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Booker T. Jones Q&A

05/07/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Booker T. Jones will be the first to tell you that his road has been a bumpy one, but the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer has the key to longevity. Stay true to your heart and change with the times.

Jones, 64, is on tour promoting the upcoming release of, "Potato Hole," his first album in two decades. In the 1960s the multi-instrumentalist and his group Booker T. and the MGs helped define Stax Records and what came to be known as the Memphis sound. He has remained a relevant force collaborating with Carlos Santana, Willie Nelson and other greats.

With the release of "Potato Hole," which drops on April 21, Jones fulfills a longtime goal and shifts from his blues and R&B roots to rock 'n' roll. He collaborated with guitar legend Neil Young and Drive-by Truckers on the album.

Q: What's a "Potato Hole"?

A: The original reference was from when slaves would dig a hole in the floor of their homes to keep the food cool. This album is my place where I've deposited my cool stuff. The tune has got a little bit of a hip-hop beat, and a little jazz in other parts. And there are other parts that are just straight rock.

Q: You're a rocker now, how'd that happen?

A: This style is something that I've been wanting to do for a while. I've always played guitar and I had a tendency to turn it up a little too loud back in the '60s when we were doing R&B. When I finally left Memphis and moved to California in the 1970s I met Stephen Sills and Neil Young, and I got exposed to some new styles. I wanted to play rock and roll. It wasn't the right time then, but it is now.

Q: You do a rendition of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" What current artists would you compare to your style of music?

A: ["Hey Ya!"] was just a fun song for me to do. I've always like that band. They push the limit. I would say The Roots are closest to my style and making the kind of music that I've made.

Q: What was the most challenging time for you in the music business?

A: At an early age I was able to learn what I needed to know to make me feel comfortable making music. But I didn't know how to write music when I left high school. I didn't really know how to play the things that I was hearing in my mind. And I didn't know if I ever would. We got a hit record in 1962, ['Green Onions"], and I was able to save enough money to go to Indiana University to study music theory.

Q: And when you were stuck again a few years ago, you went back to school?

A: I had to educate myself. If you want to be a producer you need to know how. I come from a world in music [production] where we just had tape rolling and we'd just sit down with everyone in the room and record a song.

Q: Your skills hit a wall?

A: Yes. A few years ago, I was supposed to be the producer for a song with Willie Nelson. I walked in and looked at the big monitors and I couldn't really direct the recording session. I realized then that I had to get up to date. I went to the University of San Francisco and took Pro Tools 101 [a digital recording system course] and later advanced courses at San Jose University. With that came creative freedom. I began to have ideas and I didn't feel stifled.

Q: What has been your most rewarding collaboration?

A: Collaborating with Otis Redding. Otis broke it down to basic elements of the soul. He was at a point where he wasn't singing to make a living. He was singing for the love of it. And all of us with him were playing for the same reason. We mixed our music with so much emotion and I feel that we were really able to connect with people and make it mean something.