Derek Trucks: Moving Forward, Back Where He Started

Alan Bryson By

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Derek TrucksOver the past few years guitarist Derek Trucks has been on the cover of Down Beat and Rolling Stone; he's been profiled in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal; he's toured with Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana; he's guested on recordings with J.J. Cale, Elvin Bishop, Buddy Guy, David Sanborn and Nashville dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas; and he's done a DVD with McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. A child prodigy, he joined Bob Dylan on stage when he was 12 years old. Now at 29, he's been on the road for nearly 20 years, the last 10 as a lead and slide guitarist with The Allman Brothers Band.

In his mid-teens he formed The Derek Trucks Band, which he has continued to lead in addition to his work with The Allman Brothers Band. They've toured constantly, patiently paying their dues in small venues and building a loyal and enthusiastic fan base. Their hard work paid off; in 2008 they performed on the main stage of the Monterey Jazz Festival and in January, 2009 they had the honor of performing at American President Obama's Southern Inaugural Ball.

While all this was happening, he and his wife, Susan Tedeschi, (a Grammy-nominated blues singer and guitarist), became the proud parents of two children. Despite the whirlwind life he leads, Derek Trucks projects an unflappably calm. Nor has being named a guitar god by Rolling Stone gone to his head. In fact, his modesty, near complete disregard for fashion, low-keyed stage presence, and seemingly perpetual good mood appear to have more in common with Buddha than a guitar god.

Throughout his career he's been committed to touring and live music, but now he's shifted some of his focus back to where he started: Jacksonville, Florida. His decision to build a world class studio in his backyard signals the beginning of a new and highly creative chapter in his career as he explores the art of making records.

Chapter Index
  1. Already Free, His Band and Recording Studio
  2. Eric Clapton
  3. Branford and Wynton Marsalis
  4. Carlos Santana
  5. McCoy Tyner and John Synder
  6. Crossroads: Tal Wilkenfeld and Johnny Winter
  7. The Allman Brothers, Chuck Leavell and Barbara Dennerlein
  8. Meeting President Obama
  9. What if?

Already Free, His Band and Recording Studio

All About Jazz: On your latest release, Already Free (Columbia, 2009), you made your debut as producer, and this is arguably more of a group recording than anything you've ever done. Although there's plenty of guitar on this album, it's very much an album of vocals. It seems like you were able to step back and almost see yourself as a session player, is there any truth to that?

Derek Trucks: Yeah I really enjoyed the whole process of having the studio in the back yard. Going out there with no preconceived notions of what we were going to do, writing songs every day and just starting from nothing and ending up with a fresh tune that evening—and you know trying to serve the tune. That was the idea when we started working on this record, and I've got to say it's been much more rewarding than anything I've been a part of.

I felt the attention to detail was so much more prevalent, it felt really good, and this was the first time I've ever been able to listen to a record, two, three of four months after it's finished and I've still felt like there's not a lot I would change on it. Every other record, especially the ones we would do live in the studio in one take, it would always feel good goin' down, and I'd go back and there was always stuff I'd want to go back and re-hit before the record was released. But with this one, I felt more comfortable with it because we did take our time and live with it a little while before we settled on it. It's a little bit of a departure from what we've done before, but to me it's just more of a natural evolution of the band and getting more and more comfortable in the studio with the whole recording process.

AAJ: Already Free reminds me very much of the golden years of rock in the late '60s and early '70s, when label presidents like Clive Davis allowed artists to take full advantage of the studio and develop their artist vision. The material has such a cohesive vibe and so many layers of sound. It's the first one of yours where I've had the impulse to listen to it four or five times in a row, and with each play I discovered some new detail. Were you inspired by that era when planning and producing this CD?

Derek TrucksDT: Definitely, you know when we built the studio we started acquiring old vintage gear, the got the recording console from The Kinks' studio that was in London for 25 or 30 years, so we were very much thinking of that era of recording when people really did take time to make records. They were making albums and focusing all the way in it, it wasn't overly compressed to fit the radio, and people were really striving to make lasting records. I was listening to a lot of the Sly Stone records, you know, his first three or four records, different Beatles records, different Hendrix records, even The Allman Brothers' Eat a Peach (Capricorn, 1972) and thinking more about how those records felt. That was kind of the mind set when we were making this album.

AAJ: Doyle (Bramhall II) is such an excellent fit with your band and his presence takes things in a new and interesting direction. His tracks remind me of that coming together of talent in groups like Moby Grape, Blind Faith, and Buffalo Springfield. I get the sense you two are very compatible musically, it seems like in another era you guys might have joined forces?

DT: You know we've actually talked about it. We have that band with my wife, Soul Stew Revival, and we talked about just makin' that band crazy over the top, just bringing people out, and I would love to have Doyle on the road with that band.

AAJ: Kind of like Delaney and Bonnie of the new millennium.

DT: Exactly, or Mad Dogs and Englishmen, you know, one of those over the top touring groups and you know having three great singers, Mike (Mattison), Susan (Tedeschi) and Doyle would be pretty unstoppable I think. We have a horn section in that band and I think it would be fun to get one or two strong background vocalists. I don't think those things have really been done in a while and I think it's time for it.

AAJ: That's an exciting thought, and I think that would allow you to better recreate on stage what you're doing in the studio.

DT: Yeah that's for sure, and you know the other thing we've been thinking about is how enjoyable it was to make this record. And I don't want to say easy, because there was a lot of time and energy put into it, but there weren't a lot of roadblocks once we started making it. It all happened very naturally and you know it just felt good doing it and we're all excited to get back in and just kind of continue it.

Whether it's writing tunes for Susan's record, Mike Mattison's record, Doyle's or ours, or some combination of all of them, I think when you have a studio like that it doesn't really matter, you just head out there and start throwing stuff against the wall. I think about the Muscle Shoals model, and Stax and Motown and all these old record houses where they were just a group of musicians who knew each other very well. They knew the sounds and they would just turn stuff out, and I'd like to almost get in that mindset. Not with the intention of releasing everything, but piling stuff up. When you do that, mediocre songs that would normally make it to a record get weeded out, and all the good stuff floats to the top.

AAJ: Miles Davis liked to have people in his bands with different vibes, for example, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. That clash of ideas or style often resulted in a spark. Cannonball did something similar with his band by having Yusef Lateef and Joe Zawinul. Who in your band is closest to you in terms of musical tastes, and who pulls you the most in a different direction?

DT: In my group I think the closest in taste would be Mike, and I think the person who probably stretches it the most is probably Kofi Burbridge, or Count M'Buto. I think because Kofi grew up in the classical world, he's got a lot of stuff he listens to that's new to me. All the guys came up in that fusion era too, they're well versed in that music, and it wasn't until later on that I really dug into that. We have a pretty wide variety of eras and backgrounds in this band, let's see, I'm in my twenties and we've got guys in their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties—we've got almost all the decades covered—it's pretty wild.

AAJ: In Dylan's biography he wrote, "There are lots of places I like, but I like New Orleans better." Already Free has a swampy feel of the deep South to it and Dylan's "Down in the Flood" is a perfect fit. Did the shock of Katrina and what happened to New Orleans have an impact on the direction of this CD?

Derek Trucks Derek Trucks and Mike Mattison

DT: When anything that major happens, especially when it happens to the musical community, I think all musicians who were sensitive to that were pretty shocked and devastated by what happened. On my wife's new record, Back to the River (Verve, 2008), she wrote a few tunes that were about Katrina. "Seven Hundred Houses" which I think is one of the better tunes on that record, is specifically about Katrina. So it was definitely on everybody's mind, so when we started thinking about that track "Down in the Flood," whether it's "Crash on the Levee" or "Down in the Flood," the first image that comes to mind now is New Orleans.

AAJ: It seemed like a full circle moment when I read that you did the final mix of Already Free at Electric Ladyland. One could argue that Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" might have been the greatest Dylan cover of all time. Beyond guitar playing, Jimi Hendrix was so creative in the studio, even Dylan was knocked out by what he did with that song. Putting your producer hat on, what's your take on the opening of "All Along the Watchtower" in particular, and Hendrix in the studio in general?

DT: You know for me, after working with Jay Joyce, the producer on Songlines (Columbia,2006), it really opened up my head to the art of producing and the art of making records, as opposed to playing live which was my sole focus up to that point. So with that hat on, and thinking along those lines, those Hendrix records are all the more impressive to me. He was the one in that generation, I mean there were a few guys making great records, but Hendrix was really the one who took that model, with the experimentation you could do in the studio, and really made it fine art. Some of the shit is really over the top, and he's really stretching the technology as far as it could go, it's hi-fi it's low-fi, it's comic book, it's classic melodies. And with a tune like "All Along the Watchtower" and what he does with a lot of tunes he plays, he takes a great song and he makes it epic. He makes it an anthem.

Our guitar tech, Bobby Tis, was a huge help in building our studio. His father (Bobby Tis Sn.) was the chief engineer at the Electric Lady Studios for 13 years, and he drew up the blueprints and transformed it from a rehearsal room to a world class studio. So it just seemed natural to go to Hendrix's old apartment and old studio and mix it. He's been such an influence, and the fact that Bobby Tis worked at Electric Lady—so from our home studio to his home studio to finish it off, that was definitely part of the thinking—I like when you can tie those loose ends together. And it adds to the myth of a record too.

AAJ: You don't sing on stage, but I'm curious if you find it useful to sing when you are writing songs?

DT: Yeah a little bit. I can do it with a slide and play a melody I'm hearing, but when you're writing lyrics it's definitely helpful to sing it out. With some of these tunes like "Maybe This Time," the track was finished, it was one of the tunes I wrote in the studio, but I couldn't quite settle on a vocal melody so I played the track for Doyle with all of the vocal ideas out of it, just a bare track, and had him just sing down vocal ideas onto the track, and he was just kind of singing phonetically to the song, and I went back and listened to that, and wrote lyrics to his melodies, so there's different ways to do it.

AAJ: When we think of singers like Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, or even Johnny Cash, it's clear that a compelling vocal isn't limited to those born with great range and power, like Susan. Now that you have your own studio where you can experiment in private, is it possible we might someday hear you on a vocal?

DT: [Laughing] You never know, I might do a few records and then wait till I'm gone and then release it.




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