By Brian Ives
The family that plays together, stays together. Singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi and guitarist Derek Trucks have streamlined their artistic lives over the past few years; the married couple have put their solo ensembles on hiatus to dedicate themselves fully to the Tedeschi Trucks Band. And with the Allman Brothers Band calling it a day in 2014, Trucks is free of all other artistic commitments. So the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s brand new album, Let Me Get By, marks the first time the duo can dedicate themselves solely to one project and the album surely benefits from it.
Radio.com recently spoke with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about — among other things — the new album, the last days of the Allmans, their surprising David Bowie cover, and why it pays to pay your band fairly.
You guys started playing together formally in the Soul Stew Revival in 2007, but when you changed the name to the Tedeschi Trucks Band, it wasn’t just a name change.
Susan Tedeschi: Well, basically we did Soul Stew Revival one summer just so we could hang out and have our kids come on tour with us
Derek Trucks: And kinda test the waters.
ST: And to see how it might work out. And so we did some cover tunes, and we did some songs from our old bands, but when we put this band together we started from scratch. We didn’t play any of our old material; we didn’t play anything that we had played in Soul Stew really. We really started from scratch; we wrote all new material for the record as well as learned new cover tunes for the band. And started from the ground up too, building the band, so a lot of the players were different too.
DT: I was thinking around that time about stepping away from the Allman Brothers; I was thinking I wanted to do something new with my own group. So I asked Susan if she was into giving it a go. And one of the things that I wanted to make sure is that we didn’t keep our solo bands and keep all the other things, because it’s too easy when a band is just getting going if it’s not working to just go, “You know what? This isn’t working, so I’m gonna go back to that.” So we kinda cut the safety net a little bit and jumped full in. And it was a great learning experience. It definitely took some time to grow into it, but it’s fully eclipsed what I’d hoped it would be. It’s taken on a life of its own at this point.
Now we’re at the point where feel like we, if there’s any song we’re inspired to play, we’ll play it. If it’s something from her record, my record, whatever it is, Allman Brothers, anything. If we rehearse it, and the band sinks its teeth into it, and it’s like “This is good,” then we do it. But I thought it was important those first few years to make an actual break from that stuff, at least for a little while.
You guys don’t want to be locked into set lists.
DT: I think making sure that we don’t get stuck in a situation where you have to play any song on any given night. And there’s a few songs that this band has written where you almost feel that way. They’re great tunes; they’re fun to play, but a song like “Midnight in Harlem” or something that people associate with the band really strongly, you feel semi-obligated to play it every night, but even with that tune we make it a point to not play it every night, just so it stays fresh. We wanna be doing this for a long time, so you wanna make sure that you don’t bore yourself with your own tunes.
I appreciated the Allman Brothers for not doing that. Most bands in their position would’ve played “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider” and “Melissa” every single night, and they didn’t. It made my 15-year run [in the band] a whole lot more enjoyable, not playing those songs every night. Because I looked forward to those songs. When I saw “Whipping Post” was on the set list, I was like, “All right! We’re gonna play ‘Whipping Post’ tonight!”
ST: And plus there’s so many other great songs. So it’s nice to mix it up.
DT: There’s far too many musicians pandering at all times. You know what? Can you dial it back a little bit? People will still be there. And the ones that leave you probably don’t want anyways.
And now this is the only band for both of you; you’re not leading your solo bands anymore, and the Allman Brothers Band is no longer together.
ST: Absolutely. It’s nice to be focused, and also we are parents, so it gives us more time to be focused on our family as well. So we’re full in on both of those fronts, and at the end of the day, I think both are gonna benefit because of it.
DT: Yeah, and stepping away from the Allman Brothers last year and then jumping in and starting to make this record, it was great, because any break from the record when we would hit the road, I could still think about it. It was a different feel entirely. It was pretty liberating. I’d never done that as an adult. Since I was 14 or 15 I was always just going, doing different things, playing in other people’s bands. And it was a great learning experience, and I’m glad I did it, but at this point I wouldn’t wanna do that again for some time. I wanna just lock in and see how far we could dig.
If you’re no longer in the Allmans, do you still get to play Duane’s guitar?
DT: Yeah, whenever we’re near Macon, Richard from the Big House will bring the Goldtop out, and it’s always special. Susan will play it too sometimes.
ST: When he lets me. It’s a great sounding guitar.
DT: When we did that last Crossroads concert at Madison Square Garden with Clapton, they brought the Goldtop out. And getting to play that on stage with Eric was pretty special, because that was the “Layla” guitar. I remember bringing it in to show Eric in the dressing room, and he was visibly moved by it. He’s like, “I can’t even really touch it.” He looked at it, and it was a powerful image for him. But getting to play that with him on a Dominos tune, it’s not lost on you while you’re doing it.
ST: It’s a heavy moment.
DT: It’s a special moment, yeah.
I was at that show; Susan you got to perform with Los Lobos that night.
ST: I love them. David Hidalgo’s amazing.
DT: Yeah, we talk about that a lot with our band, [singer] Mike Mattison especially, he’s like, “That’s the best American rock band going. They’re so underrated.” And I totally agree with him.
Tell me more about how making this record was different: you didn’t have other bands to worry about while you were recording.
DT: It’s amazing, stepping away from the Allman Brothers, stepping away from a major label who was really good to us; we had a great relationship with them. But it was really nice just turning a page, and it was a blank page, and when we started making this record we weren’t signed with anybody, and we just did it. It was a great experience.
ST: It was liberating. And honestly, Derek and Bobby Tis, who really engineered and recorded and produced the whole thing, they gave it so much of their energy and time, and not just because they had to, because they loved it, and it wasn’t stressful, and they could do what they wanted to do. And I think that’s a huge part of making a great record is having that comfort level and that confidence and just being able to do what you want to do.
Even in the songwriting credits, it looks like everyone contributes. A lot of times, the marquee names doesn’t share songwriting credits, because they don’t have to.
DT: The way we did it is, if everybody’s in the room writing a tune, and you contributed, your name is gonna be on it. If it’s five percent of the tune, it’s five percent of the tune. It means a lot to the band. You feel like everyone’s in it, because everyone is in it.
And one of the things I learned from being around the Allman Brothers and that bumpy history is: a lot of that was resentment about songwriting. A lot of that was like, “You know what? You got a hundred percent credit for that tune, but I was there and that’s not what happened.” It’s like, all those guitar parts on “Whipping Post”: Duane didn’t get credit for any of that stuff.
ST: And your uncle, he always claims that he scored out a whole percussion part and didn’t get any credit.
DT: And those grunges last a long, long time.
ST: Yeah. He’s still upset about it. It’s been 45 years.
DT: So those are lessons that, if you’re around to see that, when you’re doing your own thing, why be that way about it?
ST: It’s important to give credit. When you’re putting your heart and soul in your writing, you’re giving something, and it’s important to get credit. And some people say it’s not the best way to do things, you know, whatever. But at the end of the day it is the best thing. If you’re making your band happy, and everybody’s contributing, that’s a special thing.
DT: The last thing you wanna have is a band sitting together in a room, and you see somebody who has an idea, but they’re not gonna say anything, because it’s not their tune.
So this band is, the M.O. is entirely different. It’s like if you give, it’s for the whole, and this thing is gonna rise and fall together.
Your band has a huge audience in the jam band community, but your record seems more steeped in soul music and blues. Obviously you guys can improvise and stretch a song, but when is a song too long?
ST: Put it this way: we could let them go a lot longer, but we do try to let people improvise within reason and not really stress about it too much. But I think we all kind of have an understanding of how long people can really take it. So eight minutes is cool, whereas 16 might not be.
And also when this band gets really going, we might go into a totally different song. It might actually go somewhere else. So then it does actually go in stages, and then you might have to come back to the song. So a lot of different things can happen, but we do think a lot about the song and staying within the form, even when we’re going outside of the form.
DT: And I think even whether it’s blues, jazz, rock, whatever it is, all of my favorite artists, they can play, they can improvise, they can sing, but you remember the songs. Even the great Coltrane records, it’s like I know those melodies inside and out, and then you know the solos inside and out because he’s composing…
ST: They’re so melodic.
DT: He’s not just up there practicing in front of you or wasting time. It’s a search, but it’s a search where he’s got something in mind. There’s something he’s after. And I think we take that approach. On those great Hendrix records or the Allman Brothers records, you know what? There’s a stack of great tunes on those records. It’s not by happenstance. You remember those things.
ST: You can sing back melodies.
DT: Duane grew up doing sessions with Wilson Pickett and Aretha, and that’s where he came from. And then he took it, and you drop some acid on it or whatever in the ’60s, and it explodes, and you’re like, “Holy cow, what is this?” It’s the same with Hendrix. He was playing with the Isley Brothers, and he knew how to write a song. When you listen to Hendrix, you think about Curtis Mayfield, you’re like, oh, yeah, that’s Curtis with some Albert King and some liquid acid, and there you go. When I go back and listen to those records, it shocks me how little guitar there is on it. Obviously, the parts are there, and he’s playing, but that dude was singing and writing songs.
ST: Honestly, as a singer, I notice great guitar players are great because they play melodies that you can sing back. And I’m not just pumping him up ’cause he’s my husband, but he’s a great guitarist ’cause you can sing his melodies.
You can sing Eric Clapton’s guitar solos. You can sing great guitarists’ solos. There’s a lot of guitar players who get a lot of hype and are famous, and I personally don’t like them because to me they’re just what I call “wanking.” They’re just like “Wheedlie wheedlie” and “Here, look at this riff” and “Look at that.” You don’t feel it, and you know the difference right away.
Talk about covering David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which is a bonus track on the album.
ST: I always loved that song, and actually J.J. had brought it up to us the first year we got together. He was like, “Hey, we should try this tune.” And then about three or four years later, I was like, “Hey, remember J.J. brought up we should do ‘Oh, You Pretty Things?’ We should try that.”
And Derek’s like, “Okay, let’s try it.” And then we tried it, the second time that we tried it in the studio we recorded it, and then we left it alone. And then, “What do you wanna do for bonus tracks?” “We should put that on.” I was like, “Yes, yes!” It’s a great song.
DT: You know, it’s funny, it almost feels like a Beatles song, or it feels like it could come out of that realm.
ST: It’s very theatrical.
DT: Our kids were on a David Bowie kick too, and that song was playing in the house
ST: Sophia was singing it every day.
DT: That’s kind of what re-sparked it, and at the same time we were making our record, Tim Lefebvre, our bass player, was recording with Bowie, so that factored in too. We were just thinking about him that day. We were just in the studio getting sounds, messing around. And Kofi listened to it once, and the way Kofi does, he hears something, and then automatically he’s just gonna crush it.
So he’s at the grand piano, and he started playing that theme, and everyone just kinda fell in. And we didn’t really think about it a whole lot after that, and then we went back and listened to it. I was like, “That’s fun.” That’s kind of a diversion, but it’s fun.
ST: There’s two versions, ’cause the first time we did it—
DT: She mangled the lyrics beautifully.
ST: I said “Homo soap-ians” instead of “Homo sapiens.” And the drummers love it to this day, they’re like “Say it!” I’m like “Shut up!”
You guys covered Derek & the Dominos’ “Keep On Growing” as another bonus track. Derek, you played a lot of Dominos songs when you were playing in Eric Clapton’s band. What was that like?
DT: That was an amazing experience. [Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs] was one of the two records that I grew up just spinning constantly before I was conscious of it. My parents named me after that record, so there’s a little bit of just full-on nostalgia. But some of it is those were really great tunes, and it was kind of a period that was a little unsung for him. “Layla,” everyone knows that track, but I think that record was kinda panned when it first came out, and it didn’t have a lot of—it wasn’t as successful as some of his other stuff. And I didn’t realize until I was out with him that he didn’t realize how other than the one tune, how—
ST: How popular it was.
DT: How much people cared about that record. He was like, “Oh, I thought it was just like the musos.” I was like, “No, everybody [loves it]!”
ST: Loves the entire record, absolutely.
What were some of the highlights for you?
DT: We did that song for a few months, and that was probably the musical highlight for me, that tune, and I don’t know if he had ever gigged it.
ST: Derek played the Duane slide part, and Eric’s singing it, and all of a sudden I look around and the whole place is just bawling. Everybody’s just crying; it was so moving. I was crying every night, but I thought it was just me. But it was gorgeous.
A few years ago, before the Allmans broke up, I interviewed Warren Haynes and asked him if he thought you guys would play together after the band was over, and he said he definitely thought so.
ST: We played Warren’s Christmas Jam last year, and he got up with us then. We’ve definitely had moments; we’ve done “Crossroads” together, the three of us. We definitely have moments that we do share together.
DT: I bet sometime down the road—
ST: I think it will happen.
DT: Right now we’re just so focused on this, and Warren’s got a bunch of things going on, but—
ST: It’s not out of the picture. He’s a dear friend.
DT: I’ve known him since I was 10 or 11.
ST: I’ve known him since ’91. I’ve known him about eight years longer than Derek. So we both have a long history with Warren. He’s been really good to both of us. He’s a good friend.
I was at the last Allman Brothers Band concert [read the review and see the photos here]; I thought it was really moving. But what was going through your mind that night?
DT: You know, I think Warren and really the whole band right at the end were so focused on making the last show really count. It’s weird to say this, but I was really proud of everybody involved that all the B.S. and all the egos and all of that just got wiped to the side. And everyone was like, “You know what? This is an important band, and this is an important moment, and this night needs to be about that.”
We talked about it the night before; we’re like, “Tomorrow we’re playing long, we’re going deep, everybody get some rest.” And everybody showed up and just brought it for three and a half, four hours, however long the show was. And it felt right; it really did feel good. It was a great relief that it went that well.
Really, for me, the last five or six years, one of the reasons I hung on as long as I did was… it was starting to dip there for a minute. I just didn’t wanna see it end there. This band has the opportunity to actually end it on a high level. And no one seems to do that; you think about the last Grateful Dead shows [with Jerry Garcia], the last Muhammad Ali fight… everyone seems to just go a little too long. And so the last few years were really about whipping it back into shape for that moment. And it happened. I was shocked that it did, but it felt really good.
The next day, maybe two days later, it hit me how much of a weight that had been. It really, really was exhausting the next few days. I was just wiped, and I haven’t felt like that, maybe ever. I didn’t realize how much we were just wearing it, you know?
ST: It’s a big responsibility.
DT: It was a huge relief. And not for nothing. In a lot of ways, the last half a dozen years came down to me and Warren thinking about the legacy and thinking about the tunes and really kind of willing it into being what it was. It takes a lot of time and energy, especially when not everyone is on the same page, and it’s like some jujitsu you’re having to pull, like Jedi mind tricks. In the end, it was special, and everybody, to a man, on that stage left it on the stage, and it was better than I had hoped.
And it was a great communal thing that happened with the audience and the band that night, like when Gregg stepped up to speak at the end of the night, and the place was just going crazy, and he said one word, and it just went silent.
In all the years I’ve been at the Beacon, I’ve never heard it silent. Even at soundcheck, I’ve never heard it silent. It was church, man, it was really special. Same with Jaimoe and Butch when they got up there.
I was like, this is the way it should be. Part of me wishes that Dickey would’ve been there, but I think it went as good as it was gonna go. It wouldn’t have been the same feeling, it wouldn’t have been as special, because it would’ve been too much other… stuff. So it was good. Duane’s sprit was there that night, for sure.
Gregg kind of knocked me out recently; I was interviewing him and he said he’d consider doing the Allmans again with Dickey back in the band.
DT: Well, it’s funny, the Dickey-Gregg dynamic is a lot different than the Butch-Dickey dynamic or any of the other stuff. With Gregg and Dickey it’s just like an old married couple. Then a few years later they’re fine, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see those two together.
And I would love to see it; I think it needs to happen. Whether the original four will ever get back together, totally different ballgame, but Gregg and Dickey, I could see it happening.
Susan, you’ve been an in-demand duet partner on other people’s records. What have your best experiences been as a guest?
ST: I guess Pinetop Perkins, that was a lot of fun. I was actually nursing one of my kids, and he would call me “Double Bubble” because my boobs were so big at the time. I have a lot of fond memories of a lot of these old blues guys. But getting to record with him, getting to record Little Milton on his record, that was a great experience.
A lot of these guys are just so special, and just to get to know them and get to perform with them is really such a gift.
Getting to work with Santana and getting to work with, of course, Willie Nelson, record with him. Singing “Crazy” as a duet with Willie Nelson was pretty over the top, especially when he’s mad about the tune, because he sold it for like 50 dollars. So that was very special.
And Willie is just such a special person. To me he’s a lot like B.B. King, who really took me under his wing and showed me the way and taught me how to be humble and how to be thankful to be a musician and to keep the gift alive, go out there and sing every day and write songs and talk to people and be appreciative of your fans and be humble.
The two of them were very, very similar in a lot of ways. And both of them love [guitarist] Charlie Christian. They both loved Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart. And you can hear it in both of their playing, coming from different angles, but when they both solo, you really can hear that style. And so I’d say those two were incredibly special, and Buddy Guy too. My first big, big tour was with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and my band. Jimmie Vaughan did some of the dates; so did Mac Rebennack [a.k.a. Dr. John]; Johnny Lang was on some of that tour that first year. And so all of them had a huge influence on who I became, and who I had the confidence to become.