Sonny Landreth's 30-plus year career has taken him from sleeping on pool tables at Houston's legendary Gold Star Studios to flights to London to play with Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler. Yet as the world's most innovative slide guitar player reflects on his career, he takes the good and the not-so-good with typical south Louisiana philosophical humor.
"I'd been playing around Lafayette a lot in some local bands, and I remember being so excited when Huey Meaux asked me to come over to Houston and play on a Clifton Chenier record he was working," laughs Landreth. "I think it was 1974. I slept on the pool table at the studio.
"Turned out it was a live album, something recorded at Liberty Hall, and Huey just wanted me to do a bunch of overdubs to fill it out a little," he adds. "I remember thinking this may be the top thing that ever happens to me, overdubbing on a Clifton Chenier record."
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One of Landreth's claims to fame is as the first white player in Chenier's band. He recalls the legendary south Louisiana band Red Beans and Rice Revue as his link to the king of zydeco.
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"I knew Pat Breaux and those guys in the Beans, sat in with them some. They'd started this thing called White Night on Wednesdays at the Bon Ton in Lafayette, and one night Cliff showed up. Afterward, he told me I ought to come down to St. Martinville the next night and bring my guitar, so I did," recalls Landreth. "We're leaving and Cliff just casually says, 'Why don't you come down to New Orleans and play with us tomorrow night too?' After that, I was just kinda in the band."
But even during that heady period, Landreth had already attempted to step out as a solo artist.
"Huey recorded a bunch of stuff, but never put it out," he says.
Those recordings finally made their way into the public eye in 1997 as Crazy Cajun Recordings, and they show Landreth was already a guitar force by his early twenties.
Landreth also played in Zachary Richard's band during those years, and managed to get a solo record out in 1981 on the Blues Unlimited label, Blues Attack. A straight-up (although somewhat overproduced) blues album, it went nowhere. But Landreth's phone kept ringing.
One caller was John Hiatt. Attempting to revive his career after suffering through personal disasters, Hiatt brought Landreth to Nashville to play on Slow Turning, hailed by critics then and now as Hiatt's most important album. Landreth joined Hiatt's touring band,and has worked with Hiatt off and on ever since.
The Hiatt gig only ratcheted up Landreth's exposure. Indie producer R.S. Field soon asked Landreth to play on a John Mayall record. Released in 1990, Sense of Place was the first of several Field projects, which culminated in Field producing Landreth's breakthrough masterpiece, South of I-10.
While the public may have only gradually been becoming aware of Landreth, the top guitar players in the world had long since recognized his world-class talent; Mark Knopfler and Austin ace Stephen Bruton both played on South of I-10. Landreth continues a loose association with Knopfler today, playing on recordings and occasional gigs.
Last year, Landreth fulfilled a long-held dream with From the Reach, an album of duets with some of his guitar gods: Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Vince Gill and Knopfler. Jimmy Buffet and Dr. John also worked on the album.
"I'm so proud of that record," says Landreth, who released Reach on his own Landfall label. "People probably thought I was making a guitar-hero record, but even with players of that quality, it still all comes back to the songs and the melodies. If I was going to ask those guys to work with me, I wanted to have songs that fit them and their styles, not just ask them to come in and play a solo on one of my songs.
"Vince's style, especially his singing, is completely different than Mark's or Eric's," Landreth notes. "But that was the challenge, fitting songs and players and voices."
On Landreth's Web site, Clapton calls the guitarist "one of the most underestimated musicians in the world." A consummate side man, Landreth's solo career has now become his primary thrust, and his tour schedule screams that he's finally arrived as a solo act.
"It's ironic you caught me here," laughs Landreth. "I don't remember the last time I was home an entire weekend."
The impetus for Landreth's heavy schedule is partly due to the meltdown now happening in the record business. He's recently re-released Levee Town on Landfall.
"I just got my Sugar Hill Records catalog back," says Landreth. "When Levee Town came out, the label was in a flux, I was getting new management, just a lot of things were up in the air. I really liked that record, but it just never got the proper promotion and push. So we're pushing it now."
As for giving up his sideman hat, Landreth notes, "It may not always seem like it, but my solo stuff has been the focus for a long time. And no matter what I've done, I've always tried to keep my own voice and identity."
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