A CONVERSATION WITH SONNY LANDRETH (continued)
PM: Now, were your blues heroes mostly on the electric side, or were you a country blues guy as well?
SL: Both, both, absolutely both.
PM: Delta blues, country blues.
SL: Both, yeah.
PM: Were you also--like I mean, a lot of us were John Hurt guys and stuff like that. Were you on that sort of thing, Charlie Patton?
SL: Oh, I was in love with Mississippi John Hurt. He was my all time favorite.
PM: Yeah. I think from his records, I literally learned to play the guitar.
SL: Well, you know, it was a great discovery for me, because I learned to play Chet Atkins style with the right hand, fingerpicking. I was working in a music store, and I was, I guess, about 13 going on 14. And there was an older kid who worked there, he was four years older than me. He said, "Ever listen to Chet Atkins?" I said, "Well, I've heard of him, yeah, heard a few things here and there." So he sat down and started playing these songs. And it just blew me away, to be up close and see someone doing it, and to realize the emulation and where that came from, and what Chet was really about. It got me. I had to have the albums. I had to go home and listen to them and start working on that finger style.
So when I first heard of Delta guys--that's how I related to it, just the finger style with the bass going and the melody and the rhythm all at the same time. Of course, as time went on, I would realize the distinctive differences. But he got me excited and realized I have a foundation for this in my way. So when I put that with the bottleneck, that definitely set me on my path.
PM: So bottleneck, that came--I mean, by the sounds of it, it came really, really early.
SL: It came fairly early. I had started out with a flat pick like everyone else--I say "everyone else," but I mean all my friends, all of us wanting to play guitar. I finally get a slide, and I get it home, and I'm sitting there with it in my lap, and I go, "Okay, now what?" Plink! Grrrink! Rrrrink! So I quickly realized I had my path before me. But I was probably 16 when I was aware of what bottleneck slide was--learning it, just discovering it, saying, "What is that sound? What's that about? How do they do that? What's bottleneck slide?" I didn't even know. I had to do a little bit of research.
PM: And so it was like Lemon Jefferson, or was it like Duane Allman, or--
SL: Well, before that it was the Delta guys, Robert Johnson, any cats from then--and reading about them in books, and realizing what they did. That helped me too, because they would talk about it--like in the Sam Charters books.
PM: Right. Robert Palmer and Sam Charters...
SL: Exactly. And then going and getting some of these records and listening to them. And then, of course, that led to the electric guys--Elmore. And then I got to see Duane Allman, that was 1970 when he played here in Lafayette with the Allman Brothers. So that made me want to go home and turn it up.
PM: You were probably with Sam. [Broussard--see our review of his great singer songwriter record, Geeks]
SL: Well, this was about 1970, where was Sam then? He might have been on the road at that point. I'll have to ask him about that. I don't know if he was there that night or not. I should ask him. But yeah, so you can see there's a line drawn from my early guys I listened to, like the Delta bluesmen, into the electric Chicago thing. And then Ry Cooder, Duane Allman, and so forth. George Harrison, of course, was kind of always there, with the Beatles. And I discovered Lowell George. My heroes.
PM: Right. Along with the lineage of blues guys, there are those records that influenced you a lot: Cooder, the Beatles, Little Feat, and on and on.
SL: Oh, sure. And with Little Feat, by then I was already well into my thing, so to speak. I met Lowell once a long time ago, got to hear him play, fortunately. That really--then it jumped into kind of the approach that he had, real long, sustained, melodic, single note, just concentrating on phrasing and the big, big note.
SL: And that really influenced me. So I took part of that with me as well. Lowell, he's extraordinary, extraordinary.
PM: Oh yeah. He changed the world.
SL: The whole package, I mean, his playing, his singing--incredible--his phrasing, he's the most soulful dude, his songs, his production. He had it all going on. And as I was developing, my heroes were the guys who did all of that. And that made me aware of the fact that, "Hey, that's what I'm trying to do, trying to just develop my own sound, seeing these songs that I write and get in the studio and produce them myself." So it was good affirmation for me.
PM: So speaking of the big note, let's handle some of the tech stuff. Since you're such a tone-y guy, whether they're links or just mentioned somewhere in your notes or your site, a lot of the amplifier brain trust comes up.
SL: [laughs] I like the way you put that.
PM: You know, James Demeter, Mark Sampson, Ken Fisher, Alex Dumble, really some of the lesser known but very tone-y guys, some of the most important cats. [Demeter's and Dumble's products are known by their names. Mark Sampson did Matchless and then Fat Cat amps, and Ken Fisher the Trainwreck amplifiers, and now is some part of Comet amplifiers.]
SL: Yeah, they're the big time. And I have nothing but the utmost admiration for all of them. And I've gotten to be real close to some of them.
PM: Now, you and Demeter go way back, don't you?
SL: Yeah, me and Jimmy go way back. And in fact, the first great amplifier I ever owned, he built for me. And that's back in the day when he was hands-on doing them all one at a time himself. And that was quite a pivotal time in my career as well, because it was almost the halfway mark with John Hiatt and the Goners. So there's a lot of gigs under the belt with me in that amp, and getting on farther down the line with it.
PM: So he came into the picture for you around what year?
SL: That must have been--I'm thinking when he built the amp, it seems--I remember, because the first session I did was with Marshall Crenshaw out in Los Angeles.
PM: No kidding.
SL: And Marshall, myself, Kenny Aranoff, and Glen Nady. A nice little combo.
PM: Indeed. That's a good little quartet.
SL: And I remember because there was a huge earthquake, and my first earthquake, too. We still refer to them as the "quake takes."
SL: But I got the amp, and then went directly from that to a run of dates with Hiatt and the Goners. And I'm thinking that was coming into 1990, so I think it was December '89 into the beginning of 1990.
PM: So who else was in the Goners at that point?
SL: Same band as always, Kenneth Blevins on drums and David Ranson on bass.
PM: Wow. Yeah, Blevins, he's the man.
SL: Oh, yeah. We got him back in the fold on our gigs, too, so we're having a great time.
PM: Oh, really. So are you and Mark Sampson buddies?
SL: I've only met Mark once, at the NAMM show years ago. I talked to him on the phone several times. But I haven't corresponded with him in quite a while. I think his amps are just gorgeous, beautiful work. And the innards reflect the sound, too, the tone, no lacking in the detail, and just beautifully voiced. It's just a whole different kind of beast. I love the class A amps.
PM: Yeah, he's a wonderful guy, too. It's been a long time since I heard the name or talked to Ken Fisher, but there was a time I knew him a little bit, in my Mesa Boogie days.
SL: Really? That's cool.
PM: Is he a buddy of yours?
SL: I've talked to him a few times on the phone. He worked real close with my friends in Baton Rouge on the Comet amplifier. And they developed it with ideas of their own along with his guidance, a very special amp. So I've been over there at the shop, and I'll be playing it, and call him up and hold the phone up and play. [laughs] And I'll play and he says, "Do this to the amp, do that." [laughs]
PM: He's a spooky guy, very talented.
SL: And I've talked to him on the phone a few times. But yeah, he's a remarkable person as well.
PM: I thought I heard years ago that he'd gotten sick with something...
SL: Yeah, he's got something like the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and it's this real mysterious and just overwhelming disease that many, many people have. I have friends who have it just awful--you have your up days and your down days. And there's a parallel, see, with my friend Alexander [Dumble]. He and I are real close. He has health problems.
PM: Yeah, of course, I want to talk about him.
SL: He has health problems. He unfortunately got in a bad situation years ago where he got poisoned. Now he's kind of got his stable of friends and players that he tends to. He's a genius. He's a real eccentric and a real good friend of mine. continue