A Conversation With Sonny Landreth
Mike Ragogna: Sonny, your new album is called Elemental Journey, as in, "Gonna take an elemental journey," kicking off with "Gaia Tribe," as in "diatribe." Nice.
Sonny Landreth: You know, actually, those are two good perspectives because you want to come up with interesting titles but it certainly has to have the depth to back it up. It's interesting because in the very beginning of writing this song, I really liked it but it was quite simplistic and at one point, I wasn't even sure it was good enough to make the cut. The fact that it became this epic piece after all that took place and how it evolved, it really became a special track for me. That's why it's the lead track. I still think I'll affirm back to old school with albums and I think in terms of the sequence, it's really important, and therefore the first song is very important.
MR: Yeah, and you allowed Joe Satriani to guest on it.
SL: I think it was the other way around, but actually he's incredible. I've been a big fan of his for many years and we got to know each other, as I do often in cases of sharing the bill or playing festivals together, and that culminated in a show we did in Amsterdam about two years ago. I sat in with him and it just really clicked. He's a sweetheart of a guy and back then, I asked him if he would play on my next album and I told him that I just have to write the music, and he didn't hear from me for two years. He was very patient, but the amazing thing about it, really, is the fact that I had to send audio files -- that was the plan -- and he was home for only, literally, the time to do this. He's a super busy guy. I just sent him the MP3 to see if he liked the song. He took that into the studio and he played a solo to it. That was a shocker because typically, you would send all the digital files that you could work and listen to at different levels. But because his solo was so intense and comes out of nowhere, I was concerned how to treat that in the song. Long story short, he told me he would always include the element of surprise in his instrumental. That gave me the idea to push the envelope, so-to-speak, and write string arrangements to embellish his part and make it segue back into the rest of song. So it just turned into a whole that was taken to a whole different level. That would not have happened had I not played the song the first way.
MR: Another featured track is "Passionola" with Eric Johnson.
SL: Yeah, Eric Johnson, he's just working it, what can you say. He's got it all. He's the tone master, incredible chops. But the thing is he's so soulful. He's legendary in the guitar community... how meticulous he is, and his high level of excellence. We've gotten to be friends over the years and he's played on an earlier project of mine and I've played on his, and we've played together a lot. We would do a run of dates together, and whenever we're in the area and he's home, he sits in with us and vice-versa, so he's a good friend. I bet he did exactly what I hoped to accomplish on that song and that's probably the only one that does the call and response between the two guitars. That was really important to me to get that on this project as well.
MR: "Heavy Heart Rising." Is there any story behind that one?
SL: It's a personal story and one real close to me. It's essentially about embracing loss and finding peace with that and also atonement. It's coming up from that, we all have those experiences and the older we get, the more of those we have. I wanted to try to capture that and put that into the sonic soundscape. That was the force behind the song.
MR: Let's deal with your other superstar on this project, Robert Greenidge.
SL: Robert Greenidge, my goodness. Here's the thing about him -- he's the master steel drummer. You've heard him on tons of records. The first time I ever heard steel drums it was him on a Taj Mahal album. I didn't even know what steel drums were, I never heard them. This was a long time ago. I thought, "My god, what a masterful sound." Fast forward all these years later, I met him working with Jimmy Buffet. He's been with Buffet for a long time and I did a lot of shows with him. We got to be friends and I learned how amazing his repertoire is. He has perfect pitch and he plays jazz and classical music on steel drums, so I wanted to tap him for that in that song.
MR: You mentioned the Jimmy Buffet connection and you played on projects by him.
SL: Yeah, Jimmy and I met a long time ago with John Hiatt at Jazz Fest in New Orleans one year. Then one year Clint Davis, the promoter, was down on the side of the stage and I said, "You gotta hear this." Then Jimmy invited me to play on an album he was making and he ended up doing one of my songs. It's been great, he basically says whenever you're not working, here's our schedule, come on out and play. I do about eight to ten shows a year and I've been doing that for a while. Not so much last year, but even recently, we're having a lot of fun speaking at the New Orleans Jazz and we did an acoustic set on a Thursday night, so that was pretty special.
MR: You're known for your slide guitar and how you have a very particular technique where your little finger is doing the slide while you're playing chords underneath with your other fingers. How did you develop your style of playing?
SL: Well, it would actually precede that in learning the Chet Atkins right-hand approach to finger style. Basically, what that means is that you're playing multiple parts. Listening to Chet Atkins, it made me aware of playing melody, rhythm, and the bass line all at the same time. Then I got into the blues and discovered the slide. When I put the two in the slide on my left hand with the Chet Atkins approach on my right hand, that really set me on my path. At one point, I just had a flash of inspiration out of needing to figure out how to play in different keys -- major to minor. I could see those notes behind the glass and it just occurred to me to press the string down behind it. What happens is when you're playing the slide, those strings don't touch the neck, they're floating, just like a steel guitar or a Hawaiian-style guitar, when you see them playing guitar on their lap; they're just sliding. When you combine those notes and when you fret behind, those strings go underneath what you're using for slide. So it's a combination of the notes that are floating with the slide above the fret and the notes are fretting behind which creates the mojo.
MR: As far as the blues, who are some of your favorite artists? What inspired you musically in that world?
SL: I was listening to Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Charlie Patton, all the great players. But when I heard Robert Johnson, that just did it for me. I just couldn't believe I'd never heard anything like that. To me, that stands out far from all the others. What I also got from them was the same thing I was getting from my jazz heroes because I actually started out playing trumpet when I was ten years old. I didn't get my first guitar until I was thirteen, so I had jazz and classical heroes, and then I had my blues heroes on guitar, but they were all seeking to emulate the human voice with their instruments. So the slide really, really did that for me, more than anything else, because the potential there was to create a lot of different sounds; that really stuck with me and also the tradition as a story song. The delta players, they were all about the song and using the guitar to help embellish and interpret the lyrics of the song. So you're singing, you're using the guitar for your other voice, and much more in a calm way than I mentioned earlier. That stuck with me all these years.
MR: So Elemental Journey is an instrumental album top to bottom.
SL: Well, I just figured I'm sixty-one years old, if not now, when? I've always loved instrumentals, this goes all the way back to the beginning of me loving to play the guitar. I was a huge fan of The Ventures, and that's all they ever made, instrumental albums. I think what stuck with me there was the power of imagery and how instrumental songs inspire that in a different kind of way than songs with lyrics. Don't get me wrong, I love lyrics. Obviously, all of my albums have been based on that all these years. But I've always included one or two instrumentals in all these previous albums. That's where that comes from. Early on, I really experienced being influenced by instrumental music, so this time around, I just wanted to focus on that and see where it would take me. I think that probably the best thing about it for me is without having to concentrate on the vocals this time, it freed me up to go back to some of these influences that I've had all along and to really include that in the overall sound. I think the net result is much more diverse. I wanted it to be with a lot more melodies and much more complex chord changes. By the time I was using the different sound from the guitar to get those vocal sounds and to make it have a richer sound, then another thing I always wanted to do was to use strings. Once I started working on the string arrangements with my friend Sam Broussard, who did a brilliant job, that just took it to another level too. The thing just kept expanding and that was very exciting for me.
MR: I was going to ask you about the strings. And your conductor is...
SL: ... Mariusz Smolij. He's a world-renowned conductor and that's all he does. He travels all around the globe conducting the world's greatest orchestras and recording with them, so we're very fortunate to have him. He's the musical director to the conservatory in Lafayette, Louisiana. He lives in Texas, but he makes the trek in between all his touring as a conductor. He works with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra here. What's really amazing about that is that they bring in students from LSU -- the state university in Baton Rouge -- and these kids are some of the best there are. They're coming from all over Europe and they're studying here. I got to tap into that. The way that came about is that several years ago, he invited me to participate in the Christmas program they do every year. They have a guest artist. One of the cool things about him is he actually played rock 'n' roll and came up playing bass and keyboard in bands when he was younger, so he has that sensibility. He wanted to incorporate the local musicians, like myself into this Christmas program he does every year. He got me to do the Bach piece "Cantata 140." I've never played Bach on guitar, let alone slide guitar, so now there's another throwback to my trumpet days and playing a big part of the world of academia. That exposure is something I've never incorporated like I have this time. Once I did that performance for them, I knew that was going to be a part of the next album. That sealed the deal for me to make an instrumental album.
MR: It must have been very fulfilling to see a lot of the younger talent play in those adventures, right?
SL: Oh yeah. The thing you become keenly aware of is that these kids now with all the information that is immediately accessible, they're starting out at three, four, five-years-old, which is not unusual in the classical world anyway; such a strict regimen. But even more so, you can get on the computer and look at something that Segovia did or any of the great masters so long ago and study that in a way that wasn't available up until then, so it's great to see how they're open minded and in my area. The Cajun and Creole musicians are coming from whole families of musicians. These young players are incorporating new sounds and they're pushing the boundaries too. I think it's a really exciting time.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SL: The best thing I could say to someone is the obvious which is you have to woodshed. There's no way around it. If you really want to excel, you have to sit down and you have to really approach this with a perspective that you're going to master your instrument, as a singer, an instrumentalist, or both. You have to do that. Have your antennas up and take in everything. Watch as many people live or in videos as you can. Learn much about all kinds of music, take in as much as you can. But at one point, you'll find that spark or fun that nobody else has, that thing that you bring to the table that someone else doesn't. That's your identity, that's your own sound, that's from your heart and soul. That just takes time to do, but don't lose sight of it. In terms of the business, I would encourage everyone to try and retain ownership of your masters, so that when you enter into any kind of contract or deal with anyone, after a certain amount of time, the rights to those masters are reverted back to you. Ultimately, that's your catalog that you're working on. Most of us came up from the older school and went through the labels and that whole thing for so long. Much of my earlier work, I don't have control over, and now I do. The catalog from the label I was last with comes back to me. That's sometimes the only way people can ever hear it.
MR: Publishing, I imagine, is also something they should retain if they can?
SL: Absolutely. As a songwriter, at least there's some built in protection that didn't come into play until the mid-'70s, really, that the actual writer of the song is the author of the song. You could enter into a publishing deal but you have to ask yourself the question what are you really getting out of it. If you're going to sign a publishing deal, it should be a big enough company that they're going to give you enough money up front that it's worth it to give up receiving the publishing royalties later on. Nothing's for free, so if you can retain that up front, then go for it. That's usually the case. A lot of these young bands out there are trying to make a name for themselves and do what they're all doing. Use the internet, spread the word, word of mouth. But in the long run, that's what it all comes down to, you have to play live. You never know who's going to be in that audience who knows somebody else, who knows somebody else, and one thing leads to another. You have to open up to that.
MR: I want to ask you about your experience in the studio. You had Steve Conn on keyboards, Dave Ranson on bass and a couple of drummers. What was the feel like when you guys were getting together and recording this? What was the experience for you all?
SL: With some of them, I go way back. Dave Ranson and I have known each other since we were young teenagers. Steve Conn is one of my best friends. We've been playing for so many years. There's something very special about that in terms of chemistry that it already feels better going into the studio. I know it's going to be there, it's never failed me. We've never failed each other, and it also enables us to experiment and push that more and try different things. The other part of it was I started out at home and recorded a body of the track on guitar just to get that idea to them, the direction I was taking. Everyone knew that I was upping the ante and pushing this in a way that I never have. It was definitely much more adventurous and much more complex and everyone just came up swinging, it was great. The vibe was great and once we got the ball rolling and heard the results flood back in the system, in the studio, it was really a moment. We knew it was going somewhere that we'd never been before. That sense of adventure is really important to hold on to, the longer you stay at it. You have to keep that element of mystery and apprehension that really inspires you.
MR: Since there were no lyrics, melodies had to have been based on some premise of a lyric that didn't exist, right?
SL: Exactly. That's why I describe it as stories without words. If you were to take a soundtrack and there were no pictures so the person was not watching the music and they were hearing the same music, it inspires imagery and people come up with their own stories. That's why I say that the melody in an instrumental is important, but it's even more important in an all-instrumental project because you need to connect with the listener on a deep emotional level. There has to be that connection, in the final analysis it has to resonate. When you do that, you have something.
MR: Do you have any words of wisdom?
SL: Words of wisdom? Well that's a good question and actually refers to the title, the multi-meanings of Elemental Journeys. That's the notion that we're all on our own path and the idea of embracing all that happens to us, good and bad, all of those experiences as essential experiences that define who we are. We all have our own belief system and it's following through with that. It's very much a thing with me in creating this album.
SL: We wrapped things up back in November so I could finish the album. We've gone in and out of the studio during the touring part of the year, so we just started back up. Our first gig was at the International Festival of Louisiana here at Lafayette. Our second gig was The New Orleans Jazz Festival. I would have liked to warm up a bit more, especially with the new songs, but there you have it. We're back at it, we have a long two weeks of gigs, and now we'll be back in airports flying all over the place. We're going to Japan at the end of the month. That'll be the first time with a band so I'm really excited about that. We have a lot of new places we're going to and we're going to our regular places that our people have been supportive of. That's a great vibe. It's really about people and getting out, having that experience and tapping back in, and making the music. Hopefully, we touch a part of them that they take home with them, which made it special for them.
1. Gaia Tribe - with Joe Satriani
2. For You And Forever
3. Heavy Heart Rising
5. Passionaola - with Eric Johnson
6. Letting Go
7. Elemental Journey
8. Brave New Girl
9. Forgotten Story - with Robert Greenidge
10. Reckless Beauty
11. Opening Sky
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger
LOCAL HEROES: Getting To Know J.D. Shelburne
This piece on country-rocker J.D. Shelburne begins a series on local heroes that have an interesting story or who have been kicking around a while on the national scene but may be just under the radar.
Growing up, J.D. Shelburne spent his summers on the family farm, raising tobacco and following in his father's footsteps, excelling in multiple sports during the school year. Born to be a star, he was just that in his small town on and off the field/court, where his father was assistant principal and athletic director, and his mother, a homemaker and special education teacher. Music had not yet made its way into J.D.'s heart at this point, though after high school graduation, J.D. departed Taylorsville to attend the University of Kentucky, and the music story started there. In the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, his grandmother Clara passed away, unexpectedly. Traumatic as it was, it turned out to be a major turning point in J.D.'s life. In the days after her death, the family gathered to take care of her belongings. After spending countless hours cleaning out her house, they stumbled upon an acoustic guitar that once belonged to J.D.'s uncle. "I never saw that guitar and I swear, my brother and I trampled all over that house growing up," remembers J.D. "Thankfully, my uncle never sold it, or this journey may have never begun."
Remembering his grandmother, J.D. says, "She touched so many people in this small town. I have so many wonderful memories that she was a part of that I will cherish and never forget." He continues, "I think the whole county shut down for her funeral. She was loved by everyone in Taylorsville." It was later that summer that he dusted off the guitar and tuned it up. "One day, it just hit me and I picked it up. A chord book just happened to be in the case and I came across the first song, "Unanswered Prayers" by Garth Brooks. I just thought, 'This is what she wanted me to do,' so here I am." Music lived in J.D. from that point on.
Over the next year, he spent every free moment learning to play and perform. Friday night college parties turned into solitary Friday nights in his empty hometown Baptist church sanctuary, singing and playing, dreaming of a career in country music. After that one year of dedication and persistence, J.D. sang publicly for the first time in that hometown church. Not being known as a singer, much less a guitar player, it shocked everyone! "Everyone in the congregation was crying. I'll never forget it." That moment gave J.D. the confidence to continue his journey to stardom. After graduating from UK in 2007 and with some gentle nudging by his parents, he packed his bags and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in February of 2008.
His road to stardom has been blessed since the move. J.D. has had enough recognition to land him in Country Weekly Magazine in March 2009, numerous television and radio appearances, a Grand Ole Opry appearance with country legend, friend Steve Wariner, a USO Troop Tour to Camp Shelby, countless gigs that include the KFC Yum Center!, The Wildhorse Saloon, CMA Music Festival Appearance, Fourth Street Live!, The Bluebird Café, Churchill Downs -- home of the Kentucky Derby and Louisville Slugger Field to name a few. J.D. Shelburne was also invited to be a part of the first ever HullabaLOU Music Festival at Churchill Downs with Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney and many other national artists in July of 2010. He has also been highlighted at numerous award winning fairs and festivals all across the region.
J.D. Shelburne has also shared the stage with many national country acts since his debut. He has opened for artists such as Clay Walker, Kellie Pickler, Aaron Tippin, Easton Corbin, Josh Kelley, Johnny Lee, Cowboy Troy, Mark Wills, Josh Gracin, Bryan White, Trailer Choir, Craig Campbell, Love and Theft, Jeffrey Steele, Trent Tomlinson, Sam Bush, Gloriana, Colbie Caillat, The Kentucky Headhunters, Steve Wariner, Joey & Rory, The Harters, Adam Gregory, Daryl Worley, Crystal Shawanda, Jeremy McComb, David Frizzell, Joe Nichols, John Michael Montgomery, Shannon Lawson, Halfway to Hazard and Juice Newton.
J.D.'s kind of country has never been straight-up-the-middle. Instead, the Taylorsville, Kentucky, native grew up on a potent hybrid of honky-tonk, gospel, singer-songwriters, classic country and modern rock 'n' roll, forging his own sound along the way.