Sonny walking into Harmony, Alabama looking for work and, hopefully, a spot to play his guitar.
John Sayles is a busy man with the release of his recent movie, Honeydripper. His 16th film explores the dynamic nature of the South in the 1950s, when people returning from the war discovered communities dealing with long-simmering conflicts over race and morality. The story is set in Harmony, Alabama, where Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) owns the Honeydripper Lounge. To bring larger crowds back into his bar, he is forced to transition from the boogie-woogie and blues music that once dominated popular culture to the newest trend in music: the guitar. Purvis barely puts together enough money to hire the famous Guitar Sam, a musician that gets the town thinking about the Honeydripper again, but when Sam doesn’t show, Purvis recruits the drifter and electric guitar-owning Sonny Blake (Gary Clarke, Jr.).

Sayles did a tremendous amount of homework for the film. The independent director, whose only for-hire work was for Bruce Springsteen, spoke with Premier Guitar about the guitars used in the movie, guitarists that inspired the film, directing guitarists Keb Mo’ and Clarke, Jr., and the role of music during times of change.

Bertha Mae Spivey (Dr. Mable John) and Metalmouth Sims (Arthur Lee Williams) playing to an empty room at the Honeydripper Lounge.
On your website you talk about using film to tell very important stories. Why did you tell a story about a guitar?
Honeydripperreally came out of this long relationship I have with American music. I have this feeling that we integrate, we move across racial and ethnic lines in music before anything else. Before people are really ready to look each other in the eye, they’re listening to each other. So music has been really important to American culture.

When I grew up, I listened to Top 40 radio and didn’t ask any questions. In my midteens I started realizing that rock n’ roll came from some place. That got me thinking about what it was for the players when that solidbody electric guitar showed up – that little bit of technology allowed the guitar player to take the stage from the piano guy. All of a sudden, you’ve got this guitar and more places are electrified because of Roosevelt’s TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority]. I think there was a feeling on the part of musicians about, “This whole thing is going to change really fast,” and, “Can I get onboard or do I get left behind?” I think that’s interesting to think about – what happens when people realize there’s something threatening about this change.

Exactly. There is a scene where Glover is downtown and he is starting to put everything together with Guitar Sam. The guitar comes in and you see that Glover is exhausted; he’s contemplating what’s going on.
Yeah, I think what it is – he’s 50-something in 1950; he’s grown up with the music. He was there for all that New Orleans jazz, the Ma Rainey era in the thirties and the swing era in the forties, and now he’s playing boogie-woogie piano; but can he really make this next big leap? A lot of people – like the jazz guys – just wandered away. Other people figured, “I can play this stuff – it’s not much harder than what I’m already playing. Do kids want to see a 45- year-old piano player?”

And is it professionally? Certainly people can always play music – they played folk and didn’t get paid for years, but if you’re a professional, what do you do? Do you play stuff you don’t like? Robert Johnson probably sat on a street corner and sang “White Christmas” at some point because it was just whatever the people paying wanted to hear. But does it feed you? For [Glover], the music has meant something to him – but is he willing to follow it to this new place?

Going with that younger crowd, what was it like working with Gary Clarke, Jr., who hasn’t acted before? What was it like working with him and the other musicians who aren’t used to acting?
With Gary, we read him and he was a little shy, but it was like, “Oh god, he can act.” He actually listens and does those great things you want people to do when they’re onstage and in the movies. The hardest thing was to get him to be a showy player, because he’s just not a show-off onstage. He does it all with his fingers. In the fifties you had, I think starting with T. Bone Walker who was like a flash dancer before he was a guitar player, this tradition of guys doing acrobatics onstage and being showmen. I needed a little bit of that from Gary.

I really needed the input of those musicians. It was important to me that the music feel live and as much of it be live as possible. With Keb Mo’, I said, “I want you to go and write your character’s arrangement of ‘Stagger Lee.’” He’s kind of a student of the blues and he came in with a guitar that he bought and said, “Well, Possum only plays in G, so here it is.” And it was great. It sounded exactly like what those guys would have played on a street corner.