On The Bright Sides: Susan Tedeschi Revisits ‘Just Won’t Burn’

Dean Budnick on November 28, 2023
On The Bright Sides: Susan Tedeschi Revisits ‘Just Won’t Burn’

photo: CJ Strehlow & Rahm Carrington


“This is a record that I really wanted to rerelease because it slipped through a bunch of hands, changing ownership and all this stuff,” Susan Tedeschi says of 1998’s Just Won’t Burn, which has just been issued in an expanded form with five bonus tracks. “I had to fight and get my record back, which had gone missing. It was kind of an ongoing caper.”

Tone-Cool Records originally issued the album, after label founder Richard Rosenblatt saw Massachusetts native Tedeschi perform at area clubs with her band, which also featured guitarist Adrienne Hayes and harmonica player Annie Raines. The group had made a name for themselves by winning a local Battle of the Blues Bands in 1993 and then taking second place in the subsequent international competition in Memphis.

Tedeschi recalls, “The people who came in first weren’t even a real band, so they couldn’t accept the prize, which was to play at the Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville, Fla., and the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Ark. That really opened the doors for us. Then I realized we needed something to sell to people, so I said to my dad, ‘Can I borrow some money? I’ll pay you back in six months.’ I made a record [Better Days] in 12 hours, mixed it in four and sold 20,000 copies off the stage. So that all worked out, then Tone-Cool took notice.”

When the time came to record Just Won’t Burn, which was produced by local guitarist Tom Hambridge, it was a transitional era for Tedeschi, who was working with three different projects, all of which are represented on the album. Still, Tedeschi’s voice and vision shine through and the record did exceptionally well, selling over a half-million copies, while facilitating a Best New Artist Grammy nomination in a memorable field that also included eventual winner Christina Aguilera, as well as Macy Gray, Kid Rock and Britney Spears. Tedeschi, who initially learned of the honor over Thanksgiving while visiting with her future husband Derek Trucks at his parents’ house, remarks, “It all moved really fast. I flew out to Chicago for the announcement with Kid Rock, Britney and Macy. From there, it was kind of nonstop for a while.”

As Tedeschi considers the 11 songs on the original album, she notes, “They reflect my many influences. There’s a little bit of country with stuff like ‘Angel From Montgomery.’ Then the songs written by TH are more rock and blues. My own songwriting on it blends different styles, including some reggae from Bob Marley and Toots Hibbert, mixed with Bonnie Raitt. As I whole, I don’t feel like it’s a blues record. It shows a lot of different sides.”

Rock Me Right

This was a tune that Tom came up with. He wanted me to do a rocker. It’s not exactly a 12-bar [blues], but it has that kind of feel.

I had met him when he was playing at The Grog up in Newburyport. When I was going to Berklee, I’d had some teachers that were friends with him, so I knew about TH & The Wreckage, which is his band. Then TH and I became friends, and he was really gung-ho about working with Adrienne and I, sort of mentoring us.

I didn’t have anyone to produce the record and he said he’d love to do it. I was like, “All right, that’s cool.” He was writing some tunes with us, so it just made sense.

TH has a super positive attitude and he’s a go-getter. He gets a lot done. He was good at bringing some stuff out of me. I also liked that he was a little bit more rock because I also like to rock out.

You Need to Be With Me

I was on Martha’s Vineyard when I wrote this one. I had sailed from Scituate to the Vineyard and was on a mooring in Oak Bluffs Harbor. I totally had a crush on the harbormaster at that time. It was summer, it was beautiful and island-y, so I thought, “It would be cool to put a reggae groove to this.”

When I was writing the lyrics, I remember going through some Emily Dickinson poems while I was searching for inspiration. There is a quote from one of her poems in the third verse.

This is one of those songs where you’re in love and you’re trying to convince someone they should be with you. I wanted it to be free and kind of light and have a nice groove.

Little by Little

I like to do songs that are tributes to really great blues people. When we did this one, it was a tribute to Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. It was really fun to play.

I was fortunate enough to meet Junior Wells and saw him perform at the House of Blues in Cambridge. He just blew my mind. He was so good—an amazing singer, harmonica player and entertainer. I got to tour with Buddy a couple of years later and became close with him.

Annie played harmonica on it and I was always looking for stuff to show off her and Adrienne. Annie’s a fabulous blues harmonica player. She’s amazing, especially if you like Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Lazy Lester or anybody like that. I also feel like she was instrumental in teaching Adrienne and I how to play a lot of rhythm because of her rhythm style on harmonica.

I didn’t really play guitar early on. I only played cowboy chords until I started the band with them. Then I began playing electric and I was learning all the time. Annie and Adrienne helped me learn how to play blues. It was addictive, and they turned me on to so many records. Annie also has an amazing duo with Paul Rishell, and I learned what I could from Paul Rishell, too, because his guitar-playing is phenomenal. The two of them are so soulful, with great storytelling, beautiful melodies, great rhythm playing—just the whole package for me.

She was also signed to Tone-Cool Records and sometimes she would do doubles at the festivals. She would play a set with Paul, then she’d come and do a set with Adrienne and I. Annie was in the band for about four years starting in ‘93, then went back with Paul full-time.

It Hurt So Bad

This is another one of Tom’s tunes. I have a memory of working with him on it and coming up with a lot of the vocal melody.

When we were recording, we would move around to different studios. I remember being at Ducky Carlisle’s studio in South Boston [Room 9 from Outer Space] while we were doing “It Hurt So Bad.” I was a little winded with my singing because it’s a belter and I remember TH rooting me on. He was like, “One more time! You got this!”

I also love where Sean Costello went with his solo. Everything Sean played was really well-constructed and had great energy. You can hear a lot of different influences in his playing. He loved Otis Rush and also people like Booker Little. He loved so many different musicians and he’s a huge part of the record.

I met him at Springing the Blues—when I won the international blues contest, we played that festival the next year. He was an old soul and he was very charming. He was only 17 when I first met him and we were eight-and-a-half years apart. He pursued me and I told him he was too young. When I saw him again after he’d turned 18, I said, “All right, maybe we’ll go on a date.” But we both had a love of the blues—he was turning me on to music and I was showing him what I was into. It was a very serendipitous thing.

Weirdly, he brought me to see Derek Trucks one time. He said, “The only living guitar player worth seeing is this guy. We’ve got to go see him—he’s a friend of mine.” So we went and saw him at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. The two of them were 18 or 19 years old.

Unfortunately, Sean passed away the night before his 29th birthday. He was dealing with addiction and was bipolar. So it was very complicated, but it was the loss of a great talent and a great person.

Found Someone New

At that time, I had been writing on the piano a lot. I wrote “Found Someone New” and “Wrapped in the Arms of Another” that way and wanted to get one of those two on the record. “Found Someone New” seemed to fit and it was something different where I was playing piano and singing [“Wrapped in the Arms of Another” would later appear on 2002’s Wait for Me].

I remember when I was doing that track, I was thinking about John Lennon and I wanted to get that kind of mic sound on my voice.

I also had a cold and I was sounding really nasally so I took Sudafed, which made me feel all jacked up. [Laughs.]

Sean Costello plays a backwards solo on the song. I remember flipping the tape and him constructing the solo backwards in his head. He played it backwards so that when they flipped it, it sounded forwards. It was wild. He was really gifted and it was so cool.

Looking for Answers

This is one of the first tunes I wrote in an open tuning that wasn’t just a 12-bar. It wasn’t just straight blues, it was a tiny bit different. I was trying to mix some of my influences—I was thinking about Robert Plant at the very end of the song. While I was trying to bring some different worlds together, I was also trying to write something that was universal and timeless with a cool groove where you could change your arrangement to fit whoever you are and however you wanted to play it.

I later was excited that Derek would play it because I wrote it in an open tuning for slide.

I have four different versions of that song, and it’s fun to revisit it and make it my own again. I think it still works and I think the subject matter still makes sense. At the time, I was just trying to answer questions that we don’t know the answers to.

Can’t Leave You Alone

Adrienne and I both had songs we had written that didn’t make the first record and this was one of hers. She grew up in Cape Ann, where she fell in love with the blues and played guitar, drums and bass. She has a funny story where when she was a kid, one of the guys from the band Boston was her babysitter. So, when she was little, she would go and sit in at these jams up on the North Shore. She was taught how to play a bunch of blues stuff by these old rockers, which was kind of cool.

I met Adrienne at a Joe Louis Walker show shortly after the House of Blues opened in Cambridge. It was the first week and we ran into each other. Annie also was there and the three of us started talking. We were like, “Hey, we should start a band.”

Adrienne was cool, beautiful and super sweet. She was really into jamming and playing. It didn’t feel like work, which I loved.

At that time, I was in wedding bands. It was really good money, but I felt like I was doing everything for the wrong reason and I was miserable. So I gave up $700 a gig for $13 a gig. It was the best decision I ever made. [Laughs.]

I remember at our first gig at Johnny D’s [in Somerville, Mass.], they paid us the door, which turned out to be $13 each. But then we started playing Joe’s Yard Rock down in Quincy, and we began accumulating some different weekly shows that helped pay the rent.

That scene was really happening and it was very tightly knit—everybody kind of supported each other. It wasn’t really competitive as much as it was a big, fun celebration of the music that we were all out there doing.

Sometimes we would also get in a van and drive 17 hours or 20 hours. We would play down in Memphis or we would go out to Mississippi or the King Biscuit Festival in Helena. People would be really interested because there weren’t a lot of women fronting a blues band, let alone three girls in their twenties. It was pretty outrageous at the time. We usually would catch somebody’s attention. We got to meet people like Robert Junior Lockwood, Sam Lay, Johnny Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks and all these others.

Getting to be in a band with Annie and Adrienne was huge for me. I loved being out there with them—three girls just kicking ass.

Just Won’t Burn

I remember writing this one at a blues jam at Johnny D’s. Then one of my friends pointed out a hook that they thought would be a cool title, which was “Just Won’t Burn.”

I had wanted to have a slow blues to play, but I didn’t want it to just be a 12-bar, I wanted it to be a little different. So I threw that sus chord in there to make it a little bit more unique.

Somehow the song has held up through the test of time. It’s sort of like, “Looking for Answers” in that it seems to get over well.

It’s my tribute to the blues in that the blues isn’t the problem—in fact, it’s something we have in common. It’s about telling a story.

Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean

I had seen Toni Lynn Washington and a couple other people play this song, but they all did it more like a swing, more in the original version of Ruth Brown. At the time, Adrienne and I were really into Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so we decided to do it Texas-style instead of doing it like a swing.

We were definitely influenced by Stevie and Jimmie when we came up with that arrangement. We also needed more upbeat stuff for our sets, so it was something we threw in there that was fun to play.

Angel From Montgomery

Tim Gearan played guitar on this song, and he sounds beautiful on it. It had a lot of traction, which surprised me at the time. I remember first meeting Gwyneth Paltrow back in 2000, and she said that she listened to that version of “Angel From Montgomery.” I thought that was wild because I didn’t think that it had gotten out there. I thought everybody just listened to the versions John Prine and Bonnie Raitt did.

My version is a little bit different, but at the same time, it’s a classic song. It’s so easy to connect with people on songs like that. They resonate with audiences, who love stories from people like John Prine or Bob Dylan.

My grandfather always loved that song and my dad did, too. So that was one of the reasons I recorded it.

Friar’s Point

With “Friar’s Point,” I wanted to write a 12-bar that would tell a story about some of the people we’d learned from and the places we had visited. Friar’s Point is one of those mythical places at the crossroads down in Mississippi. It’s part of that Tennessee/Mississippi/ Arkansas trifecta and it has that whole vibe.

I’m so excited to get this record back out there and have it available. I’m also happy to have it on vinyl. There are copies of it on vinyl, but it was never approved before. So this is professionally done with our approval.

Listening to Just Won’t Burn brought back so many memories. It’s like, “Wow, that was long ago. That was long ago.” [Laughs.]