Sometimes an artist comes along who just plays…well…differently. They not only have their own voice, but they have a unique way of reaching deep down into their soul to drag that voice out. Such is the case with Sonny Landreth. The first thing most other guitarists say when they see him play is “how does he do that?” In truth, that’s usually the second thing they say as it typically follows a few expletives, wide eyes and shaking heads.
But for Sonny, it’s no big deal. It is just the way he plays the guitar. He started out playing like most of us do. As a matter of fact, this strange obsession started when he was just a kid from Mississippi. He says, “Elvis Presley was a big deal, and seeing his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show with the guitar, and especially Scotty Moore – I was hooked. My older brother and I had these little toy plastic Elvis guitars and we used to entertain family, trying to be Elvis.”
Of course, we all know that Sonny catapulted well past the chucka, chucka of Elvis tunes when he put that smooth slide on his finger. So how does one cross that bridge? Sonny tells me, “I started playing trumpet when I was 10, and then got my real guitar at 13. But it wasn’t until I was about 16 that I really got into the Delta Blues. I got the first Paul Butterfield album with Mike Bloomfield, and on the album next to his name, it said “slide guitar” and I didn’t even know what that was! I researched it the best I could. Back in those days we didn’t have all the resources like we do today. But that led me to the Delta Bluesmen and I just fell in love with the sound, it just captivated me.”
Sonny’s academic trumpet background led him to look for a guitar teacher when it was time to learn guitar. But after being forced to learn “Three Blind Mice” and other exciting tunes, like many a young discouraged guitar rebel, he lost interest. He started just listening to records and got a job working at the local music store. That was where an older kid asked Sonny if he had heard of Chet Atkins. According to Sonny, once he started digging into that, “It just blew my mind, cause he was playing melody, rhythm and bass lines at the same time. So once I learned how to apply that fingerstyle approach like Chet, that was when things really started happening for me in terms of finding my way on the guitar.”
A lot of players listen to some Delta Blues, slap a slide on their finger and play some cool stuff. However, Sonny has taken the slide to a completely different place, with unique techniques that push the boundaries of what one might think possible. Was that something he intentionally tried to do? Or did it just happen? “I started out playing guitar with a flatpick like everybody else, but the vocal quality and the lyrical aspect of slide playing really caught my ear. The fact that I was raised in south Louisiana where music was such a way of life in the Creole and Cajun culture; that I was taking trumpet in school and learning guitar on my own; all these different sounds helped shape what I did. Years later I realized that all my jazz heroes that I had on trumpet and my blues heroes I had on guitar were all seeking to emulate the human voice with their instrument.”
Finding his own voice on the guitar has certainly led Sonny down a path that most guitarists only dream of. He has played Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival every year! Was there a magical method to getting that gig? Nope. As is often the case, hard work + patience + networking + being ready, with a little luck thrown in gets it done. Sonny tells the story of how his collaboration with Clapton came about. “The interesting thing is I had a connection with Eric from way back even though we had never met. I hooked up with these English cats that were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma (believe it or not). They had started a record company in Tulsa and invited me up there, and that entailed using some of Eric’s band who were based out of Tulsa. This was around 1977, and we went up and recorded some songs, and we knew they would get played for Eric. Since I had this connection, I was home one day and just sat down with my resonator guitar, a metal body dobro, browneck style, and I just made a tape for Eric. Just Delta inspired solo stuff. I sent it to my friends in Tulsa and they got it to Eric through the band, and some years later I found out he still had that tape and was playing it for people.”
Just that would be enough for most guitarists – “Hey! Clapton is jamming out to my tunes!” But Sonny wanted to get to meet him so he went down to New Orleans when Eric was playing a show, but he says, “there was a misfire and my name wasn’t on the list, so I couldn’t get into the concert.” That, at least, makes us mortals feel better. Here is Sonny Landreth standing around outside the arena hoping to meet the man like everyone else. But fate would dangle another opportunity Sonny explains. “As they were leaving, I saw the drummer and told him I couldn’t get in. He said ‘Man, we are going down to hang out at the Acid Bar in the Quarter so come by.’ I went there and met the band. Eric was up at the bar, but I turned to say something to somebody, and when I turned around he had left, so I missed meeting him again! It wasn’t until years later that he invited me to play at the Crossroads Festival that I finally met him and we became good friends.”
That is a great lesson to be learned for all musicians…perseverance! Want to get a gig or meet someone? Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen right away. Sonny has some great advice about this. “I tell people, it may not be the way you have envisioned it, in fact often times it’s not. It’s something that happens indirectly. You could be at a gig in a little bar and you don’t think anything of it, but there might be somebody there who knows somebody else, who knows somebody else. You might do a session or sit in at a live gig and someone hears you. That’s how it happens. So you have to open yourself up to those opportunities.”
After this long and amazing career, what is there left to accomplish? Is there anything still out there that Sonny would like to do? “I never want to miss out on any opportunities! There are a ton of people out there I would like to work with. Looking ahead I really want to do an acoustic album, get some of the Resonators and old Nationals out and go back to some of these songs that were more electric and interpret them acoustically. There is also something I am trying to accomplish in the electric world, and that is getting so that every note is so present and articulate in it’s definition in complex chords for slide. I think that is going to entail a special multi-band distortion. I’ve been hearing that in my head for a long time, so I am just trying to figure out the best way to do it.”
Can a player who is at Sonny’s level still find inspiration and encouragement to delve even deeper into their own playing to squeeze out anything that remains? Sonny thinks so, “The technical end can inspire the music and vice versa, because you develop techniques that you bring back into the music. That was one of the eye opening things about making my new album. Going back to some of the old blues tunes and realizing how different they seem now compared to when I first learned them. As time went by and I developed these new techniques, I brought them into these old songs, and then the songs would inform the techniques. So it’s kind of the beautiful dance.”
Sonny has that same fire as other great players who just keep playing. Their quest for finding and sharing a unique voice in their art is what makes them reach down into a place where nobody else can see anything there, and yet they come up with a handful of amazing notes and beats that keep us all smiling. It is indeed the beautiful dance.