Landreth soaked up the local culture in the seventies while playing with Clifton Chenier, the renowned zydeco king. Throughout this early period he was actively perfecting his playing style, one that was also coerced along by a devout interest in the method of Chet Atkins. His high regard for the music of contemporaries such as Scotty Moore, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix was matched with an inexhaustible desire to further his slide playing technique into unchartered territory. All of these attributes would later give way to the signature playing style of Sonny Landreth.
Guitarists throughout the world are awestruck when viewing the chordal and picking dexterity that transpires on either side of the glass. The slide, which is on his pinky finger, glides above the fretboard and along the strings; simultaneously, the other four fingers fret chords and notes to the left of it. And while the five fingers on the right hand pick, pluck and tap away, he concurrently utilizes a unique muting technique with his palms and his fingers. Both thumbs are utilized to the max throughout all of this. People who watch Landreth’s technique notice something new and extraordinary every time they’re in his presence.
Both South of I-10 and Levee Town, released in 1995 and 2000 respectively, contain some of the most incredible slide guitar work ever recorded. These Landreth albums are drenched in delta blues and zydeco flavors, a backdrop to a sound that’s both genuine and traditional. While inclusions such as “Love And Glory,” “Levee Town” and “Congo Square” (covered by names as diverse as John Mayall, Tom Principato, Kenny Neal and the Neville Brothers) went on to garner songwriter recognition, his adeptness for traditional blues ambiance is blatant on tracks like “Broken Hearted Road” and “Great Gulf Wind.”
Nevertheless, the rollicking instrumental, “Native Stepson,” has become an anthem for fans everywhere – the exclaimer of his existence to the unaware, as well. Instantly seizing the ears of music enthusiasts everywhere, the song heralded far and wide the talent of this burgeoning slide guitarist from Louisiana. Recorded live at the Grant Street Dancehall in Lafayette back in 2004, Grant Street is an amazing display of Landreth in a live setting where he creates an exhilarating atmosphere. An electrifying “Native Stepson” opens the set.
Looking outside his slide prowess – an act that’s sometimes hard to do – the fact shouldn’t be overlooked that he’s a great guitarist when playing conventionally, a fine vocalist and an accomplished composer and lyricist. Citing him as one of the most underrated musicians on the planet, as well as one of the most advanced, Eric Clapton chose Landreth to open his Crossroads festival in Chicago back in the summer of 2007. As anyone associated with Clapton, this incident assisted greatly in furthering Landreth’s notoriety. Finally, he has elevated to a level in which he’s able to call past and present idols his peers – some of which appear on his 2008 collaborative effort.
Sonny Landreth gets by with a little help from friends Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Vince Gill and more on From the Reach. It’s an amazing collaboration of sorts. Although Landreth composed the entire album, each song was written specifically for its special guest musician. The endeavor was such a success that one might think the guests wrote the songs instead of Sonny, primarily because the styles are so akin to their own.
It just goes to show the degree of admiration and respect he has for each friend and acquaintance on the album. One can easily sense elements of camaraderie and reverence radiate from the performances, along with an air of aptness – not in a competitive sense, but in a sanguine optimism in knowing that they’re among peers of distinction. It’s obvious that the music being made was exciting to even them. Clapton excels in his two efforts, as does Knopfler in the album’s opener, and those examples just scrape the surface. Importantly enough, Landreth shines throughout. Playing alongside him seems to have compelled each guest to stand out alongside Landreth – but then again, that’s what brilliant performers aspire to. The brilliance of performance is augmented when people of such caliber do it together, making the music all the more enjoyable to listen to.
We recently sat down with Sonny Landreth to talk about left and right hand playing techniques, the making of From the Reach and much more.
Sonny, a lot has been going on lately.
Well, it has.
From The Reach is a great album, by the way.
I appreciate it, man. I’m really happy with it.
Bassist Dave Ranson has said that your slide playing has a tendency to scare other slide players. How does that make you feel?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that, man. I just keep my head down and try to play in tune and in time. We’ve done a lot of shows with a lot of great musicians which is always inspirational. Every time I hear these other players, I go, “Oh, man.” It’s about getting fired up, in terms of the creative side of it.
Who were your influences growing up? Who helped in coercing you to develop such a great style?
I had a ton of heroes and I always loved music. My older brother was always bringing music into the house, ever since I was a little kid. We were living in Mississippi; we moved to Louisiana when I was seven years old – I thanked my dad for years about making that move. [laughs] It’s such a great culture here.
The Cajun and zydeco influence started here in Dixieland, New Orleans and New Orleans jazz. I played trumpet in school, so I had classical and jazz influences with rock n’ roll. Early on it was Scotty Moore with Elvis, the Ventures and then an older kid in a music store turned me on to Chet Atkins. That’s how I learned the right hand fingerstyle approach – from Chet Atkins. Some years later, when I was getting into delta blues and discovering slide, I was using the slide with that same approach on the right hand. It set me on my path. I heard B. B. King when I was 16, and at a funky little club in Louisiana I heard Clifton Chenier for the first time – the Zydeco King. He invited me inside and my world changed that night. I saw, heard and met Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties when he played in Baton Rouge. There are a lot of influences.