Every so once in awhile there is a rare presence that a concert-goer comes in contact with. Familiar, yet foreign. Simple, yet grand. Captivating and mystifying, but ultimately all up in it. Derek Trucks is that: the kind of musician who has a Zen-like, effortless mastery about him that is just as graceful as it is flat-out nasty. He is slide royalty: a guitarist that comes along once in a generation. One who has a patience and an omnipresence onstage, further embodying how the instrument is an extension of one’s inner truth. With an all-embracing approach that is informed just as much by the likes of Ali Akbar Khan and Miles Davis as it is Elmore James. At just 34 years of age, Trucks has already supplanted himself among the most elite of company. In fact, Rolling Stone has ordained him #16 among the 100 greatest guitar gods of all-time. A warrior of the road, he has thousands of shows under his belt between The Derek Trucks Band, which he formed at the age of 15 and The Allman Brothers Band, who tabbed him to join their illustrious ranks only four years later. And even though Gregg Allman has made allusions to him being the reincarnation of brother Duane, who practically wrote the New Testament on slide guitar, Trucks is indeed a stand-alone in his own right. It is this level of respectability that has afforded him the opportunity to either sit in or collaborate with legends of Americana such as Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and McCoy Tyner. Not to mention the tour he accompanied Eric Clapton as a featured soloist. But even with a resume that is already circling the cosmos, it is his current project, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, with wife and soulful siren Susan Tedeschi, that is his most stimulating and challenging undertaking to date. Although joining hands in 2001, the couple’s musical journeys finally were able to converge at a crossroads almost a decade later. The two carefully constructed an 11-piece armada of talent which has fused members from both of their solo projects as well as bringing in newcomers. With a homemade studio in Jacksonville, Trucks and Tedeschi have broken free from the shackles of conventional recording regimens, enabling them to meticulously cultivate and shape two studio albums. Essentially giving them carte blanche to build a distinctive sound from the ground up. Their debut effort, Revelator, was met with much acclaim, taking home the Grammy for “Best Blues Album.” Now with the summer release of their latest album, Made Up Mind, TTB is firing on all cylinders and ready to further stake their claim as a blues-rock tour de force. I recently spoke with Derek about being a purist, what touring with the Allman Brothers has taught him and how he strikes a balance with Susan between their marriage and the demands of playing together in a band.
MC: You started playing at age 9. Whether it was the first time you picked up a guitar or had a unique interaction, when did you have that "it" moment? That epiphany that said, "This is going to be my life!”
Derek Trucks: You know, it was a feel. You have a feeling that you really have never had before. There are sounds that you have heard and you can somehow conjure them with an instrument in your hands. Shit, the first electric guitar I got, the first amp you get – there are those moments. I think the first time I picked up a slide guitar I had definitely been listening to a lot of the early Duane Allman stuff, the Allman Brothers and also Elmore James. And the sound of a slide was really intriguing to me. So the first time I could make those sounds with an instrument was one of the big moments. And then I remember a few years into playing, you'll have a moment on stage where it's surreal. You're almost watching yourself play. Those happen every once in awhile. It still happens. There are still things that happen that remind you why you do it.
MC: You are a purist when it comes to playing. You don’t believe in having to rely on a slew of pedals and effects to bring your sound to life. What inspired this quest for such a pure tone on the guitar?
Derek Trucks: You know, I'm not even sure where that originally came from. Growing up, there was a music scene here in Jacksonville. There was a small blues scene with guys that were 35 to 40 years old. A lot of them would just plug into old amps and would get a great sound. And there were certain guys that just had a tone. They just had a thing and it wasn't effects. I would just always be drawn to that sound. And when you listen to your favorite guitar players, whether it's Albert King or Freddie King or Duane Allman, you just know that it's a great amplifier and a great guitar in the right hands and that's that - there's just nothing more to it. You know, there was Duane plugged into a Marshall or two Marshalls cranked up. For me, those were the sounds I was after. And the people I heard that were running through a lot of effects, it felt like an approximation of that. I felt like they're maybe trying too hard (laughs). There are definitely some people that are able to use that to great effect. But for me, I wanted to hear the wood in the guitar and I wanted to hear the amp and that's it. I guess it helped me focus on the instrument more than the gear - because you just plug in and go. So all of your focus is on what's in front of you and not tweaking your amp or all this other shit that takes away from that.
MC: Your path in life up to this time could be described as unusual to say the least. By age 13 you had gone on tour with The Allman Brothers Band and played with the legendary Buddy Guy. What have been some of the most eye-opening experiences for you up to this day that have not only informed your style onstage but your education as a person?
Derek Trucks: I mean, since I've been playing with the Allman Brothers, there have been so many changes. I guess the last handful of years it's kind of settled into something. When I first joined, it was Dickey Betts and I on guitar. And then not long after that, the thing went down with Dickey. I was 20 years old and had been in The Allman Brothers Band for about a year and then I found out I'm the only guitar player in the band! (laughs) So a lot of it was just trial by fire. You just got to make it work. Even if you don't know it, you are shouldering a lot of weight, a lot of expectations. So much of it is learning how to deal with that stuff. And then realizing how amazing of an opportunity that it is. I mean, I grew up listening to it, but really on the outside I wasn't near it. And so to get the call at 19 to join the band was pretty humbling. And getting to spend time with Dickey in that version of the band on the road was pretty amazing because it's been a roller coaster ride and there have been a lot of musical ups and downs.
MC: Right, there was just as much baggage as there was brilliance within that band.
Derek Trucks: Yes, but Dickey’s overall vision and the way he drove that band was definitely something I learned from. I wasn't around to see the version with Duane, but you could definitely feel it with Dickey and the way that the drummers played together. There was a certain sense of no matter what goes on, you're going to make it happen. There's a certain peak and a certain moment that you're after. And you just kind of charge until you get there. There is a fearlessness in that. And there would be nights where he would get on it. I've seen him do solos that were as good as anything that I've ever witnessed. So those were good things to be onstage for. I feel like, at any point in your life, especially when you're young and growing, anytime you see something great or see something that expands the possibilities - that's always there with you. You always know how good it can be, how far it can go and that's what you strive for. You know, it kind of changes the bottom line. I feel like that's what you're constantly after. Just finding the things that change the bottom line. And you know, certain musicians do that. For electric slide guitar, there was Elmore James. After he came along, it was forever changed - that was the bottom line. And then Duane comes along and you're like, "Wow, you can do that with it?" (laughs) And then there was Hendrix. You know, before Hendrix there were a lot of people that did some of those things. But the way he put it all together and the way he did it just made people hear the instrument differently. And it makes you hear music differently. And I think that as much of that you can see, get in front of and really take in, it changes the way you are as a player. That’s what we're all after.
MC: All in all, you and Susan have been together for almost 15 years now and have been the core of a band for 3 of those years. Trying to be as objective as possible, lets just say for the sake of this question you are not looking at Susan as your wife, but strictly as a fellow musician. Out of all the people that you have ever played with (and you have played with some huge names) what is it about playing in a band with Susan that sets her apart from anyone you have ever played with previously?
Derek Trucks: I remember when I first heard Susan sing and when I first saw her perform. She really is one of the great voices of our time. She has one of the great instruments and she knows how to use it. And it’s exciting to be in a band with that. I feel like in our loose circle, there's kind of a “jamband” world or whatever it is. But we're not fully a part of any of them. They let us in a little bit, but you want to blaze your own path. I feel like there are bands that have the musicianship and then usually it's maybe lacking a great voice. I feel like being able to be in this band with Susan, you kind of have it all. I think it's what separated the Allman Brothers from a lot of other groups. You have this band that can just play with anybody. And then you have one of the great voices of the time. It's a really unique position to be in. Susan can get onstage with any living blues or soul great and feel right at home. I've seen her get onstage with some of the all-time giants and just completely, not only hold her own, but shine. Whether it's B.B. King or Little Milton or Buddy Guy or whoever, they're just like "Yes! I don't know how you made it here, but you are from our time!" They are kindred spirits and that's a rare thing. And they accept her as one of their own. To be able to have a voice and an artist like that as a part of the band is a really unique thing. Because usually talents like that, it's a solo career and that's it. So I think that's part of what everyone in the band appreciates about this project. You realize that it's almost an embarrassment of musical riches (laughs).
MC: As far as playing with an ensemble of eleven, there are quite a few moving parts. How do you and Susan delegate/orchestrate the roles of each band member within the overall dynamic so that it can be the most fine tuned engine possible?
Derek Trucks: You know, it's a long process. A lot of it is just, it takes time. It takes hittin' the road and it takes playing shows. You kind of learn everyone's strengths and weaknesses and adjust all the time. I enjoy that process though. I enjoy the extra workload and I enjoy the challenge of trying to make an 11-piece band as nimble as a 5-piece group. But when it starts rollin' there's nothing quite like it. When you get that much talent heading in the same direction or even in different directions that are complimentary - it's a pretty amazing thing. I think it took a little while for us to fully hit our stride. The shows in the beginning were great for their own reasons, but I feel like the last handful of months and especially with the new record coming out, there's just a cohesion that the band has really never had before. Now I find I don't hit the stage with the mindset of trying to figure out what's going to make it better. I feel like right now things are in place where you can just trust the band to explore and you look forward to what it's going to find. The last few tours have been pretty amazing. I mean, there's been at least a half dozen moments every night where you just don't think about a thing. It just rolls, you know. There's so much talent on the stage that there are times where I can put my hand on my guitar, step back and just watch it (laughs).
MC: In terms of the overall band, what would you say are your strengths right now?
Derek Trucks: There are a lot of strengths. I don't know of another band that has a rhythm section like this. I mean, the way that J.J. and Tyler can play together is truly unique. And I'm saying that also being a part of the Allman Brothers who have two drummers that kind of wrote the book on that style. And what these guys do is definitely an evolution of that. So that's one big part of it. The other thing that this band has which is really unique is that there are four world-class vocalists onstage. Usually you’re lucky if you get one half of a world-class vocalist onstage (laughs). But between Susan, Mike, Mark and Saunders - it's pretty unbelievable. And I feel like we're just scratching the surface of what that can be. Then you just look around the stage and the horn section is just amazing. And I'd say that Kofi is one of the top 3 musicians that I've ever played with in any setting. Kofi is just a total badass. So there's a lot to be excited about when you're standing onstage with that kind of crew. It really makes you want to make the thing work. It makes you want to work towards something. It makes you want to write tunes and make great records and hopefully leave a mark with it.
MC: When it comes to your relationship with Susan, how do things fall in place? Whether things are good or bad with her, does that spill into your performances onstage? Does it influence the songwriting? Where do you draw the line with that?
Derek Trucks: You know, I bet it influences the songwriting. We probably only really get together and write about once or twice a year. And so in between those times there is a lot of "life" that has been lived (laughs). So probably a lot of the subject matter that comes up, whether conscious or not, is what you've gone through. When you’re married to somebody, usually you are going through things together. So that comes up. We never shy away from that. When we're writing it's all fair game. If it hits too close to home, then it’s kind of like "oh well." (laughs) As far as being on the road, once you hit the stage it's Switzerland - it's neutral ground. You don't bring anything to the stage. I mean, it's easier said than done. I think one of the reasons we waited so long to put a group together was to make sure we had matured enough together as people to be able to do that. And it's been so much easier than I thought it would be. It really has never come into play. If it has, it's been quick, mild and few and far between. But it's really not something we even have to worry about. I think we both respect the music in the band and what it's about enough to where you put whatever personal things you have going on aside when you hit the stage.
MC: On the same note, when things are going good and you are feeling the joys and highs of making music together, does it positively feed back into your relationship quite a bit off the stage?
Derek Trucks: Absolutely. Especially putting a band together like this from scratch. It's something that we conceived and brainstormed together. And you watch it through every step of the way when it really starts working and it's growing and successful. And it's musically doing what you want it to do. Whether you speak about it or not, there's a certain pride that you have to be able to do something like that together. It's very much like your family. When you're raising kids and their doing good in school or whatever they do. You're like, “Alright! We're raising our kids right. Things are going well!” It makes you feel like you're on the right track. Any positive reinforcement like that. Definitely being able to make music together and watch it really fly and really work. And it's easy to use that when things aren't going well to make you realize that, although there might be rough patches, all in all this is the way it should be. So there is an inevitability to it when you have kids with somebody and then you add a band to that. There's something that makes you feel like nothing is invincible - nothing is bulletproof with this. There's a sense of strength you get from that. You know, we can deal with just about any bullshit that comes our way (laughs).
MC: You started touring on a full-time basis with the Allmans at the age of 19. And speaking of bullshit, the Allman Brothers Band went through some pretty tumultuous times well before you joined them. What about being on the road with ABB (and the wisdom they imparted) warned you about the potential hazards of this lifestyle? With you and Susan being full-time musicians, how does having two children together factor into the life you have chosen to lead?
Derek Trucks: You know, I find a lot of times the lessons you learn from the guys from that generation are much less spoken and more observed. You kind of have to piece it together yourself (laughs). Not everybody is hyper self-aware. So a lot of people go through these things that maybe aren't fully aware of the storyline. It's something they lived through, but I don’t think they step back and really fully think about it often. It’s not that way with everybody, but I find that's usually the case. You kind of just have to live and learn man. One of the things that hit me really early on from being around a lot of touring musicians and a lot of guys from that era: if you're going to have kids and you're going to have a family, you really have to put a lot of time and energy into making both work. I've seen so many broken families and resentful kids where you can just tell that it was such a party in the 70's. They weren't taking care of home and they weren't taking care of what you got to do. I feel like the biggest lessons have been learning from the mistakes that people make. You don’t want to repeat it. Once your aware of it, it's unforgivable to repeat it. You really have to be overly sensitive to those things. It's still hard. We have to travel and we have to be away from our kids. But you know, if you're there, you have to be there not only physically, but you also have to be there mentally and emotionally. You got to be there for your kids at all times no matter what you're doing. You know, no matter what show, what album, whatever is going on, you have to be available at all times. And I think that's one of the lessons that I learned is that I know a lot of people that did not do that. And you don't get that time back. It happens quick. You notice it when your kids are little when you go away for a few months and you come back and you're like, "Where did that other kid go? This one has doubled in size!" (laughs) We think of all that stuff when we're booking shows, when we're planning every tour. You have to think about baseball games and birthdays and school. There's a lot of juggling that goes on that I don’t think the previous generation that we played with really factored in. So I feel like a lot of it is just life lessons. I feel the musical lessons you're going to learn yourself. And there's a lot of wisdom to soak up by just being around it. It's not easy to put into words and there are not a lot of good one-liners (laughs). You just keep your eyes and ears open. You know what moves you and you try to figure out what's the stimulus behind that. You don't want to copy what works. You want to figure out what propelled it. I think trying to get to the essence of it all is the point that we're all after.
MC: Where do you ultimately want to see TTB venture off to? Do you feel an inclination to eventually reconvene with The Derek Trucks Band or would you rather see TTB be it for you for the foreseeable future?
Derek Trucks: For me I really operate best when I'm focusing on a project and doing just that. I'm not thinking about other versions of it or anything else. You really do have to be all-in with what you're doing. I want to take this thing as far as we can take it musically. See what we can do with it. See how far we can dig in. I don't see a lot of ceilings. So I feel like as much energy as we can put into it we will get out of it. That's kind of where we are. As far as where you want to see it go, you kind of just have to roll with it. I'm not career goal-oriented (laughs). I kind of don't care. As long as we can make it work. You know, with an 11-piece band you have to think about what it takes to keep a band like this together. With the talent level in a band like this, it's not like everyone in the band is 18 or 20 years old and can just work for free and be on the road. These are people with families. So you think, "What do we have to do to make this thing work to where we can just focus on the music?" And we've been pretty fortunate that the momentum is carrying it pretty well right now. But I would love to be able to be in a position where we can make a record every year or two and hit the road and just focus on the musical end of it. I think we're really close. So there's a certain musicality and a certain feeling that music can only get through a band being together and playing together and living together and touring together. Where if you are constantly having to change it up personnel-wise, it's harder to achieve that or damn near impossible. I feel like almost all of the great records I listen to there is a collective of people. So really it's just about trying to keep that together.
MC: There is such a level of respect you have to hold for those in the band around you to make it fully function. With that in mind, what kind of discipline do you have to maintain in order not to slack in terms of your own personal standards?
Derek Trucks: It comes and goes. There are times where I feel like I'm pushing and I'm making it happen. There are other times where it plateaus for a bit. But I think that one of the other upsides of having a band like we have is that you constantly want to play something that makes somebody onstage excited. You're around people that have amazing ears and are amazing musicians. And you want to do something that gets them off at all times. I think just being in a band like this is that it constantly pushes you. I noticed that being on the road with Clapton and just seeing the way his career has gone, he always seems to put somebody in his band that pushes him. I think he's at his best, whether it was him playing with Duane or whoever, when he has thrown amazing players in his band. Because it keeps you on your toes. You're not going to be onstage with somebody that is just totally bringing it and then slack. If it gets to that point then you probably shouldn't be doing it anymore (laughs). When you're onstage with somebody that is just airing it out you tdon't want to be the only one onstage not carrying your weight. So I think just being around great musicians is enough if you have some pride. You know, you gotta care. It's a prerequisite.
MC: You’re already considered an all-time great in the pantheon of supremely gifted guitarists. How do you take that in stride and not let the high praise become a distraction? How does Derek Trucks stay focused and reach the next peak?
Derek Trucks: I don't pay attention to a lot of that stuff. There are so many things to deal with on a daily basis that I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. And then when I do hear it or run across a sentiment like that, it doesn't ring fully true or I don't take it to heart I guess (laughs). You know, it doesn't affect you fully. I mean, it's nice to be in the conversation sometimes. It makes you feel like you're on the right track. But I feel like, if anything, it's the danger of buying into it and then relaxing and not pressing. I feel like, as a musician and as a person you always have to be pushing to make it better. There are so many young musicians coming along. There are so many people that we play with. You see them playing, there's just a level of intensity to what they do and that's what you focus on - staying a part of that. I find if you're always comparing yourself to your all-time favorites, although maybe in a lot of ways it's unattainable, you’re always pushing forward. I think if you look at yourself and you're trying to compare sideways or down that's when people let their egos run away. When you're looking up to your heroes and that's what you're after, I think it's one of those things that is always elusive. It keeps you charging forward.
Derek Trucks – Guitar
Susan Tedeschi - Guitar & Vocals
Kofi Burbridge - Keyboards & Flute
Tyler Greenwell - Drums & Percussion
J.J. Johnson - Drums & Percussion
Mike Mattison - Harmony Vocals
Mark Rivers - Harmony Vocals
Kebbi Williams – Saxophone
Maurice Brown – Trumpet
Saunders Sermons – Trombone
The Tedeschi Trucks Band will be performing at Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Music Festival at 10:00 pm Friday night at the Main Stage. For more information, including a full list of tour dates, please visit the band's website. Tickets are still available for the festival and can be purchased online.
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- Matthew Cremer