Sonny Landreth is the sound of Louisiana. His unique, cross-cultural slide playing required the invention of a new word, "slydeco," to describe it. While most slide players are content just to glide along the strings, not touching the neck, Landreth keeps his action high enough to enable him to reach behind the slide and fret, creating harmonics not found in this universe.
Ironically, Landreth is not a Louisiana native, moving to the state from Canton, Miss., when he was 7. "I went into culture shock", Landreth says by phone from his home near Lafayette. "I didn't know what a foreign country felt like, but it was like we came to another world. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."
Since 1981, Landreth has been merging bayou rhythms with hard-core blues/rock and Cajun country. His latest, From The Reach, is all that, but with a unique twist. With the help of some high-profile friends, including Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, Dr. John and Vince Gill, the guitarist set the duet concept on its ear by writing songs tailored to each guest artist, then asking them to add their personality to the cut. "All of them have their own voice so that's the thing I wanted to capture," Landreth says. "I heard all the stuff about how I was going to have a lot of problems with the bureaucracy and red tape and management and labels in between, but none of that happened. What really encouraged me the most was their enthusiasm."
Some were so enthusiastic Landreth says he had second thoughts about his own work when he got the cuts back from his guests. "I definitely felt the need to recut some of my solos," Landreth chuckles. "It was good for me, it really pushed me, and I liked that. If you want to evolve, you want to keep stretching the seams, creatively speaking."
Even though the guest solos are distinctive, Landreth holds his own with his solos and considerable writing skills. The cut with Clapton, "When I Still Had You," is one of the hardest rockers Landreth has put out to date. "He definitely pushed me and that's what I wanted," the guitarist says, acknowledging that trying to anticipate what somebody else might do is getting into a tricky area. "Lo and behold he sent back not just one but three solos, and I know he thought maybe just use what you want and edit it, but I'm not gonna chop any of that out." Instead, the two guitarists fire back and forth in a blistering guitar showdown.
The wild card in the mix seems to be the inclusion of Jimmy Buffet on the gritty, hoodoo-flavored "Howlin' Moon," written for and recorded face-to-face with Dr. John on piano and vocals. But Buffet is limited to background vocals so that his cheeseburger-flavored, margarita-fueled vibe is tamped down by Landreth's howlin' slide and the good doctor's swamp-soaked riddims.
Landreth reveals his Cajun country side on his duets with Vince Gill. "Don't rule me out for doing a country album one day," the guitarist says. "My inspiration to do that was Leon Russell back in the '70s. Out of nowhere, he comes out with a country album that's great." Landreth grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and says Chet Atkins was a huge influence. "I've even played in country bands, played with Michael Murphy a long time ago. It's always been there for me, I just never opened that door as much."
Landreth also opened the door to the concept of doing an all-instrumental album. "I wouldn't even say back burner now, I think we moved it up to the front of the stove." He gives up a sneak peek of what he's considering with the expresso-fueled "Oberesso," sounding like he had downed a few gallons of the stuff. "It's a tough one to play live," the guitarist admits. "It's almost like training for the marathon. Have to work on it every day."
He's also taken on the day-to-day chore of running his own label, Landfall Records. "Leave it to me to have my first release at the top of the recession and digital downloading," he says laughing. "We're not really doing anything different now than we've been doing for years -- we work a lot, we travel a lot, we sell CDs at shows, and that's beginning to build up in these small clubs as we work our way up into other venues, festivals, so it just fits right in with our scheme of things."
Sonny Landreth plays the Visulite Theatre on June 6 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. Mike Zeto opens.