Tedeschi Trucks Band: All in the Family
Susan Tedeschi says when she and Derek Trucks talked about uniting in a band after a decade of marriage they knew there were risks.
Tedeschi was a perennial Grammy nominee, both for rock and blues. Trucks had played with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and his uncle’s band, The Allman Brothers, starting in his teens earning a reputation as one of the finest slide players on the planet.
They’d played with their own bands for a long time. So it wasn’t an easy choice. But Trucks wanted to take the chance, expand their horizons by coming together.
“Derek was like, ‘The heck with that. We want to do this, we should do this,’ ” she says. “He could also see we could be great together. We’d just have to convince our audiences. “
Whatever fan objections there were at the start have faded with the critical and commercial success of three albums, including a Grammy for their debut, “Revelator,” last year’s “Made Up Mind,” and steady touring that later this spring takes them to India and Japan.
Tedeschi is an expansive, happy mood talking from home in Jacksonville, Fla., this morning. Merging careers with the family — the couple has two children, ages 9 and 11 — is working, really working.
Looking back, the move to a new band seems a natural evolution. “I think one of the things people have to understand, too, is that in order to be a great artist you have to reinvent yourself,” she adds. ‘You can’t just settle and be one thing. Eric Clapton was great with Cream, but he kept reinventing himself. You have to keep it fresh, too, to keep yourself happy.”
So is it harder to be married and touring opposite ends of the country in separate bands or touring together in one band?
“It’s a complicated question,” she says. “It’s more difficult in some areas. For example, when we’re both gone all the time it’s hard on the kids. We used to deal with a staggered schedule. I’d go out on tour when Derek would be home or maybe we’d both be on tour, but not all the time together. Now, I think the kids notice it more. We’re on more of a Derek schedule. He is a workaholic. He’s not afraid to work 200 dates a year.”
Tedeschi says she was happy playing 80 shows and releasing an album every three years. Not Trucks. She won’t home school the kids because she wants them to have the life experiences of school. It helps that Derek’s mom, who lives a few houses up, is a saint with the children.
The couple plans tours with their 11-piece band, which needs to work more to pay the bills, she notes. “We learned to compromise in a lot of new ways,” she adds. “I’m used to being the band leader. He’s used to being the band leader. But he’s a natural leader at some things so it’s easy to let him take that role.”
One role she let him take is writing the set list, something she found difficult at first to surrender as the singer. He had to be educated, made to understand she couldn’t open the show with five belters, sing a slow run, then belt out five more; her voice wouldn’t stand up for the tour. “But he’s great at getting a feel for different venues and what kinds of things he thinks people want to hear,” she adds. “He’s also into really playing for the band, what’s best for the band at the time, keeping it fresh.
“It’s a process, but we’ve been doing really well, getting along surprisingly well for two people who grew up married apart.”
Tedeschi, who has a souful rasp somewhere between Jani Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, started singing as a child and played in bands as a teen. She learned the piano and clarinet and dabbled on the guitar, but didn’t really start studying it until she was 21 and began inhaling blues records. She earned a degree in composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she played, and quickly took to the guitar. Her early albums earned her a following and a 2000 Grammy nomination for best new artist.
Trucks picked up the guitar at nine, but says the Allmans weren’t a big part of his childhood. They were more myth than reality. Meanwhile, he fell under the spell of Elmore James and the late Duane Allman as well as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis as well as classic rock. He became a member of The Allman Brothers in 1999 at the age of 20.
That’s also the year he met Tedeschi when she opened for the band in New Orleans and a series of gigs that summer. They clicked as friends. She thought he was too young for her — she was 28, he was 20. “I was, like, I don’t know. You’re a baby,” she adds. “Then I realized he’s an old soul and very mature for his age.”
He kidded that he’d find the right girl when he found one with the right record collection — Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, John Coltrane — and those were all in her collection. They married in 2001.
“He’s very eloquent, he’s very intelligent. He’s a mover, He’s always thinking ahead, always inspired, or looking for inspiration,” she says. “So he’s a good influence on me for sure.”
Tedeschi makes playing in the Tedeschi Trucks Band like the coolest camp you can conceive. The band can play anything from the straight-ahead blues rock of “Made Up Mind” to the soulful Motown scratch of “Part of Me” to the Delaney and Bonnie slow burn of “Do I Look Worried.” And “The Storm” is a cut that keeps developing live as Trucks opens with a Delta blues riff and then goes Hendrix on it. Tedeschi likes to sit back and watch the interplay between him and the rhythm section.
“Everyone gets along really well and we all really care about each other,” she says. “We know this is a rare band. We don’t take it for granted that we get to be on the road as this large band getting to do what we love.
“It’s one thing to have a band with a couple of great people, but to have a band filled with so many outstanding artists, it pushes everybody to new levels, not only musically. On the road, everybody works out to get in shape. Musically, physically, emotionally, we try to be there with each other. It’s really a unique band in a lot of ways. We even do laundry together. It’s a band that spends a lot of time together and enjoys it. A lot of bands don’t hang out, but not this group.”
Camp TTB extends to recording, which takes place at a studio on the couple’s property in Jacksonville. For “Made Up Mind,” they wrote with a series of partners including Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell), Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers and Doyle Bramhall II.
Each brings a different vibe. Wood shows up with almost-finished songs. “”He spits out songs like he’s a waterfall of creativity,” Tedeschi says. “He can write three songs in a day that are amazing.”
Leventhal likes to grab an acoustic guitar and sit down to talk about what to write, what story to tell, and discuss the descriptive details.
Bramhall is chaos. He tells Trucks when picked up at the airport that he has a bass line in his head so they go straight to the studio, where he lays down the bass with Trucks on drums. Tedeschi pops her head in, then leaves them alone. “I came back and there was already a tune,” she says. “We didn’t have any lyrics so I got in there and started making up lyrics and he was making up lyrics and before you know it we had a song, just hadn’t finished it. He came back a week later and we knocked it out.”
Other songs started as jams. Sometimes the band plays in the afternoon, but if it’s not working, they may break for dinner, down a few Dark and Stormys, and then go back at it. “A lot of people think Derek writes the guitar parts and I write the lyrics, but it actually can be opposite,” she adds. “It’s all about the inspiration in the moment.”
Their engineer lives a few doors away so he’s on call 24 hours. They just flip the switch and record everything so there’s no missing any inspired moments.
Tedeschi likes the result so much that she plays the album. No kidding. “I actually listen to it,” she says. “I’ve never listened to any record I’ve made. But I’ll run to “Made Up Mind.” It’s awesome.”