Rock music’s current guitar master Derek Trucks triumphs with his new band while paying homage to those who came before.
I want to be Derek Trucks.
I mean, I like who I am, mostly. But to be Derek Trucks right now? Wow.
For starters, he’s co-leader of the Grammy-winning Tedeschi Trucks Band with his wife, blues siren Susan Tedeschi. He’s also trading solos, at least for the time being, with mentor and friend Warren Haynes as part of the legendary Allman Brothers Band. And he often sits in with admirers like Eric Clapton, with whom he has toured as co-guitarist several times. Heck, he even played the White House with other guitar greats like B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy and others not that long ago, paying tribute to the blues and jamming in front of a swaying POTUS.
So, with all this success, glory, admiration and reverence, what does Derek Trucks call his favorite thing in the world? Home.
“There’s a few things really, I guess it’s kinda tough to pick number one,” Trucks told me from St. Louis recently. “But we were just home for about a week and a half — which is rare for me — and being home for baseball practice and baseball games, my son is 11 [he also has a 9-year-old daughter], and walking up to the bus stop, man, those are the simple things that I think are hard to beat. Or havin’ a cigar on your back porch, little glass of rum [laughs], there’s nothing wrong with that either.”
Yep, add a palpable air of down-home Southern humility and a dash of genuine sincerity to this guy’s already envious life resume, and you really have someone who’s got it all.
Watching this virtuoso play, even hearing him speak, there is such an effortlessness about him. Even when his slide guitar screams like a modern-day Elmore James (his slide idol), or when he masterfully plucks previously untouchable Duane Allman solos out of the air like no one has since Allman’s death in 1971 (Derek was named for the ’70s Clapton/Allman supergroup Derek and the Dominoes), he seems so at ease and so comfortable in his own skin, it’s stunning, even disarming. Not a bad way to be, though, for arguably the greatest rock guitarist of the modern era and carrier of the ever-burning rock-and-roll torch.
Right now, the Tedeschi Trucks Band is in the midst of a barn-burner of a tour that includes a January 25th stop at Washington’s Warner Theater. They continue to wow audiences with Trucks’ soaring guitar, Tedeschi’s sublime blues vocals and a killer band to, well, beat the band. The couple, who married in 2001, combined their talents three years or so ago, leaving successful solo bands to form a unit that speaks to both of their impressive strengths. A risky move for some, but it seems to have paid off in spades.
“We had been tossing the idea around for years. It was unspoken. We’d both been thinkin’ about it,” Trucks said. “But I think for me, when the Clapton tour was done and I was trying to get the Allman Brothers to tour a bit less and just focus on one thing, I’d been with my solo band for about 14 years. I think I was 14 or 15 years old when we formed it. I was getting to a point where I was ready for a change. I never want to get stuck doin’ somethin’ that doesn’t feel like it did when you first did it. I just felt that comin’ to the point with [my solo band]. I was at such a great point musically and personally with everybody that it was a great time to kinda move on.”
And move on he has, right from the get go. The TTB’s 2011 debut album Revelator won a Best Blues Album Grammy and Blues Music’s Album of the Year. After releasing a well-received live album Everybody’s Talkin’ in 2012 (which includes a cover of that Harry Nilsson classic) and cementing themselves as one of rock’s best live acts, TTB put out their second studio release in 2013, Made Up Mind, a brilliant, diverse yet familiar blend of a special sound that the couple seems to have almost invented, yet it still has oh so many of those classic notes, riffs and vocal stylings that you’d swear it came out decades before. Trucks feels that as the band has begun to gel, every day they make music, whether in the studio or on stage, feels more and more special.
“I was really looking forward to the challenge of starting a band from scratch and not playing the same material,” he continued. “When [the Tedeschi Trucks Band] started, we really tried avoiding going to any of those safe spots like covers. We wanted to make sure the band could carry on on it’s own. Then we started finding our own vocabulary in the group, definitely in the last year, that’s just fully exploded. I think for me it was just that artist side of your brain, just wanting to keep it fresh and progressive and moving forward. Every once in a while you have to throw yourself, and I think your audience, a bit of a curve ball, just to keep it honest, ya know.”
As Trucks’ own career continues to skyrocket, his longtime collaboration with the Allman Brothers is coming to a close. He recently shocked some longtime Allman Brothers’ fans with the news that he and Haynes will be leaving at the end of 2014, after being a mainstay of the band for 15 years. It has to be bittersweet; he has been intimately involved with the Allman family his entire life. His uncle Butch was an original member and is still drumming for the band, and Derek grew up with the Allman kids and played live with the Brothers for the first time at the age of 13. But with this legendary Hall of Fame group, as with his own band, Trucks feels there is a right time to bow out gracefully.
“The musical level, the history, the myth are all intact,” Trucks said with a touch of poignancy in his voice. “I feel they’re in a really unique place where they can go out properly, in a way that, ya know, the band deserves. I don’t want to see it fizzle. I want to see it go out with a few great shows, where everyone knows this is, ya know, a last waltz. I feel like everything’s lining up for that. It’s nice that all the pieces are still in place to do it. I think that music and that history is so important to American music, I think it deserves to go out the right way. That’s where my head has been for the last year. Just trying to ship it back into shape and make sure we can do this thing right.”
Derek Trucks knows he has a responsibility to carry on the long tradition of roots-based rock by virtue of not only his storied past, but also because of his dazzling present as well as the almost-certain legendary status that’s ahead of him, if it’s not here already. He proceeds proudly, yet of course humbly, and with caution, as part of a movement to keep the rock-and-roll torch burning.
“To be able to keep it rollin’ in some way, shape or form, I know personally I take it very seriously,” Trucks said. “You don’t take yourself seriously, but you take the work seriously. When you get on stage with some of those guys — doing the Clapton tour, doin’ the Allman Brothers stuff, or being on stage with B.B. King — they pass the baton to you in a way, and you have to honor that. It’s a bit of a burden at times, but not really. It’s what we would be doing anyway. We just feel lucky to be a part of it.”
And when I tell him that my 18 year-old stepdaughter Kate told me to tell him how much she loves his music, he laughs kindly and says, “That’s great, really, tell her that young ears keep [the music] alive.”
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for vps3.washingtonlife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the classic rock cover band Second Wind.