For just a minute, think about what you were doing when you were twelve years old. I was adjusting to life at the bottom of the food chain as a seventh grader, in a different school, in a different city. My main focus was memorizing all fifty states and their capitals.
Sounds a little intimidating, doesn’t it?
At twelve, Derek Trucks was adjusting to life on the road, touring the country with The Allman Brothers Band as a special guest guitarist. His main focus was perfecting his slide guitar technique, to better convey his musical message to fans across the fifty states.
Sounds a little heady, doesn’t it?
Trucks is only 31, yet has already built an incredibly rich musical legacy and established himself as one of the most influential musicians of his or any era.
He performed with the ABB as a special guest for over a decade until he was formally made a full member when he was twenty, and continues to be a driving force for the iconic rock band.
By the time he reached his twentieth birthday, Trucks had already performed with a remarkable list of significant artists, including Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh and Stephen Stills. Staggeringly, Rolling Stone named him one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time when he was only 24, the youngest musician on the list.
He formed The Derek Trucks Band when he was fifteen and they remain one of the most dominant blues bands in the business. Their most recent album, Roadsongs, has been in the Top 5 of the Billboard Blues Albums chart for eight straight weeks, following on the heels of their successful prior release, Already Free, which debuted at No. 1.
All it takes is a quick glance at Trucks resume to understand why even uncharacteristic publications like the Wall Street Journal have lauded him as “the most awe-inspiring electric slide guitar player performing today.”
Trucks and his extremely talented better half, wife Susan Tedeschi, were gracious enough to sit down with me before their fantastic set at the Mile High Music Festival on August 14.
We talked about the DTB’s well-deserved run of success and contrasted the diverse expectations for the two most recent albums.
Said Trucks, “Every record’s different. Like with Already Free, the record before Roadsongs, I think we went into it with pretty high hopes. We put a lot into it.”
“This record bein’ a live record, you realize it’s a different ball game. This record was more for the core audience; it was for the fans of the band that have been around ten, fifteen years.”
“We figured it was time to do a real legit live record. So, you don’t expect it to blow up. We’ve been really happy with the way it’s turned out, but you definitely temper what you’re looking for when you do a live record.”
With the myriad of pressures facing artists, there’s a constant battle for artistic integrity. Trucks discussed this.
“There’s been maybe one track in the eight records that we’ve done where I felt like we were persuaded by the label to put a tune on that I was kind of iffy about and when I figured the rest of the record was so esoteric, I was like, ‘OK, we’ll give ‘em this one,’ and I just felt terrible about it for years. I was like, ‘Never again!’ If I don’t feel 100% about a tune, I never want to put it on there.”
“It’s the same with any project you’re doing. The way I feel about it, and I think Susan’s in the same boat, is once you make that choice, once you cross that line from artistic integrity to sellin’ out or reachin’ too far, I think it’s hard to come back. I don’t know many artists that have ever made that jump and come back to the right side.”
“I think when the success is coming and you’re on a roll, you appreciate it. By no means is it something that you worry about losing, at least for me. If it dims for awhile, it’s OK as long as you’re feelin’ good about what you’re doin’.”
“We’ve had plenty of opportunities to sell out,” Tedeschi said with a laugh.
Just in the few minutes that we spent together, it was easy to see that Trucks and Tedeschi were very serious about their work. I asked Trucks if he was concerned with commercial success or critical acclaim – or neither.
“I would fall on the side of neither. As long as you have enough of an audience where you can keep doin’ what you’re doin’. For us (the DTB), and it’s the same with Susan, you try to believe in every record you do. You want to be inspired by the music you’re playin’, the band you’re playin’ with, and outside of that, you kind of let the chips fall where they fall.”
“There’s a lot of people that just focus on monetary success, commercial success or critical acclaim. That’s not our M.O. It’s nice when it happens, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
“If anything, I’d be more concerned with the legacy when you’re done fifty years from now, than with how a record’s received immediately. But, you don’t think about that very often either, you really have to dig into the work.”
“With this new group (The Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band), we have high expectations for it. We put a big band together. To just keep a band with this many people and this many badasses on the road, (with a chuckle) you have to have a certain amount of success to keep gas in the bus and everyone paid.”
“But outside of that, it’s really just if the tunes you’re writing are feeling good and inspired – and when you leave the studio you feel good about it. That’s all I’m lookin’ for.”
The quest for critical acclaim can be a never ending quest, due to the fickle nature of those that evaluate your work. Trucks agreed.
“It’s refreshing when you think about some of the people that you look to their careers, and I won’t say model yourself after, but you pay attention to.”
“When I think of somebody like Miles (Davis) that had one of the greatest bands of all time and just moved on. Everybody’s like, ‘What are you doin’!?’ Starts up with his new group and everybody hates it for the first year and then eight years later it’s the greatest band of all time.”
“I even noticed it with Eric (Clapton) too. There’s Cream, there’s Blind Faith, the Dominoes. I was readin’ a review of “Layla” from when it came out and it was just hammered! Just like ‘What drivel!’ I think that’s maybe his best work.”
“That stuff reinforces that if you feel good about it and you’re inspired to believe in it, who cares really? We’ve been on the road 15-20 years. Some of the things people would write negatively about are now the things that people write positively about. I don’t feel like what we’ve done has changed all that much, just perceptions.”
I kiddingly suggested that even if he performed for fifty more years, he still wouldn’t break B.B. King’s record.
With a laugh, Trucks replied, ”We just saw B.B. at Crossroads (Festival). We just did a recording with Dave Brubeck, who’s 92 years old and he just played some of the most beautiful stuff. So you see guys like that.”
“You’re talkin’ to Dave Brubeck and askin’ him about baritone player Gerry Mulligan, who’s one of my favorites. He started tellin’ me about a gig that he did with Gerry and Chet Baker (jazz trumpeter) and Charlie Parker (jazz saxophonist) and these guys are almost mythical characters to me.”
“We’ve got at least fifty years to go before we’re in that territory, where we’re talkin’ to young musicians about the musicians that we played with that have been gone for fifty years.”
Trucks’ tremendous respect his musical heroes is very evident and without question, helps him to stay grounded.
“Those direct links are so important. Me and Susan both have been so fortunate to run into a lot of those guys – share the stage or share records. We’ve been able to get really close with some of our real heroes that are real legends. And they’re really open and giving. Eric is that way too. Susan’s been on the road with almost every great, living blues musician.”
The humble Trucks’ respect doesn’t just extend to his musical heroes, but to his family as well. He’s been known honor his great-uncle Virgil Trucks (former professional baseball player) by taping his baseball card to the back of his guitar. Trucks spoke with reverence of his great-uncle.
“Uncle Virgil pitched for the Detroit Tigers for fifteen years. Talkin’ to him about pitching against Ted Williams and some of those guys. Hangin’ out with Satchel Paige. When you talk to Dave Brubeck about Charlie Parker or my great-uncle Virgil about Willie Mays, it’s the same thing.”
In Part 2, Trucks, Tedeschi and I will discuss their influence on the next generation of musicians and their songwriting technique.