Derek Trucks: Always Rising Up

by Steve Houk

One of rock’s most remarkable talents talks about the respect he has for both his superb band as well as the spirits of those he misses.

(photo by Greg Logan)

They say that working alongside great talent makes your talent shine even brighter.

This is true in many different professions, say, for example, in the world of sports — if you’re on the court with a LeBron or a Steph Curry, your game can get better.

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Or take acting — if you’re in a scene with a Meryl Streep or an Al Pacino, your talent can often soar to new heights.

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And it’s very often the same with music.

For a guy like Derek Trucks, it’s hard to imagine him getting any better. Since he was in his single digits, he has shown a truly otherwordly and miraculous talent, and yet, he seems to just get better with each passing year. Every time you watch him masterfully work his guitar, the nuances of his playing seem to have gotten even more spectacular. On every tour, on every album, every time you see or hear him play, he seems to have risen the bar, and from a pretty high place to begin with.

So you’d think it’s the folks who surround him that are the ones benefiting from his masterful playing. But if you ask Trucks, it’s those he surrounds himself with that keep him at the very top of his game, keep him growing his skills, always striving for more.

“Being surrounded by really high-level musicians and people who are really good at what they do, you have to constantly sharpen the blade and make it work,” Trucks, 39, told me on a recent break from recording his Tedeschi Trucks Band‘s latest record at his home studio. “And you never want to be left behind, especially by those people you play with, so when you’re playing with bad asses, it’s sink or swim. It’s a fine line between trying to keep up with the Jones’ and the trends that come and go. And then there’s also just constantly getting better and trying to do that thing. So I think as long as you’re following the muse for the right reasons, I think you’re in good shape. And I feel like right now, we’re in a really good spot as a band, and also me personally, where you’re just grinding away because you want to, you need to.”

Yes, it’s fair to say that Trucks and his TTB crew are in a good spot indeed. With wife Susan Tedeschi, a stellar guitar player (and superb singer) in her own right, by his side as she has been for the past eight years, and in many ways a peerless band around him, the Tedeschi Trucks Band continues to add more rabid fans as they tour the world relentlessly, thrilling audiences with their unique and fiery blend of beautifully finessed rock and blues and soul, including right now on the current incarnation of their Wheels Of Soul tour, which makes its now-annual stop at Wolf Trap‘s Filene Center on July 11th, with special guests Drive By Truckers and The Marcus King Band.

(photo by Stuart Levine)

As Trucks marvels at his current band members’ deep acumen, he also thoughtfully ponders what has happened over these last eight years, taking time to look back in wonder at how far this incarnation of his musical life has come. Whether in the studio or live on stage, Trucks marvels at how much the band has grown.

“It’s intense like it should be, and it’s a lot of moving parts, but we’re incredibly fortunate to get to play with the collection of musicians in this band. And we’ve been really lucky that it’s been a steady build every year since we started doing it. Sometimes you’re so into trying to make it work and make it go, you don’t step back and see that. But then you look and realize you’re seven, eight years into doing a Beacon residency, and doing a big handful of shows every year, it’s stuff that I think fifteen, twenty years ago I don’t think I would have believed would be possible to happen.”

And as great bands do, TTB has found new ways to explore and enhance their sound, as evidenced by what recently went down in the studio adjacent to Trucks and Tedeschi’s Florida home, as the band was wrapping up their new album, due out early next year.

“We really worked hard trying to finish this record,” the kindhearted and easygoing Trucks said. “We recently finished tracking and mixing everything, until we hit it just right. We also had a string section come in, a quartet from the Jacksonville symphony came by, and we got them on four or five tunes and it was a beautiful sound they made. That’s the first time we’ve done that in our studio, it was a lot of fun. But I think (this record) is hopefully just an evolution of what we’ve been doing, yet it’s definitely some new roads, there’s things we haven’t really explored before. I also feel like it’s a very honest snapshot of what everyone was dealing with. I don’t want to say it’s a record of sad tunes, but it’s definitely reflective of the last handful of years. So I think there’s some honesty there, maybe as stark as we’ve ever been able to capture. I’m really proud of that, when you make a record you get so close to it that you kind of, in some ways you can’t really be objective about it anymore. But I do feel like it’s a really honest record. I think it’s some of Susan’s best, there’s a tune or two that I think probably captured her better than I’ve ever heard her captured.”

And having almost lost one of their beloved band members, multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge to a recent heart attack, there is palpable joy to see him back in the fold and an integral part of the recording process.

“We almost lost Kofi there. Totally man, that was too close for comfort. So every time we hear him on this record, it’s just a gift.  Every time you hear a playback or a Kofi solo, or him writing and arranging real strings, it was just a beautiful time, watching him in his element and getting it done. He was in full wizard mode, doing amazing stuff.”

Many venues are special to Trucks, but the TTB’s yearly residency at the vaunted Beacon Theater in New York City remains a dream come true, and not just because of the venue’s storied history, but because of the memories Trucks has of playing there with close friends who have now passed, including his legendary bandmate and mentor Gregg Allman. You can clearly hear the emotion in his voice as he speaks of not only playing music there, but just being inside the theater and feeling the intimately moving vibes of those spirits he so deeply misses.

“It seems like every time we walk into the Beacon the last few years, there’s something, there’s some new ghost to think about, and it’s a trip,” Trucks recounts. “That place is, like you said, it holds so many memories. In a way, it’s our home turf, it’s almost church-like. I know all the dressing rooms, and you’ve had hangs and experiences in every one of them, like with my uncle (Butch Trucks), and Colonel Bruce Hampton, and Gregg, and Scott Boyers, who just passed away. So when you hit that stage, you feel those things and you certainly want to do it right and you want to make it count. But the thing with Gregg and all those guys is they left such a serious living legacy. Whenever you hear (Gregg’s) voice it brings you right back to that place, and whenever you play those songs, it does the same thing. So they tapped into some form of immortality there, that’s for sure.”

Gregg Allman with Trucks at the Peach Festival 2014 (photo by Jason Riedmiller)

As for his incredibly special experience as a member of the Allman Brothers, Trucks obviously has deeply fond memories, but he also feels that the experience, and the band, are in their proper place now, and the oft-arising pressure of trying to rekindle that vibe these days is not what he feels would do justice to its timeless legacy.

“I think originally when I stepped away from the Allmans and when we did the last shows in ’14, I definitely shied away from doing Wanee and Peach Fest, just knowing that any time everyone’s in the same place, there’s going to be some half-assed attempt at a reunion (laughs). My feeling was always, if it’s not right and it’s not up to what the legacy deserves, then I’m just not going to tempt fate. It went out on such an amazing high note that I think it’s a rare thing for that to happen. I didn’t want it to be like Muhammad Ali’s last few fights, or like Willie Mays in his last season. But we’ll end up back at Wanee some day, or we’ll end up back at Peach Fest, there’s certainly no hard feelings, we’re in close contact with everybody.

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(photo by Stuart Levine)

As for his former Allman Brothers bandmate and buddy, the equally masterful and respected Warren Haynes, many fans hopefully ponder if Trucks sees any future collaborations with Haynes in his future. Lucky for them, at least the new record will have a little Haynes magic added to it.

“I’ll have to reach out to Warren and see if when we’re up in his area, he’s around. We’ve been in touch a bit. We both stay pretty busy, but he helped us write a tune on the new record and then we sent him a tape and he sang a great harmony part on one of the tunes. The one we were working on and mixing the other day, Warren’s voice is on it. So actually, I was just listening to him a few minutes ago.”

Derek Trucks clearly feels extremely lucky to be in the place he is now, with his ever-improving band on a serious roll, his beloved and talented wife by his side every night onstage, and playing his guitar better than ever. But seeing the TTB fan base grow on each tour, and with each record, gives him more satisfaction than just about anything else in his musical life.

“We’ve been really lucky that way, man. The last few times we’ve done tours, even those overseas, it’s really surprising how many people are familiar with the group and the music, so that’s a lot of fun. We feel very fortunate to be able to do this, and that there’s an audience there to listen to it. You feel good when you’re working and you’re exhausting yourself working. You sleep well at night.”

The Tedeschi Trucks Band with special guests Drive-By Truckers and The Marcus King Band perform Wednesday July 11th at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182. For tickets, click here.  

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