Published On: Thu, Aug 31st, 2017

Grilled: Sonny Landreth

Slide king Sonny might be claimed by the blues scene, but as his epic new live album reminds us, country is a vital ingredient too.

Words by Henry Yates


Sonny Landreth

© Travis Gauthier


You pigeonhole Sonny Landreth at your peril. The Louisiana slide maestro’s latest album, Recorded Live In Lafayette, covers off almost 40 years of material, and as many musical genres. “I’ve never done an all-country album,” reflects the 66-year-old, “but it’s always been in there. I’ve played in country bands and sessions.

“I love the real country. I stayed with my grandparents during the summers, and they were into the Grand Ole Opry, so we’d listen to that on the radio. There’s so many of those cats, and when you first start out, it’s an endless well of music and the history behind it. I think some are going to resonate with you more than others…”

Q. Who was the one who started it all for you?
A.
I was amazed by Elvis Presley. I was just a kid when I first saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show. We were all watching the show, because by then, he’d captured the imagination of all the kids. Of course, Sullivan didn’t want all the hip-shaking, so [for the third appearance] they filmed him from the waist up – it’s pretty funny when you think about it.

Every now and then, they’d cut away to Scotty Moore, and that’s what really hooked me. The electric guitar that he played on the early Elvis sessions was the snake that bit me. For me the best Elvis period was the early Sun releases, y’know, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, all that. Back in the day, the traditionalists hated it, and it had a lot of negative reaction in the business. But Elvis stuck to his guns. When you think about it, it was very innovative, what they did with a small combo. All the songs on those sessions still stand up.

There were a lot of parents who got upset about Elvis’ performance on Ed Sullivan, but my parents were pretty cool about it.
They were always super-supportive. My mom wasn’t so keen on me quitting school, but as time went on, and it began to make sense, and she could see I was having success, she was all-in, big-time. They were some of my biggest fans, my parents.”

Q. Who was your teenage hero?
A.
My brother would buy Carl Perkins records, and I was struck by the intensity of his playing. His guitar was like his other voice, and it would offset his vocals, which I would later recognise in my blues heroes. He would sing a line, then play a riff. It was real clean, real tight and intense. He was real soulful, too, and there was a lot of humour in his lyrics. For me, it was different to what I would have called country music back then.

Q. Have you ever been starstruck?
A.
Meeting Chet was a huge thing for me. Him and Mark Knopfler were close friends and Mark’s publisher told me how, every Saturday, the pair would visit a chain of restaurants called the Cracker Barrel.

Chet loved those things… I think he actually had some kind of investment in it at one point. So they’d all meet up and go there on Saturdays, have a late breakfast.

I got invited to one of those. Chet came over and says: “You know, I’ve got your CD – you’re pretty good”. And that was good enough for me. We talked about all kinds of stuff. Chet liked to play golf, and my grandfather was a greenkeeper, and I grew up on a golf course, so he liked that. We also talked about snakes – I was raised in South Louisiana where there are snakes everywhere.
It was pretty funny, there I was talking about golf and snakes with Chet Atkins… at the Cracker Barrel!

Q Who’s given you the biggest help?
A.
John Hiatt introduced me and the guys on to the international stage. His album, Bring The Family [1987], was such a huge critics fave. It had been recorded with Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe, very spontaneously, in a few days, and people were wondering who would be able to play these songs live. Me and my band were in Austin, Texas, working on an album for Darden Smith, when the producer, Ray Benson, told me about John Hiatt needing a band and would I be interested?

Next thing I know, between takes, Ray walks out of the control room with the phone – this is before mobile phones, so he had to stretch the cord all the way out – and he’s got Hiatt on the line. John tells me he’s holding these auditions, and flies us to Nashville. We go to the audition and John says: ‘OK, how about Memphis In The Meantime?’ We kicked it off, played the song – and at the end, we’re all looking at one another, feeling the chemistry. He goes: ‘That’s it, cancel the auditions’.

That’s how that whole thing got started. We were on the road for years and made several albums together. One of my favourite things about working with John was to hear him working on songs in the next room – because we’d stay at these funky hotels where you’d hear everything through the walls. Next thing you know, we’re playing it at soundcheck, then we’re recording it on an album.

Q. Who’s your most famous close friend?
A.
I got to be good friends with Mark Knopfler in the 90s. He had heard Outward Bound and really dug it, and he came down to Louisiana when he was working on Golden Heart. He brought Kitty [Aldridge], his wife, and after working on songs in the studio, I was telling him about this little place down the river from where I live.

It’s traditional Cajun food and music, and people dance right there while you’re eating. They wanted to check that out, so I gave him and Kitty a ride in my big Oldsmobile, which was a hand-me-down from my parents, and the inspiration for the song The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile. Mark played guest guitar on my album South Of I-10. I was just blown away. His fingerstyle approach is so unique, and his tone and phrasing – it’s all in the hands. I love watching him play.

Mark is such a music fan, and he’s always listening, getting inspired and excited about an artist or a new type of music. That’s real natural for him, like falling off a log. Country is absolutely one of the strings to Mark Knopfler’s bow. He’s a huge fan. And he loves Nashville: he’s been in and out of there recording for many years.

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