Guitarist Sonny Landreth Shares Memories of Working With Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Gov’t Mule and More: Exclusive Interview
Over the course of a recording career that’s spanned more than 40 years (and counting), Sonny Landreth’s distinctive slide guitar has added a little extra sting to a lengthy list of albums — including a stack of classic releases from a roster of distinguished artists as well as the growing list of LPs he’s put out as a solo artist.
As Landreth’s latest outing, the double-disc concert collection Recorded Live in Lafayette, approached its June 30 release, he sat with Ultimate Classic Rock for a career-spanning discussion of his live and studio sessions with a variety of artists, including Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Little Feat, Kenny Loggins and Gov’t Mule. While he’s earned the right to trade licks with the best of them, Landreth looked back on these collaborations with gratitude — not so much because of what it meant for his résumé, but for what he took away from the experience.
“Everyone has their own sound, their own style — it becomes really interesting. It’s cool how you know how to navigate around each other and add something. A lot of the time it’s more about what don’t play,” he points out. “It’s really cool to have that give and take. People always think it’s a shootout, but it’s a conversation.”
With Recorded Live in Lafayette around the corner and a typically busy tour schedule lined up for the rest of the year, Landreth’s conversation is far from over. Here’s a look back at some of the higher-profile artists he’s played with, and what he learned from those collaborations.
He’s just terrific to me. Really opened a lot of doors for me; he’s a sweetheart. He’s such a great guy and humble. It’s unbelievable, he’s been through everything. He’s done it all. He’s at the very pinnacle of the guitar heroes for me. As a kid, as a teenager, he was one of my main influences and I listened to him and all of their early work, especially with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and then making the transition to Cream. Had a huge impact on a lot of kids, and I was one of the multitudes.
We had an interesting indirect connection. Kind of a long story, but through an English engineer I was working with, it led to opportunities working with some of the folks at Shelter Records back in the day, and at the time, his band was based out of Tulsa, Okla., and that’s the studio I worked at for a short time and met a lot of those people. Some of Eric’s band played on some of the tracks I had written and worked on in Tulsa, so there were all these little connections like that for many years.
I made a demo just in my house on a cassette recorder, just me playing a Resonator guitar, and I made it for my friend in Tulsa who was a producer and he ended up giving it to Eric, and I didn’t know that. I got a note from his band members later — “Hey, yeah, Eric’s still got that tape. He pulled it out, played it on the bus,” I go, “What?” It wasn’t produced or anything like that. It was the demo just to get the publishing covered and to get the copyright, and he ended up with a copy of it. I have to ask him about that sometime.
Fast forward to his first Crossroads Festival. By then, through mutual friends, my manager and his manager, we finally hooked up in Dallas-Fort Worth at the Cotton Bowl and he came out and introduced us and that was just a huge thing for me. I had a lot of my friends on the bill: Jerry Douglas and Vince Gill and a bunch of greats were there, so it was like the gathering of the tribe. Then he invited me back every year and he would have me play first, which he considered an honor — and I really did.
I asked him if he would be interested in playing on a track or two on a new album I was making and he said, “Of course. Of course I would. I would love to.” We had a revolving bandstand, and we had just played — my bag was next to my amp so as they were wheeling, I’m literally standing there talking to him, and they hit the switch and then the revolving bandstand’s turning around with our gear on it. So he says, “Well, just get a copy of it to me.” And as he’s saying that I realize, “Here comes my bag,” and I’d made a copy of it, of the songs for him. I say, “Well, as a matter of fact, it’s coming around,” so I reach down in my bag. He just busted out laughing. There’s no way you could’ve planned it. This is meant to be.
He’s a dear friend. I had an album called Outward Bound that was released in 1992, and right after it came out we were in London playing a venue they used to have called the Town and Country. The word gets back to me that Mark Knopfler had the album — my manager was good friends with Mark’s publisher in Nashville, and he’d sent him a copy, apparently. I didn’t even know. So Mark gets in touch and he wants to come out to the gig. I said, “Wow, that’s incredible.” So we do our show and then sure enough, after our set he came backstage and I got to meet Mark. I was a huge fan of his.
That got us started talking, and then he’s telling me he’s going to be coming to Nashville and he wanted me to play on some of his tracks. I said, “Absolutely.” That was his first solo album after Dire Straits. I went to Nashville and he came down here to South Louisiana at my friend’s studio, Dockside Studio, incredible place, and he fell in love with that. It’s 10 acres. So he and his wife came down, and his manager, and then he worked on what would become my South of I-10 album. So we’ve been friends ever since and stay in touch.
He’s another one who’s just an incredible music fan. He listens to so much music. He would call me up and tell me, “You got to hear this 13-year-old fiddler,” and this is way back before the mobile phone thing. I’m on my landline here in Breaux Bridge, La., and he’s calling me from London and playing me this 12-minute piece, which is incredible, of course. He was always doing that and he’s always listening, and it impressed me so much.
You know, he’s the ultimate singer-songwriter-guitarist. He just does it all. I always admired how he produced those albums, even with Dire Straits, and how there was that focus of the voice and then the call and response, and his guitar was the other voice, which comes very much from a blues tradition. I love that.
Anyway, we’ve done a bunch of projects together. In fact, with my band two summers ago, we did two shows with him. It was great. We have to hook up again.
Along the way, there have been many dreams come true for me. I’m very fortunate in that respect, and that’s one of them. I actually met Lowell [George] and the whole band back in the mid-’70s. I was out on the road with Michael Murphy, he had a big hit at the time, and we did a show in Memphis, Tenn. It was Dave Mason, Little Feat and Michael Murphy. The guys in the band already knew some of the cats in Little Feat, and the drummers were friends — Richie Hayward was friends with Harry Wilkinson in Michael’s band. So there we are backstage talking with Little Feat, that was pretty huge, and I met Lowell, and that’s the only time I ever got hear him play. I was a huge Lowell George fan.
Many years later, fast forward, I started doing shows with them with my band and opening up for them. I hit it off with all of them, with Paul Barrere and all those cats, so they would invite me to sit in with them, and that’s when that all started, and from that time on we’ve done a lot of shows together. They’re like family, really. It’s been awhile, but we did a lot of touring together and I got to know the crew real well.
That’s a trip, to get to play some of those songs all those years later. Lowell’s one of my favorite players and an inspiration. He had the whole package: Singer, songwriter, producer. Innovative. Hugely influential slide player. His concept and his vision was so impeccable and his intonation was so dead-on; he had a completely different sound than anybody that came before.
People don’t really hire me or ask me to sit in to try to cop the masters that came before, especially someone like Lowell. But that in itself is something that’s really important to me: to be able to honor my heroes, but at the same time put my stamp on it for that particular purpose, for that particular time and place. It’s a real thrill, and I don’t take those opportunities lightly.
The connection there was my friend Steve Conn, who plays accordion and keys. He used to play on pretty much all of our albums over the years, and we gigged together and go way back. He was living in Colorado, where he was the musical director for eTown, a radio show out of Boulder.
One of his good friends, Steve George, was the musical director for Kenny in the early ’90s, and he helped put together the live record I played on [1993’s Outside: From the Redwoods]. Through the two Steves, next thing I know, both Steve Conn and I were on a plane flying from Colorado out to Los Angeles. We show up and they’re rehearsing, and we’re not going to start ’til the next day but he’s already been at it with his band. It’s a huge band, whole rhythm section, guitars, vocalists, percussion, all these incredible players.
So we swing by the studio to say “Hey,” and [Conn] sits down at the piano, just starts playing. So Kenny zooms in on that — he was rehearsing with the other guys, but he goes and sits at the piano bench with Steve and next thing I know, 45 minutes goes by, he starts going over everything and telling him what to play, how to play. The next day it all began, it was quite the epic adventure.
I will say this about Kenny Loggins. He is one of the most consummate musicians I’ve ever met. He’s enormously talented. He’s a perfectionist. I thought I was pretty bad in that regard over perfecting things but man … I’m nowhere near his league. It was a lot of work. But I love those songs. He’s so creative. It was a really memorable experience. Recording like that out in the redwoods, literally.
He was constantly changing the parts. He’d want to hear something different every time I played, and he kind of did that with everybody. Finally, we’re playing the gig, the show starts, cameras rolling, tape’s rolling and he starts leaning over, he starts singing a part to me to change up — I said, “Nuh-uh. We already rehearsed. This is what’s coming out now.” And he starts laughing.
His guitar tech was just amazing at his craft, and he had his acoustic thing and electric thing so nailed. He had it all together. He knew what he wanted. So that got me thinking way back then — I’d been out of playing acoustic for so long. I should thank Kenny for that spark.
They are absolutely probably the greatest band. Their fans obviously know. These cats — Warren [Haynes] has an immense repertoire. It’s just astounding to me every time I play with him. They could pull one out in another song. Not only their songs, but you name it, just about anybody else’s song that was cool. They’d go, “Oh yeah, how’d we used to play that? Oh yeah.” Then next thing you know you’re onstage and it’s going out all over the world, satellite and the whole bit.
I met Warren a long time ago. They were still playing in bars, and me too. We go way back. By the time I got the gig with John Hiatt, he was hanging around Nashville and we did a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Robert Johnson. They had not just the main building with the Hall of Fame, but they had these satellite gigs all around town and in one of them, Warren was the musical director. He put his guys together. This is pre-dating Mule; right about that time, maybe. I’m not sure. It’s so long ago. Taj Mahal was on it, Peter Green was on it, he was out doing an acoustic thing. Who else was on that gig? I was working out in L.A. with Mike Post and I flew to Cleveland and walked into this gig and said, “Well, how about ‘Walking Blues’?” We talked about a few songs. Walked out on stage from the airport to the hotel, dropped my bag, did the gig. Then I realized they were filming it! I’ve never seen it.
So we go way back. Over the years, he calls me up and I’ll go sit in with him and we do shows together. Some of my favorites were the ones in New Orleans at the Saenger Theater after Allen Woody had passed, so they did a tribute to him and several different amazing bass players played different songs of theirs and their repertoire, and they recorded it and made a DVD and the whole bit. He’s always been open to having other players come out and sit in and bringing their energy and their concept of playing. I really admire him for that. It’s just amazing for me. They play, man. It’s where there’s a song, you start out with a basic form and then you just take off and the sky’s the limit. They are probably the best at doing that.
Last thing I did with him was down in Jamaica, they did this Jamaican thing, kind of like a cruise ship and instead of that it’s all on land. The hotel’s all-inclusive. The entire hotel is all Mule fans and the band and their guests. Unfortunately, we lost Johnny Winter earlier that year, and he was to play it. That’s how I came up. They asked me if I would mind filling in the slot they had for Johnny. So that was great, hanging with them down there. Every night, it’s different songs.