hell, it would be great to hear his voice, too.” When I got there, he blew it down, and we went back and re-cut different overdubs on it. I said, Well, Mac, what do think about getting out there and singing?’ He said, “If you want me to,” and that’s really when, for me, it tied the whole thing together. To hear him singing that line “Howlin” Moon”—call and response to me singing or playing—really made it for me.

Had you tried out versions of songs of “Howlin’ Moon”?

I had a demo. In fact, it was one of those songs that didn’t make the cut for The Road We’re On album I made back in 2002. I had a demo with it, and it was literally a drum machine and me playing guitar and singing on it. For whatever reasons, it didn’t make it with the bulk of the material that I had that we felt was stronger. I had to kind of go dig it up to see what I had done in the first place. All these years go by and it gets to be a bit of a fog.

There are probably two scenarios with this kind of thing, and one is we’ve all been to the gigs where everybody gets up onstage for the grand finale when, in fact, everyone should have just gone home. A perfect example of more is less. Then again, there are those times where there’re the right people onstage, and there’s that connection and you propel each other to greater heights. The one that pops off the top of my head as I think about it was when David Hidalgo from Los Lobos sat in with us at the Rock ’n’ Bowl during Jazz Fest one year, and that thing just took off. He was doing all these really cool, rhythmic lines that often got a completely different vibe. Everybody got inspired.

That’s the scenario that I wanted to latch onto. All these great players and they’re legendary—what made them legendary in the first place? Each of them has a special gift. They have their own magic, and that’s what I wanted to tap into. I wanted to capture the essence of that, and I thought the best way to do that was to actually go about writing these songs for them.

Did anybody not feel it?

Yeah, Mark Knopfler. He’s a dear friend, and we stay in touch. He is always playing music for me and vice versa. I sent him “Let it Fly.” He said, “I just don’t hear me on ‘Let it Fly.’” On the other hand, before I even sent him the material, he was asking about “Blue Tarp Blues.” He said what’s it like, and I said, “What if ‘The Sultans of Swing’ met the king of zydeco?” He laughing and said, “I got to hear this.”

I sent him the song, and he calls me up and really likes the song. He said, “I think you should take the middle verse and make it the first verse.” At that point, I had a completely different first verse in the song. I knew that the third verse was the most powerful part of the song—“Air Force One had a heck of a view”—but my idea was to build up to it. He pointed out that in other parts of the world, they wouldn’t relate as much, whereas that being the first line of the song immediately captures the imagination and it’s something that everyone around the world saw. His being involved pushed me to write an even better third verse.

I was surprised that you chose Katina over Rita for a hurricane song.

The imagery of Katrina lends itself more. What I’ve tried to do at all of these shows we do and especially the festivals, is to try to keep the profile about all of what happened to the Gulf Coast. The entire Gulf Coast. Katrina really didn’t do anything in Lafayette, whereas Rita did hit us, but in Lafayette proper, it was the usual inconvenience of power out and trees down and that sort of thing. Directly west of us was total devastation in the way that Katrina was to the east of us, and that gets lost. We try to remind people that people still need help there.

In my review of the album, I was critical of the guests, but primarily because I want to hear more of you.

I appreciate that, and I wanted to keep my identity intact, too. I had to keep the Lafayette Parish sign in plain sight, no matter where it went otherwise. That made it even more interesting as a challenge.

The other thing is, they all played so brilliantly. EC [Eric Clapton] plays like he’s possessed. I haven’t heard him play like that in a long time. Little magical things happened like he was doing this countermelody during my solo in “Storm of Worry” that is very much like the way he did the background parts on “Double Crossing Time” with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. The cool thing is, that song was a model for “Storm of Worry.” It’s really interesting how he picked up on that. I didn’t tell him anything.

This feels like more of a blues album than you’ve made recently?

For me, it’s all up for grabs. Growing up in South Louisiana was the greatest thing for me because of these great musical influences. And yet, some are more prevalent than others and some were raised in some situations more than others. It keeps coming back to what’s right for the song. Whereas that double-clutching rhythm was perfect for “Blue Tarp Blues,” it wouldn’t have been the case for “When I Still Had You.”

This album makes me wonder, do you talk guitars with other guitar players?

Oh yeah. You are always keenly aware of what was he playing, what rig did he play. That’s the geek part. It’s fun.

What kind of a collection does Clapton have?

Consider that he was able to have this incredible, worldwide guitar auction. After a while I started thinking, “I wonder how many he’s got?” I mean, I’ve got too many guitars. But it really was kind of cool how he went back and bought back the ones that he sold. “Oh, I can’t part with them.”

How many guitars do you have?

That’s an unfair question. (laughing) Actually it’s a fair question. I quit counting somewhere along the way. Everything is about getting back to function and form, and what’s a little more utilitarian about it perhaps.

More or less than 50?

Probably slightly less than 50.

Are there some that you keep for emotional reasons?

Oh yeah, absolutely. A guitar’s got its own heart and soul, and you’ve had it all these years that you’ve played gigs and all of life changes an all the challenges and ups and downs, and you never forget that. I have guitars that I could line up and it’s almost like your life is flashing before your eyes. And they all have their own personalities, and that’s why I like to use different guitars.

For different projects in the past, I would always use different guitars on different songs for different parts of the songs because that spices it up more. This time around I stuck with my Strat because I was trying to get a more uniform sound, like it would be on the gig with basically the same rig that I would have on the shows. Of course, it varied because you don’t want to just run that into the ground either.

Are there certain makes of guitars that suit the way you play better?

I think it’s more about the setup. There are just so many variables about wood and tolerances, and some of them just speak. Some guitars are better for flat picking, and some guitars work better for slide than others. If there is a stepchild in the Fender reign, it’s the ’66 Strat because that’s the year CBS took over, and for a long time it was frowned upon as when things had gone awry. In fact, it’s one of my favorite. It works really well for me. I like the neck better. The pickups are a little thinner sounding, but they have a unique snap and clang I like, and when you put the heavier gauge strings on them, they really come alive. I love ’57s and ’65 is another year I like, but who would have ever thought the vintage market would have just gone through the roof? It’s a shame. No guitar should be priced that high that musicians can’t play them.

Guitars are kind of all different; a really good example is the neck on the ’59 Les Paul, the holy grail of guitars. I have a ’60, and I’ve played a ’60 that had the same neck as the ’59. So there really aren’t all the rules that people might think. It’s like they’re in there winding the pickups and it’s a Friday and they’re exited about getting off of work, and then they come the Monday and it’s a whole different thing. All of this plays into a guitar. Much of the personality that makes all those guitars unique and different is that there are all these variables that play into it.

Published September 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 9.