After he started playing professionally at age 12, Derek Trucks always let his guitar do his talking. But as he's matured, the former child prodigy realized that at some point in a career, a musician's got to verbalize his emotions to keep fans interested.
"Trying to play instrumental music is a pretty impossible road," says Trucks by phone from his home in Jacksonville, FL. It's especially tough for one who specializes in instrumental soul and blues, as Trucks has on his records.
"Unfortunately, the mass majority of the audiences out there aren't well versed enough in music to be able to follow everything that's going on instrumentally and stay intrigued," he says. Trucks' solution was to add another instrument: "The human voice is such a soothing thing for people." And lyrics, he adds, "bring people in ... then you can take the liberties to really open up and go somewhere. And I think once people are in, they're more apt to follow what's going on [instrumentally]."
To that end, the Derek Trucks Band -- Trucks with bassist Todd Smallie, drummer Yonrico Scott and keyboardist and flautist Kofi Burbridge -- recently added vocalist Mike Mattison, who first surfaced on the double-disc Live at Georgia Theater, recorded in 2003 and released in 2004. It's only available online or at DTB shows.
"We've always wanted a vocalist," Trucks says. "It was just a matter of finding the right guy with the right attitude and the right vibe onstage to fit in." Mattison isnt't exactly the band's first vocalist -- former keyboard player Bill McKay sang some songs -- but the new singer is the DBT's first full-time singer. "His demeanor, his musical sensibilities are right in line with what the band does," Trucks says of Mattison, "so it's been a really natural fit."
Trucks knows about fitting in. Almost from birth, he was musically nurtured by his drumming uncle, Butch, a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band. The younger Trucks' ax skills won him an invitation into the Allmans' inner sanctum as a child, before becoming a full-fledged member of the Brothers at just 20 years old. Though he's still a full-time Allman, that band's schedule -- basically one summerlong tour averaging about 50 dates a year -- gives him time to play and tour with his own band.
Even for a relative, playing in the shadow of the Allmans' late founding guitarist Duane is tough to live up to; Trucks attempts to preserve Allman's memory without copping his licks verbatim. That didn't stop Trucks from attempting to channel Duane's sound at first. Now that he's been in place for some time, Trucks is more relaxed. "As you grow as a musician and as you change, your style becomes more your own and you really don't have to be to conscious of it one way or the other," he says. "I think you naturally start gravitating to a certain way of playing and you're constantly modifying it and shifting it. I feel that I'm personally at a place now where I'm not really thinking out of that mindset quite the same way. There's a little bit more freedom in it."
Contrary to what some people have read or heard about the Allmans' way of running things, Trucks says for him, the band is pretty much a democracy. The first tour of the year is usually a Beacon Theater run, with the band doing about a week of rehearsals after New Year's Day. Everybody brings in ideas (including road managers), ranging from new tunes to songs the band hasn't played for years, or just different covers. "A lot of fans always bring up really cool ideas and mention it to me or one of the other members of the group," Trucks says. "With that band, ideas come in from everywhere."
The same is true of his own band. For his newest, Songlines, out in February, Trucks and company pull off a quartet of originals and a slew of covers from a wide range of styles. Although a version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Volunteer Slavery" is on Live at Georgia Theater, the band recut it for the new CD as a "much more percussion-driven" version. Trucks also leads the band on covers of Toots Hibbert's "Sailin' On," O.V. Wright's "I'd Rather Be Blind, Crippled and Crazy," and Taj Mahal's "Chevrolet," as well as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Sahib Teri Bandi / Maki Madni."
Trucks, who says he doesn't like to take a lot of time between records, is already thinking about another set of tunes. "Hopefully by the time this record comes out, we'll be on our way to the next one."
Recording new material is easier for Trucks and his band simply because they're always playing -- a month never goes by when he doesn't pick up his guitar. "We tour and play so much it's not really a problem getting a good take on tape," Trucks says. "It's just [a matter of] finding the one with the most life."