Sonny Landreth could go for a sandwich right about now. It’s lunchtime in Boulder, Colo., where he’ll play tonight, and he’s parched. Grub is en route, but when it arrives, he’ll likely have to eat on the run.
“The schedule’s such a grind,” says the Louisiana slide guitar legend. “You just get it in when you can, you know?”
Get it in when you can. That’s the unofficial Sonny Landreth rallying cry, as the good-natured Southerner’s always got a heaping helping of work—if not, at the moment, food—on his plate. Tonight and through the weekend, he plays with singer-songwriter John Hiatt as a member of his renowned band The Goners. After that, he and his fellow G-men, bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins, will light out on a string of dates supporting Landreth’s sixth solo record, The Road We’re On (Sugar Hill). Then, he’ll repeat the cycle and pepper it with solo appearances at festivals nationwide—including his annual hometown gig in Lafayette at Grand Street Dance Hall.
That’s plenty for any road dog to chew on, but it hardly ends there. He also gets session requests from people like Marcia Ball, Jimmy Buffett, Marshall Crenshaw, Beausoleil, Jerry Douglas and Shelby Lynne who all want That Guy, the one who drags a glass tube across strings and can make it sound like a party, change of season, sex, war, funeral or even a bowel resection.
“It is a bit of a trick,” he concedes, “and I’m one to not want miss out on anything. I really enjoy working on other people’s projects. It always gives me a different perspective, and I always learn something that I kinda take with me onto my thing.”
That’s the kind of philosophy that has put Landreth where he is today. The 52-year-old began his career in the ’70s with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier’s Red Beans & Rice Revue and quickly gained notoriety for his versatility and virtuosity (he can work a bottleneck slide and fret notes at the same time—no small feat). He started releasing solo material in 1981 with Blues Attack (now a lusted-after rarity) and Down In Louisiana (1985). After Down In Louisiana, Landreth hooked up with Hiatt, and musical madness ensued.
But Landreth is more than a hired gun. Outward Bound (1992) and South of I-10 (1995) helped to established him as a songwriter who crafts music and lyrics of the highest order and informed by Landreth’s penchant for Louisiana history and Southern literature. It’s the entire package, not just the guitar pyro, that has earned him a fan base that chomp at the bit to hear the next album or see the next show.
“You really do have to learn to wear different hats,” he says. “Robert Johnson would support the lyrics—his bottleneck slide was pretty much the theme, like a soundtrack. And that’s what I’ve always aspired to do. I wanted to try to emulate the human voice, to learn how to ‘sing’ the guitar, as it were, and to write these [lyrics] that you can support that with.
“There are a lot of guitar players out there, and they all have chops,” Landreth says. “But when you start thinking about someone that has their own sound, has developed their own style, then that really thins the herd out. And when you start thinking about those that use that to write songs, well it gets even thinner.”
The Road We’re On, however, was smithed differently. Whereas Outward Bound, South of I-10 and his penultimate platter, Levee Town, were almost production pieces in the way they were conceived, the new record was a more visceral, seat-of-the-pants blues outing. The Cajun gothic atmosphere is present in Landreth’s zydeco background and his literary leanings (lucid, desperate characters in saturated historical and political settings) inform his lyrics. The mix is raw, immediate. Landreth attributes this to his multitasking.
“We were actually out playing gigs in between the sessions,” he explains. “I’ve never really tried to do it all at once, and it was quite an experience. I really think it brought something to the table that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
It’s one more bullet in his gun, another marquee résumé item to impress prominent peers and keep him employed and thus fed. What comes after the tour?
“Recently, I got a letter from Eric Clapton ...”