Louisiana Hayride: Sonny Landreth Unleashes a Category 5 Guitar Storm with Guests Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, Vince Gill, and Mark Knopfler on from the Reach
"IT'S SO GREAT TO HEAR A HIGH-ENERGY PLAYER DOING SOMETHING unique and refreshing, and I think that more than anyone, Sonny is doing that right now." Those are the words of Eric Johnson reflecting on Louisiana slide king Sonny Landreth, who has just released his most ambitious album to date, From the Reach. Johnson lent his stellar playing to the project, as did Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, Vince Gill, Dr, John, Jimmy Buffet, and Arrested Development's Nadirah Shakoor. Driven by Landreth's otherworldly bottleneck playing, the new album nails all points oil the coolness curve with its inspired songwriting, lyrical depth, and abundance of great guitar from this all-star cast. It's no secret that Landreth has elevated the state of rock guitar via his amazing slide technique, which involves fingering notes and generating harmonics on the "left side of the glass." The opening of the fretboard's north slope to slide exploration began when Landreth debuted his unique approach back in 1972, on an album produced by the infamous music entrepreneur Huey Meaux. "That was the first time I took the technique and recorded it officially for an album, though none of it got released until many years later under the title Prodigal Son," says Landreth. "The next albums I did it on were Blues Attack and Down in Louisiana, which were for Jay Miller--the same guy who recorded Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo---for what became the Excello label."
Landreth's notoriety increased dramatically when he toured with John Hiatt in 1987 for the Bring the Family album. He wowed Hiatt's audiences with a slide sound that was rife with ringing harmonics, crying ghost notes, and shimmering vibrato effects--all of which emanated from a combination of sly fingering behind the slide and a right-hand approach based on Chet Atkins' fingerstyle technique. Landreth officially set out on his own in 1992 with his solo release Outward Bound, and since that time GP has been documenting his style of playing in numerous features and lessons. Landreth's appearance on this month's cover is a long-due testament to the immense impact that he has had on the guitar scene, and the Master Class that accompanies this story (see page 106), further explores the inner workings of a sound and a style that still remain unique to Sonny L. This interview was conducted while Landreth, his longtime bassist David Ranson, and drummer Michael Butch were in the midst of a hectic summer tour in support of From the Reach.
How did you go about writing songs that would accommodate the very distinct styles of Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Vince Gill, and Mark Knopfler?
It was a real adventure for me because I'd never done anything like that before. I'm familiar with their work so I could think, "The groove on this song would fit Vince Gill, or these chord changes would be cool for Robben Ford or Eric Johnson." But it was a leap of faith to start writing songs before I even had confirmation from those guys. I didn't want this to be another cliched duets album, and I think the idea to write each song with the guest player in mind made it easier for them to relate to the songs and step into their spots. The songs still had to be deeply personal in terms of what I relate to and want to express, but I knew I had to come up with something that was worth these guys' time. You are putting yourself on the line in a way, because people might think you just wanted them to play on your record to help you out. But it was way more of a musical connection for me in how these players influenced the writing process. I may have done these songs anyway, but there's no way they would have come out the way they did without their involvement. There are a couple of songs I already had before this project started. One was "The Goin' On," which I co-wrote with Wendy Waldman back in 1998. …