Sonny Landreth – Bayou Blues
“Like a lot of kids from Louisiana, I took what I had for granted until I was away from it. People here are raised on crawfish, boudin, gumbo, fiddles, accordions, and getting together at a festival, at a dancehall or at people’s houses. Because people come up with that, they have a different appreciation for music and food, and they bring that with them wherever they go. It’s only when you leave Louisiana that you realize that every place isn’t like that.”
Clide Vernon “Sonny” Landreth III was born February 1, 1951, in Canton, Mississippi. He spent seven years in nearby Jackson, listening to his older brother Steve’s Elvis Presley singles, but in 1958, the family moved to Lafayette. The French and Creole culture of Catholic South Louisiana proved very different from the Anglo and African culture of Protestant Central Mississippi.
“When I first got here,” he remembers, “I was bewildered. I mean, every time they’d open a new grocery store or service station, they’d set up a flatbed truck and put a Cajun band on it to play. It was weird with all those fiddles and accordions, but once it gets in your soul, that’s it; you’re hooked. The music here is a social thing; it’s a way for people to get together to play, to dance, to eat and to talk. It was a way to meet girls and dance with them. I always loved to dance, so I got to experience both sides of it. It’s great to sit in with friends and then jump up and dance. You don’t see that in too many places in the country anymore.”
There’s a photo in the CD booklet for Landreth’s 1995 album South Of I-10 that shows a skinny, 12-year-old Sonny in short pants playing his first electric guitar in an early-’60s paneled rec room. There, sitting behind a brand new drum kit, is a baby-cheeked, 12-year-old Tommy Alesi, destined to one day become the drummer for Beausoleil. Not in the photograph is the inspiration for these new instruments, an 11-year-old kid named David Ranson.
“Dave was a year younger than me,” Landreth recalls, “but he was already playing drums in a little band. When I saw that, I told Tommy, ‘We’ve got to do that.’ We had two guitars and drums, and we called ourselves the Electras. We wanted to be like the Ventures; we did five or six of their songs that we totally mutilated. But it was a start. David, Tommy Alesi, Tommy Commeaux and I all went to Lafayette Elementary together and then to Lafayette High. There was another crowd — Michael Doucet, David Doucet, Zachary Richard and Sam Broussard — who went to Cathedral, the Catholic school.”
It was a generation that grew up on Cajun fais-do-do parties, that saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when they were 12, that watched the Woodstock movie when they were 18, that turned its back on the chank-a-chank squeezebox music of their grandparents’ generation — and then fell in love with that music all over again. For Landreth, the conversion took place in high school. He was already deep into the blues, inspired by the Rolling Stones and Cream to check out Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. A classmate told him there was a guy right there in Lafayette who played the blues on accordion.
“I was so in love with music as a teenager,” Landreth remembers, “that I was always buying albums and looking to discover new sounds. So when my friend, who was more adventurous than I, suggested that we go check out this guy named Clifton Chenier, I tagged along. He was playing at the Blue Angel Club, near his home in Lafayette. It was unusual for two white kids to visit a club like that, so my friend and I were hanging back by the door. When Cliff saw us, he called out, ‘Hey, soul, c’mon in.’
“This was 1967, and Cliff was in his prime; he had incredible soul and vitality and technique. When he started playing, it was so incredible; it forever changed my notion of what an accordion could be. Here was a whole other world, just ten minutes from my parents’ house.”
That was typical of Louisiana at the time. Cajun and zydeco were all around, hidden in plain sight; they were considered old-fashioned, and most teenagers didn’t take this “French” music seriously. They were trying to play rock ‘n’ roll like their heroes in London, New York and Los Angeles. It was only later that they realized what a treasure was buried in their own back yard. When Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard moved to England and France and found themselves lionized for playing their grandparents’ music, they came back with evangelical fervor, preaching the gospel of Cajun and zydeco. Landreth, who would add guitar licks to many albums by Doucet’s band Beausoleil as well as Richard’s records, was an early convert.
“Sonny isn’t a Cajun musician,” Doucet points out, “but he comes out of Cajun culture, and that influences everything he plays. And it’s important to let people know that this culture is not one thing — that a Cajun like Bobby Charles can bring that swampy feel to New Orleans R&B, or someone like Sonny can bring that feel to rock and the blues.
“Everyone I knew growing up played music; some kept at it and some didn’t, but everyone has that in their background, and that’s important. Sonny set his goals higher than most, and now he can play anything. I really love his acoustic National steel playing; I could listen to that all day.”
“Michael and I both grew up in this community,” Landreth adds. “We both have the same friends, the same experiences. Friends you make when you’re growing up in your hometown forge more of a connection than friends you make later on. It’s cool; we can go into the studio, and I can say, ‘What about that lick we used to play back then?’ Or he’ll say, ‘What about that rhythm we used to do?’ Michael loves the blues, and I bring that to Beausoleil. And I love Cajun fiddle, and he brings that to my projects.”
When Landreth returned home from his brief move to Colorado in 1971, he got a day job frying chicken and reassembled his local band with his best friend, Dave Ranson, on bass. They still listened to as much Cajun and zydeco music as they could, but the music they played was blues-rock, shaped by a distinctively swampy, South Louisiana feel.
This was dictated by Landreth’s choice of instrument. He had studied jazz and classical trumpet in high school and had played conventional guitar in dozens of bands, but he felt most at home playing slide guitar. Its slurred phrasing and sustained notes had a relation to all those trumpet lessons he had taken and those fiddle-and-accordion dances he had attended.