The call of the wild
by arwulf arwulf
From the August, 2017 issue
Louisiana guitarist, singer, and songwriter Sonny Landreth is very much a creature of the Gulf Coast. While his William Faulkner- and Buffy Sainte-Marie-inspired lyrics speak to the human condition, his tunes conjure duckweed, muscadine, Spanish moss, cypress knees, and the thorny aromatic honey locust. We're talking Deep South. Any further down and you'd be paddling toward Yucatán.
A natural-born backwoods roadhouse performer, Landreth is a gifted fingerstyle and bottleneck slide guitarist whose artistry is grounded in the American blues tradition. Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Louisiana, where fate handed him a succession of life-changing musical encounters. Within the space of one year, at the impressionable age of seventeen, Landreth heard and met B.B. King in New Iberia, Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, and Jimi Hendrix in Baton Rouge.
Landreth taught himself to play the blues while listening to records by Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters. As an aspiring bluesman, he worked hard to develop a technique that would bring out the vocal qualities of the slide guitar. "At the start, the sounds I made were rough on everybody-my family, and especially my poor dog and cat," he writes on his website. But "eventually I was able to develop my own instrumental voice and began to apply that to any style I wanted to play."
Drop-forged into professional musicianship by intensive gigging with Chenier's zydeco band, Landreth collaborated with multi-instrumentalist Cajun poet Zachary Richard, as well as blues-based rockers John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and the late Johnny Winter, who Landreth says inspired him to keep the music "raw and in the moment."
Just watching Landreth move his glass slide-which he wears on his little finger-along the neck of a resonator guitar can put me in a trance. The sounds that emanate from the instrument are hauntingly, powerfully evocative. Plugging in the Fender Stratocaster, he launches into "Dust My Broom" with the fiery ferocity of Elmore James, his growl tone distortion and reverb reminiscent of free
jazz improviser Sonny Sharrock.
Among Landreth's early musical inspirations were Miles Davis and John Coltrane; from them he learned that when playing in what he calls "the zone," there are no limits to where you can venture as a creative artist. "I wish I could say, well, I'm a blues guitar player, so I'll make blues albums for the rest of my life," he says. "That's a beautiful thing. It's where my heart is, really. But I sort of hear the call of the wild, you know?"
Sonny Landreth will play the Ark on August 19.
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
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