Derek Trucks met his wife Susan Tedeschi in July 1999 in New Orleans at the Saenger Theatre. Already an accomplished prodigy and slide-guitar virtuoso, Trucks has since forged a family with the Grammy-winning singer/guitarist Tedeschi and found fertile musical ground in their own Grammy-winning ensemble, the transcendent Tedeschi Trucks Band. Heirs apparent to the rock/soul/blues scene that has surrounded him from the cradle to today, Trucks recently spoke by phone from his native Jacksonville, Florida home “in the swamp” with OffBeat about loss, late nights at Tipitina’s, and his sources of inspiration.
What’s it like creating music with your wife?
It’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to share that with somebody. I guess being on the road as a kid, band and family always co-mingled—there was never a separation. Almost any band I’ve played in, we stayed together 10, 15, 20 years. It feels natural, you know? It has to be the right person and the right musical sensibility. When we first met in New Orleans at the Saenger, it was the musical connection first. That made it pretty simple.
What can you tell us about that first meeting between you and Susan?
It was one of the first tours I had done with the Allman Brothers as a member of the band, and she was opening a whole month of shows. You don’t run across people like that often. [laughs] You just don’t run across a musician of that caliber, especially in that package.
Y’all just wrapped up your summer tour and are preparing to hit the road again real soon. Why tour that frequently?
It’s a 12-piece band. It doesn’t work well unless you work it. We have to stay on the road quite a bit to make it float. I think we’ve always done that. We’re lifers. We’re used to working and we’re used to touring. And I think the other thing you realize is that the music and the band only get better the more you play. We’re starting to figure out how to adult tour a bit more, where there are actually decent breaks in between tours so you don’t feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends at all times.
We do the one really long summer tour every year now, and maybe we’ll do a long tour of Europe, but outside of that, it’s just a few weeks at a time—so it feels manageable. But I think all of us get a little stir crazy if we’re not gigging and I definitely know that the more this band plays, the better it seems to get. So you always want to keep it moving.
One thing that has always struck me about the Tedeschi Trucks Band is the instrumentation. It’s a huge ensemble for a touring blues/rock band. From a conceptual standpoint, why have a 12-piece band?
Some of it just kind of evolved into what it is now. When I was moving on from my solo group and wanted to start a band with Susan, we had a few concepts in mind. One was just a small group, a five-piece band, but I really wanted to experiment with two drummers, having played with Jaimoe and my uncle for so long [in the Allman Brothers Band]. And towards the end of the [Eric] Clapton tour that I did, he had two drummers out. It’s just such a good sound, a good feel, to be out in front of all that that I wanted to experiment with it. And playing the music that we play, you always hear a horn section on certain things. So that was in the mix.
I hadn’t been working with [vocalist] Mike Mattison all that long when I quit my band, when I stopped doing my solo group, and I felt like there was a lot of meat on the bone there still. I love writing tunes with him; I love collaborating with him. And so we started thinking about ways to make that work, too. He was really into the idea of two male background singers, like Gladys Knight & the Pips. Usually, it’s a male lead singer and a few female background singers, but he liked the idea of experimenting with the reverse of that. Which people have done here and there, but it’s not as common. So that was the concept going in.
And you meet people along the way. I remember Eric Krasno was down in our studio, writing tunes and recording with us, and Alicia Shakur showed up with him one day when we were making a record. She hopped in with the singers and she really filled out the sound. It was pretty immediate. So then we started thinking, ‘There’s already 11 out. What’s the harm in having 12?’ We realized we had enough bunks on the bus. [laughs] I think we are officially out of bunks on the bus until we can move up to another bus. So that’s why the cap’s been at 12.
The Allman Brothers have a storied tradition of legendary shows in New Orleans. Clearly, Tedeschi Trucks is starting to match that legacy. Do you have a certain sense when you come to play New Orleans that it’s a different scenario from other tour stops?
New Orleans is a unique city in the world. It’s got its own energy. It’s one of the few places in the United States that, if you were just dropped off in the city, you’d know where you were. You know it when you’re in New Orleans. It seems that, in this day and age, a lot of places are starting to look and feel the same across the country, but New Orleans is certainly not that. Obviously, as a musician you know a lot of the musical history of the place, and you know that a lot of the music that we play was birthed there. So, there’s always that heightened awareness when you play New Orleans.
And over the years you start building and having great shows yourself, so then you feel and remember some of those, too. Some of the Jazz Fest shows, some of the late-night Tipitina’s shows. I remember playing with Michael Ray, from Sun Ra’s band, and with Col. Bruce Hampton at Tipitina’s. It must have been ’92 or ’93, because the Braves were playing the Blue Jays in the World Series; I remember hanging with Col. Bruce Hampton backstage and for years he would talk about that gig and about Joe Carter’s home run in that game.
There are a lot touchstone moments that happened in New Orleans for me growing up as a kid. I remember the first time running into Dickey Betts after he was ousted from his own band—it was at Tipitina’s and we had a great hang. I have a lot of history with that place. It seems like Red Rocks is that way, and playing New York City, the Beacon Theatre, is that way, and certainly New Orleans, no matter the venue, is that way. Where you want to give it that extra ‘oomph’—whatever that is. And you have to remind band members, if you are there for more than one night, that you have to get to bed before the sun rises. [laughs] There are certain things that go along with playing New Orleans.
The last time y’all played New Orleans was Jazz Fest in 2016 and I remember the last number was a cover, Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help from my Friends.” How do y’all select the covers that you play?
When we did the Joe Cocker tunes, we had just done this show at Lockn’—this festival in Virginia—that was a Mad Dogs & Englishmen tribute. We had Leon Russell on board and I think a dozen members of that original Joe Cocker band. We had learned a whole night of that music for the gig. We were paying with Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Chris Stainton—who I played with in Clapton’s band—all these badasses. Chuck Blackwell. When we were playing that music, there were a few tunes that felt so good, that were so fun to play, that we kind of rolled them into our show off and on for a year or two. So at that Jazz Fest, we were just coming off of that.
And Leon passed not long after we did that gig with him. So you’re thinking about those people, too. When we do a song like ‘A Song for You,’ that’s a Leon Russell tune, so that’s who we’re thinking of there. Occasionally there’s a tune you play just because you love it—you’ve always loved the tune and you’ve always wanted to go at it. But the covers we do, generally there’s a connection to the band, whether it’s personal or some band you played with or a direct emotional connection.
The past year—for you personally and the scene that surrounds you—has definitely been tough with the deaths of your uncle [Butch Trucks], Gregg Allman and Col. Bruce Hampton. How has that affected you?
It’s been a tough year, man. We lost some of our biggest mentors, personally and musically. For me and my siblings growing up, my uncle is larger than life. And Gregg was this mythical figure that I didn’t really know until I started touring and playing with him. These were major figures for us.
When I met Bruce, I was around 12 years old. He really became a part of our family and us a part of his. Bruce was a tough one. It’s still hard to wrap your head around all of it. It puts things in clearer perspective in certain ways—you realize it’s on us a little bit more now to keep things rolling. To keep those figures in people’s minds. You’re sort of groomed to do it in a lot of ways.
Growing up playing with Bruce, he’s constantly trying to prepare you for any type of loss at any time. That’s kind of his MO: ‘What would you do if this happened? And what would you do if this happened?’ He’d throw out some of the most unthinkable scenarios. So when he passed—which was right in front of us [on stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theater on May 1]—you’re not sure how to process something like that. But you have to keep moving on and realize that you’re lucky to know people like that when they’re here.
In some ways, it makes the job we do maybe a little weightier. Where you feel like you need to be out there doing it. And it’s also a great release to get on stage and play. That’s where some of our best connections with these guys were, musically on stage, so it feels good to get out there and play. Sometimes you’ll play tunes you played with them; sometimes you’ll play their tunes. It helps you sort through it.
But it’s been a hell of a year, that’s for sure.
So is it fair to say that there an actual sense of the torch being passed? Of you now being a torchbearer?
I guess so, in some sense. We were definitely disciples of those guys. So, yeah. And not for nothing—there’s a lot of shitty music out there. A lot of people with shitty intentions. A lot of people playing music for the exact wrong reasons.
So I do think it makes you hone in on that a little bit more, to make sure your intention is right and to make sure you are spreading music to people in the right way and for the right reasons. It is definitely something you think about.
What inspires you?
It’s a lot of the things we’ve been talking about. Growing up with Bruce, he was always turning you on to music at the right time. I remember he turned me on to different classical Indian musicians when I was of a certain age. I remember he bought me John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme when I was in my teens. He was like, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready yet?’ [laughs] ‘I don’t know, Bruce!’ He’d always drop a record on you, or a book on you, and it was always things that would keep your mind wide open, things to keep your senses wide open.
I think with all of our favorite musicians, you’re constantly trying to follow what does move you. Sometimes it’s elusive. But to simplify it, it does come down to, when you hear something with pure intentions, it hits you in a certain way and it feels a certain way. Those are the things that you’re after.
I have two kids that are teenagers now—which is insane. Trying to keep them on the right path and spending time with them, those are things that keep you lit up. Being in a band like ours, being able to play every night next to someone like Kofi Burbridge—he’s healing up from some heart stuff right now, but he’ll be back on—and play with the rhythm section that we have, and getting to hear Susan sing every night, those are the things that keep you moving.
Tedeschi Trucks Band performs at the Saenger Theatre on Saturday, September 16.