Derek Trucks: A Legend In The Making (Relix Revisited, 1998)
After a month off the road, the Tedeschi Trucks Band returns to the stage tonight at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA (with George Porter Jr. on bass). We mark the occasion with this article from the April 1998 issue of Relix. The title seems prophetic, no?
Derek Trucks laughed as he listened to observations made about his band by people seeing it for the first time. He laughed with a combination of modesty and maturity, something musicians twice his age rarely do.
The Derek Trucks Band had opened for Gregg Allman & Friends weeks earlier, giving many their first glimpse of the 18-year-old guitar slinger. Some observations were, “First impression: a nice-looking kid. Long, blonde ponytail. You’d let him date your daughter.” Minutes later, during an epiphany of sorts: “Second Impression: The second coming of Johnny Winter!”
The idea of Trucks being in the same company as the legendary Winter amused and flattered Derek, the nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, but he shrugged off the comparison, as he is wont to do. He’s been hearing the hoopla for years, but Trucks’ skills on guitar are no laughing matter. His talent has even prompted Warren Haynes to predict, “If he’s not already the best slide player in the world, he soon will be.” Heady stuff, indeed, for a young man still years away from legally being able to buy a beer in one of the many bars where he has turned skeptics into converts since he was 11.
Relix caught up with Trucks during his second swing through Boston in three weeks, touring in support of his first CD effort, the self-titled The Derek Trucks Band (Landslide). This time around, he was set to pitch both ends of a double-header: both opening for and playing with Frogwings, an All-Star side project that includes his uncle and other members of the Allman Brothers Band and other Dixie-related musicians.
Commenting on fans’ initial expectations and reactions, Trucks admitted that people tend to classify his sound before hearing it yet are somewhat shocked when they do. “A lot of people come in and they either heard me when I was ten or eleven when I was [sitting in with] the Allman Brothers, expecting to hear that and maybe they’re a little bit turned off because it’s so different,” he said. “But I think the majority of the people like it better because it’s its own thing, though some people come expecting to hear the next spin-off of the Allman Brothers and, when it’s not there, they just turn away. That doesn’t bother me. We’re just laying it out and if you like it, great.”
What tends to grab a listener – listen for a few minutes and you quickly forget Trucks’ bloodline and understand that he’s charting his own course – is the broad musical background that he and his band bring to the table. Trucks’ knowledge of a wide variety of musical forms sets him head and shoulders above most of today’s working guitarists – of any age. Probably the most technically advanced of the teenage blues guitar sensations, Trucks’ contemporaries such as Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Monster Mike Welch seem one-dimensional when compared to him.
Trucks is a true student, a junkie, of music technique. He cites Sun Ra, Miles Davis and even Ali Akbar Khan as major musical influences, whereas most 18-year-olds have never even heard of these guys, let alone been inspired by them. The impact of jazz, blues and Eastern music comes through on Trucks’ CD and live performances. Quite simply, Trucks plays with a passion, a depth of soul, that belies his years.
Many ask of his accomplishments, “How’d the kid get so good?” The answer is by listening and learning. Trucks’ musical education started with his father’s Elmore James albums as a young boy and continues today. He submerses himself in recordings from the masters and gleans what he can from those around him. “What comes out has a lot to do with what you listen to and what you hear, more than practice itself,” he noted. “That’s important, but it’s just as important to spend time researching and listening to where it began.”
Spoken like a rock veteran.
“I think anything you can do, just being around or listening to musicians who are beyond you is definitely helpful,” he added. “I remember from being ten or eleven, and playing and hearing Warren and Oteil [Haynes and Burbridge of ABB fame] and Jimmy [Herring, guitarist of the Aquarium Rescue Unit], and it made you either want to quit or practice, they were so good. Usually you end up practicing.”
Wherever he goes, whatever he’s doing, he’s always looking to enhance his already ample skills. “When we played San Francisco, we drove over to Ali Akbar College Of Music and watched him teach a class,” said Trucks. “It was pretty heavy. There are over 40 people at the college who have been studying under him for over 20 years. It’s like a religion; it’s not music. When he walked in, everyone stood up. It was one of the heaviest auras I’ve ever experienced. I actually bought a sarod there, the Indian instrument that he plays, and played it on our album.”
These days, he’s been picking up some tricks from the Frogwings guys. “Sitting down with people like Oteil and Jimmy and picking their brains has definitely been helpful,” continued Trucks. “But the only problem with guys like that is that they’re almost too humble when you ask them to show you. They’re almost reluctant, they’re so polite,” he joked.
When speaking of his own band, Trucks said, "Yonrico [Scott, drums] is the oldest guy in the band [at 42], and he’s been doing this forever. He brings a classical orientation to the band, having played with everything from symphonies to Whitney Houston. He’s so knowledgeable in music, and he’s one of the better drummers I’ve heard.
“Todd Smallie [bass] comes from the same place I do. We listen to the same stuff, and he’s just as hard-core. He’s improved 200 percent since he’s been in the band, and he’s still progressing, like me. And Bill [McKay, keyboards], he’s from Colorado and brings a more folky thing to us. He’s been in a bunch of Dead bands and stuff, and I think his B-3 is essential to what we’re going for. He had a lot to do with our sound changing.”
When it came time to record the CD, Trucks again displayed an unusual maturity by tapping John Snyder, Grammy winning producer of blues and jazz greats such as Jimmy Wells, Gatemouth Brown, Etta James and Ornette Coleman, to produce. To best capture Trucks’ true sound, Snyder had the band record live in the studio. Trucks feels he made the right call. “It felt very natural with John,” he said. “We went in and played our set. He picked out a few cuts and we did them over again, and that was basically it. It was pretty spur-of-the-moment. He chose a few cuts that needed a few vocal and keyboard overdubs. But it took only four or five days of recording, less than a week in total with mixing.”
In an obvious nod to his heroes, Trucks deftly works through a number of covers on the CD, from Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” to John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” But his originals, like the blues-groove of “555 Lake,” and straight-ahead jazz of “Out Of Madness” show his mastery of the different genres.
Trucks also has his own vision of how he wants to attain success – by relying on his own skills to survive and not taking handouts nor depending on his connections. “[The band is] very grassroots at this point,” he maintained. “We’re trying to set the fire from the bottom, and we’ll see what happens. I think it’ll work as long as we can keep it afloat. Unfortunately, it’s very costly to have a band on the road, so it’s hard. But I think it’ll work itself out.” Trucks said that while going to music school is always an option, right now the band is his number one priority.
When asked about the Gregg Allman set for which he opened and joined in as a special guest, Trucks said it was one of 1997’s high points. "That was a great show, and the first time he had brought me out. During the show, Trucks got a standing ovation during his solo in “Need Your Love.” He laughed again, reminded of the reaction of both the crowd and the band. Again, the accolades didn’t seem to faze him. It’s not his style to dwell on those things because, as he says, “I’m not there yet musically.” Apparently, many think he is.
This year, though, maybe he’ll get closer to “there” in his own mind, as he plans to spend even more time on the road and release another CD. He excitedly outlined his plans: “We want to tour really hard in 1998, keep hitting it and in the summer, maybe in the spring, we’ll have another album out. We want to get that rolling, hopefully releasing one a year, maybe one every six months, because as much as we play, it’s not hard to work in new music.” Having already laid down several tracks with Herring, the new CD should help clear up any misconceptions about Trucks, by establishing his reputation as a talented performer with a unique sound.
Part of charting his own course, however, may mean having to play in the shadow of his famous uncle. For Derek Trucks’ sake, just remember that being related to an Allman Brother doesn’t mean you have to sound like one.