The classic first question is how you got started on the guitar?
I can remember being 9 or 10 years old and hearing that guitar lick in the Beatles song “Got to Get You into My Life.” Something magic clicked in my head that drew me to the guitar. Then I heard more Beatles stuff, Stones, and Hendrix. Later, I really got into the Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Magic Sam, [Paul] Butterfield Blues Band.
Your style melds many types of music: blues, rock, country and jazz. Where does that mix come from?
When I was 15, a guitar teacher who was a jazz guy, turned me on to Wes Montgomery. Louisville was kind of a pass-through point for the jazz musicians working the chitlin’ circuit. Also, Jimmy Raney lived in Louisville. I actually took a lesson from him once—he gave me a lot of confidence.
Growing up in Louisville, we had a big bluegrass festival every summer, and I got to hear Doc Watson and Norman Blake. I can’t point to anything that I play and say, “I learned that from Norman Blake,” but there were things like the way he does doublestops and rolls, and the way he phrases that sounded musical to me. Touring with the Dixie Chicks in 2003, right after they had done their bluegrass record, I had the chance to work with some guys that were for-real bluegrass players, and I learned so much from them. I just combined all of those things into a blend that appealed to me.
I hear a jazz influence in the way you don’t always start your solos right away. You might let a bar or two pass.
I never thought of that coming from a jazz thing, but the older I get the more I value space—not only in music but in all aspects of life. Whether having a conversation with somebody, or just thinking about something, it is important not to run all your thoughts together. In music, the space is really as important as the notes. I listen to some of my stuff from twenty years ago and I appreciate the testosterone, but there are some cringe moments too.
That’s interesting, because your playing on Liberty Lunch back then seems pretty mature.
That was from the years I spent working with Joe [Ely]. He understood the value of space in the pacing of a show. Within 15 minutes we would play a ballad that came down to a whisper, then a rocker that just leveled the place. Playing all those gigs with an empathetic leader and a great band taught me things that you don’t learn in a book.
When did you start playing country licks with a distorted sound?
The minute I got to Austin I started doing much more of that. Before I ever joined the band, I listened to the Joe Ely records where Lloyd Maines played the overdriven pedal-steel guitar. I loved that sound. There was no pedal-steel in the band when I joined, so it made sense for me to cover some of those textures and licks. While I was still in high school, I had heard the Dave Edmunds record with Albert Lee playing a solo on “Sweet Little Lisa.” I didn’t know there was a B-string bender on his guitar, so I learned to play that solo by bending the strings—in some cases with my first finger—to try to approximate those pedal-steel bends. Then I got the Paul Reed Smith and Marshall within six months of joining his [Ely’s] band, and that led me to a style that I still draw on today.
What were you playing before the PRS?
I had one electric guitar, a 1960 Fiesta Red Stratocaster. We were playing barrooms and it was hotter than hell—I would be soaking wet at the end of every gig. I remember watching the Fiesta Red just come off the guitar onto my white shirt. I didn’t realize how much the guitar would eventually be worth. When I think back, it is hilarious that I was literally wiping the paint off the guitar.
That guitar was Dakota Red originally, but at the factory they put Fiesta over the top. I didn’t know any of that stuff until I got to Austin where I met Danny Thorpe, who started the Greater Southwest Vintage Guitar Show with Charley Wirz. He said, “I used to have one of these guitars, this is absolutely original.” Six months later, at my first rehearsal with Lucinda Williams, we were in the room next to Stevie Ray Vaughan. He had a bunch of Strats up on a stand and he had the exact same Fiesta Red with Dakota underneath. Apparently it was not uncommon for them to shoot Fiesta over Dakota. The back of mine is pretty battle-scarred—where you put your arm over the top you see more of the Dakota than the Fiesta. I’ve still got the guitar. I tried to sell it a couple of times, but my wife wouldn’t let me.