These are fat times for Sonny Landreth fans. You sure don't have to go
south of I-10 to hear Louisiana's favorite son bayou slide ruler these days.
Landreth released his fifth solo album, Levee Town, in 2000, a
stunning travelogue of aural landscapes from southwest Louisiana fueled by Landreth's
signature bottleneck gymnastics. Five years in the making, Levee Town has Sonny in good company with guest shots from friends Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt and Michael Doucet.
That same year he reunited with the Goners backing John Hiatt on a
tour that led to another album with Hiatt-his best since his last with the Goners--and
Summer 2001 on the road with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Tommy Castro.
His collaborations the past three years with a Who's Who of Cajun
artists have spearheaded the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Endowed Fund to establish
an endowed chair of traditional music at the University of Louisiana at
Lafayette. A series of five benefits have thus far resulted in two CD compilations that
serve up healthy portions of Sonny Landreth in several flavors.
Besides Hiatt's "The Tiki Bar Is Open," Sonny's potent bottleneck
embellishments can be heard on the latest outings from Dr. John and Marcia Ball, as well as Boo Zoo Chavis' last studio recording.
And Sonny is brimming with ideas for his own future releases: a blues
album, an acoustic album, a Cajun record with the Traiteurs, maybe an
"I'm excited about (this) year," Landreth enthused during a stop inSt. Paul last winter with Hiatt. "I won't wait four or five years between albums."
Landreth stepped into a new artistic realm with Levee Town, the most
literary of his solo efforts. Recorded with longtime bandmates David Ranson on bass,
Michael Organ on drums and Steve Conn on keyboards, much of it was laid down at
Landreth's riverside home in the country outside of Lafayette. Something must
have rubbed off because the record literally oozes with a lush, down home feel.
"Calling it a studio is a stretch," he laughed. "We used about every
format known to man." He brought the project back to Louisiana after initial sessions
in Los Angeles, working at his home and at Dockside Studios in nearby Maurice. The
pace, said Landreth, was much preferable to earlier albums recorded "under the
gun of the studio clock."
Levee Town represents Landreth's most vivid writing to date as well.
Images of rising rivers and haunted mansions, zydeco road trips and the Deep South
transport the listener to Landreth's stomping grounds of southwest Louisiana.
"I never meant to write three thematic albums," he mused, referring to
his previous two albums "South of I-10" and "Outward Bound." The songs just came out
"Songwriting is a sweet mystery. I'm in awe of it. And it's a real
thrill when you really hit on something," said Landreth, particularly something as satisfyingas Levee Town. He's always been fond of "narrative storytellers" like Bob Dylan,Robbie Robertson and Hiatt. Couple his finely crafted lyrics with a unique fretted slidesound that ranges from ethereal to explosive, and one wonders why Sonny Landreth isn'theadlining festivals instead of supporting them.
The return of Landreth and the Goners certainly filled a few seats on Hiatt's mostly
sold-out tour last year. But it didn't take much arm-twisting to get them back together.
"After we went our own ways (in the late '80s) we always had this
running joke that we had to get back together before the year 2000. John called me up in
1999 and said 'Sonny, we're running out of time.' We did a private party in
Nashville and next thing we knew we were recording an album."
While Hiatt has always kept the songwriting duties to himself, Landreth says they're
talking about doing a collaboration with Sonny penning some tunes. Playing behind a
terrific songwriter like John Hiatt appeals to Landreth's philosophy of a guitar player's
"My blues heroes and jazz heroes all had something in common-they all tried to emulate the human voice with their guitar. And bottleneck is the best way to do that...It
gets into the lyric of the tune, makes the lyric the most important part of the music and
strives to support that."
Landreth's particular brand of slide is almost other-worldly in its
three-dimensional hybridization of fretted chords behind steel and glass. It was a
technique born in part out of necessity, he explained.
"When I first started playing guitar I didn't even know what a bottleneck was. I tried it out myself and was a dismal failure." Along with a guy who worked in a
record store, Landreth recalled, "I learned fingerpicking style from Chet Atkins
records...When I first heard the blues greats, I thought the natural thing was to apply the
slide to Chet's approach. That's what set me on my path."
"There's very much a sensual quality to slide," said Landreth. He started with a piece
of motorcycle handlebar but soon moved on to bottleneck. Once while playing
bottleneck and trying to figure out a major chord in a minor blues, he said, "I could see
the chord behind the bottle." Further experimenting led him to hit upon a technique of
allowing a fretted chord to play under the bottle simultaneously with the bottle hitting
"It opened up this window and all these avenues," Landreth exclaimed.
He had no one to follow down those avenues either--there simply wasn't anybody who
had ever played like that.
There still isn't.
Landreth's first instrument was trumpet and he carries some of that technique over into slide. "I still play like a wind instrument. You have to stop and take a breath. I still think like that on guitar."
Landreth's dazzling yet genuinely unassuming style has made him a much-sought-after session player over the years, starting back in 1979 when Clifton Chenier asked the young twenty-something guitar player to join his Red Hot Louisiana Band. Landreth stayed with the King of Zydeco on and off for the next five years.
"It was the best education I ever got being a part of his band with that outfit," Landreth said.
More recently, Dr. John solicited his services for his latest album, "Creole Moon.".
"I had never played with him before and he just called me up," Landreth said, slipping into a Mac Rebennac patois: "'Hey, Sonny, I got a few maneuvers I want
you to lay on me.'" Landreth's slinky, shimmering slide is just what the Dr. ordered
for that authentic hoodoo swamp sound.
After years of riding with Boo Zoo Chavis' Mardi Gras trail ride, Landreth finally teamed up with the Lake Charles zydeco original in the studio for what would
turn out to be Chavis' last recordings before he died last year.
"It was a most special opportunity. We got real close and then I wanted to do more
with him," Landreth lamented.
Sometimes one gig leads to another, such as Landreth's guest spot with cheese surf
guitar slinger Teisco Del Ray. It was a rare opportunity to season a funky pot of New
Orleans gumbo with a taste of the Ventures, an early influence of Landreth's.
"I have John (Hiatt) to thank for getting me together with Teisco," said Landreth.
Teisco, a Texas player who picked his nom de plume from a cheap but revered line of
quirky guitars he fancied, was a contributing editor of Guitar Player magazine in the
late '80s. He attended a Hiatt show in Austin--Sonny's first tour with Hiatt.
"He got in touch with me and did this rally expansive article in Guitar Player," said
Landreth. That opened the door to a lot of other opportunities, including his appearance
on Teisco's "Music for Lovers" album in 1996.
"Playing with others widens you," said Landreth. "It opens you up in a way that you
couldn't get sitting on the back porch."
Landreth lost a musical soulmate when traditional music multi-instrumentalist Tommy Comeaux died in a tragic accident while bicycling in 1997. Landreth was a longtime friend of the Lafayette physician and musician, a veteran of such
Cajun stalwarts as Beausoleil, Basin Brothers, Clickin' Chickens and Coteau. Seeing such a creative force cut off in his prime hit him particularly hard.
"That was a tough one," he said, shaking his head. Landreth dived right into the creation of the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Endowed Fund along with other area musicians and supporters of traditional music. (See accompanying sidebar.) He's on the fund's campaign committee and remains an integral force in its "Medicine Show" fund-raising events.
"That's sort of my way of dealing with it," he said. "What I can do is get musicians together." And get them together he has. The series of Medicine Show benefits-the fifth was held at Grant St. Dancehall in Lafayette last December-have been wildly successful and the third compilation CD is awaiting release.
Among the more innovative of Landreth's numerous contributions are his appearances with the Traiteurs, a Cajun collective that came together in the wake of Comeaux's death. His trademark slide weaves in and out of a serious Cajun groove laid down by fellow players from the Atchafalaya Basin that include Al Berard on fiddle and Errol Verret on accordion. It's the kind of stuff legends are made of.
"We've never rehearsed," Landreth admits. "It's fly by the seat of our pants." Berard is pushing for them to do an album and Landreth is hopeful that will materialize in the not-too-distant future.
Southwest Louisiana music writer and producer Todd Mouton sits on the Comeaux Fund committee with Landreth and marvels at his versatility. In the Traiteurs, he said, Landreth steps out more than his usual low-key style would allow. "That's the only band I've ever seen where Sonny will hog the spotlight," he laughed, taking care to note he didn't mean that in a bad way. "He'll take three or four passes in a song and just keep going."
Landreth's creative juices are flowing full throttle. Maybe it's his personal mojo from a guitar hero that he keeps safely at home: a piece of Duane Allman's shirt.
"When Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla" came out there were a bunch of photos of Duane Allman on the inside. Duane had this really cool shirt on," Landreth said. Years later he got to know a singer who was tight with the Allman Brothers family.
"She called me one day and said 'I've got something I want to give you.' And she gave me a piece of that shirt." Landreth was stunned, and carried that piece with him everywhere until it was stolen. Fortunately, she still had the shirt and he scored another piece from her that doesn't leave home. Some of the designs from the shirt have been incorporated into his album covers and website.
Somehow, I think if Duane Allman were alive today he'd be proud to have a piece of Sonny Landreth's shirt.
Karl Bremer is a free-lance writer in Stillwater, Minnesota.
TOMMY COMEAUX ENDOWED FUND
BY KARL BREMER
Although the soft-spoken slide master probably wouldn't admit it, Sonny Landreth is the driving musical force behind the preservation of traditional Southwestern Louisiana music and culture-and the memory of his late friend and colleague Tommy Comeaux-through an endowed chair at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Endowed Fund for Traditional Music was established in 1997 following the untimely death of Lafayette musician Tommy Comeaux. Highly respected in his dual fields of music and medicine, Comeaux was struck and killed while riding his bicycle by a driver who had a seizure.
An impromptu gathering of friends and fellow musicians following his death sparked the idea of carrying on Comeaux's tradition of giving by teaching others the very music he contributed to and kept alive.
Comeaux played guitar, mandolin and bass. He was a long-time member of Beausoleil, along with regional Cajun and traditional bands Coteau, the Basin Brothers and Clickin' Chickens.
"He was always doing things for people, giving free medical advice. And musically generous too," said Todd Mouton, who has produced two CDs from the fund's "Medicine Show" benefits and sits on the fund's campaign committee. "There were so many pictures where he wasn't in the spotlight. He was so humble and so quiet and had such an awesome impact. This is the kind of guy who needs to have a memorial."
A group coalesced that included musicians and others with the skills necessary to make it happen. A series of year-end dances and fund-raisers have made serious headway toward their goal. "We have a group of people who have a lot of expertise in production and marketing. And some of us are pretty good at cooking."
Sonny Landreth was there "from the first second," said Mouton. "Sonny has always been a great part of this community. He's given a ton of time to this project. He's played more Medicine Show sets than anyone."
The possibilities for an endowed chair in traditional music are endless, said Mouton. There will be elements of preservation, instruction and performance with participation from guest artists.
"This will be the first chair in music here," said Mouton. "This gives the university a chance to distinguish itself." The program will further the already burgeoning interest in Acadiana and could incorporate all types of traditional music, from Cajun to blues to country.
The fund is nearly halfway to its financial goal of $600,000. Matched with $400,000 from the state, a $1 million endowment will be created that will fund chairs of accomplished figures in traditional music on a three-year rotating basis.
With the Medicine Show series of traditional music events, said Mouton, "What we're trying to do to get to our goal is the goal. The means justifies the ends."
For more information on the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Memorial Endowed Fund, or to send tax-deductible donations, write: Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Fund for Traditional Music c/o Acadiana Arts Council, 704 Lee Ave., Lafayette LA 70501,
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