Slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth returns with a new album showing his acoustic roots while simultaneously re-issuing a classic. Acoustic caught up with the legend
Words: Julian Piper Photos: Lucias Fontenot
“Well it’s hot and there’s no mercy from the mosquitoes – so all is as usual,” Sonny Landreth chuckles from his home near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. It’s a small Cajun town, perched on the edge of the vast Atchafalaya river basin; a maze of alligator infested swamps, flooded cypress bayous and willow trees, stretching unbroken 40 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Like a demented concrete stick insect, the I-10 Interstate – inspiration for his recently reissued album South Of The I-10 – strides on 30-foot-tall stilts, across this watery wasteland for more than 20 miles.
Sonny was born in Canton, Mississippi – ironically home of blues slide master Elmore James – but his family moved to Lafayette, when he was just seven-years-old. Brought up in the Cajun heartland, he’s always been exposed to an incredible musical melting pot. The music of Sonny Landreth is as Louisiana as crawfish etouffee or red beans and rice.
“Forget all the commercial stuff, the reality is that if you want to experience the authentic vibe, it’s still all here – Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, blues. All you got to do is get on Highway 190 and drive fifteen minutes in any direction, and you’re in the thick of it,” he says.
Sonny’s sensational slide guitar technique got started when he was first playing in the band of Zydeco king Clifton Chenier. “I’d first heard Clifton playing in a small club out in New Iberia called Leo’s Rendezvous. I was about 16 years old; I’d already heard B.B. King playing there with just a small band. But when I heard about this guy that played blues on an accordion, I thought ‘’I’ve got to check this out’. It really blew my mind; I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.
“A couple of years later I was working with a local band at a Creole bar, which just happened to be one of Clifton’s favourite neighbourhood haunts, a place he liked to hang out when he wasn’t on the road. Clifton and his entourage came in, and as it turned out, his table was set up right against my speaker cabinet – so he got plenty of me that night.
“About a week later he asked me to play in New Orleans and that’s where he asked me to join the band. They were great days,’’ Sonny enthuses. “We’d leave for a gig early in the day and call on some friends of his where they’d cook all day; it would be like a party before the party in the night,” Sonny laughs. “I had a real strong sense of connection with the culture. It was a tremendous experience that I’ll take with me for the rest of my days.’’
In 1987, Sonny and his band hooked up with John Hiatt, whose Bring The Family album featuring Ry Cooder had met with astounding critical success, elevating Hiatt’s song writing to a world stage. The band toured for a year, Cooder’s absence onstage inevitably drawing attention to the complete unknown faced with the daunting task of recreating some of Ry’s finest recorded moments.
“John really opened up the doors for me because for the first time there was a lot of attention paid to the band as the Goners; we suddenly went from playing in bars to international stages all around Europe. But a lot of people showed up thinking, ‘who’s he going to have in place of Ry Cooder?’.
“We played Anaheim, Los Angeles; we’d been on the road all year and were burnt out, completely toast. We’re on the way to the stage when John mentions ‘by the way, Mr Cooder and Jim Keltner have requested tickets’. I thought ‘that’s great’ but it didn’t dawn on me until we were counting off ‘Lipstick Sunset’ that I thought ‘how can I even approach anything Ry did on that song – it’s impossible’. So I navigated my own way. But to make matters worse I remembered that the very guitar I was using used to be Ry’s guitar, so I’m thinking ‘OK – this is interesting’.”
After a string of albums and sharing stages with legends like Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, it’s hard to think of anyone whose slide guitar playing rivals his mind-boggling technique. But now, after pushing the sonic envelope for slide guitar, more than anyone could have imagined, one side of Sonny’s new double album Recorded Live In Lafayette, finds him back to basics with a couple of acoustic Dobros.
“I wanted to do a retrospective thing with early songs from my career, so the format we took out on the road was to play an acoustic set, have a short break, then amp it up. I played a resonator guitar, my drummer played a cajon, snare and kick drum, Dave our bass player used a ukulele bass. I also brought in Steve Conn playing accordion and Sam Broussard on his parlour guitar, so it was a completely different approach. I grew up playing with those guys, we used to show each other licks in high school, and it was Sam that turned me onto Johnny Winter. They grew up with their own voices and licks, so it was a very cool thing; in a way it was like coming back to the neighbourhood.”
Although generally caught onstage with a Fender Stratocaster slung around his neck, Sonny is no stranger to using a Dobro; he bought his first in 1971. “I fell in love with the vocal quality of the slide, and the desire to try and emulate the human voice with an instrument. I started out on trumpet and I think that had a large part to play in forming my own style. With a trumpet you have to stop to draw breath and that affected my phrasing on the guitar. The lyrical quality is such a huge part of it and anyone who has ever tried to tackle Robert Johnson, and deconstruct what he did, will find it really humbling. I realised early on that I had an affinity for the slide. Focussing on it really helped me to crystallise my ability to play different styles and arrive at my own voice. But when I get in the studio, I still think how would Clifton Chenier do this, or Elmore James – these are always points of reference to me.”
Sonny Landreth’s album Recorded Live In Lafayette is out now on Mascot Records.
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