One would think the pantheon of guitar gods would have a "No Vacancy" sign on it by now; the guitar has been the dominant instrument in popular music for four decades. Critics, listeners and fellow musicians have had no trouble, though, making room for Sonny Landreth.
The Louisiana-based slide guitarist has been singled out for an embarrassing quantity of praise from critics who have been describing his playing with terms such as mind-boggling , astonishing and magical . They have wasted no time comparing him to such legends as Ry Cooder, Elmore James and Duane Allman, while likening his songwriting to the prose of William Kennedy. And now Landreth finds himself breakfasting with such heroes of his own as Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler.
"Mark and I are both big fans of Chet's. In Nashville, he called me up \o7 real\f7 early one morning--he was still on London time--and said, 'Would you like to come have breakfast with Chet?' So they came to pick me up and we went to eat at the Cracker Barrel, this touristy family-oriented place. And I was sitting there with Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler, thinking 'What a trip! I must be dreaming.' "
Landreth was on the phone from Nashville, between tour legs, the latest of which has him opening for Buddy Guy at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight and Tuesday and at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Wednesday.
Landreth, 44, first gained national attention as John Hiatt's guitarist, touring the world and playing on Hiatt's "Slow Turning" album. The range of others with whom he has toured or recorded runs from the late zydeco king Clifton Chenier to pop singer Kenny Loggins and includes Beausoleil, John Mayall and Zachary Richard. He appears on Knopfler's most recent album; the British guitarist returned the favor by playing on Landreth's current "South of I-10" collection.
Another guest is legendary New Orleans pianist/songwriter Allen Toussaint, who plays on the album's stripped-down blues, J B Lenoir's "Mojo Boogie"; on "Congo Square," a Landreth composition previously recorded by the Neville Brothers and others, and on "Great Gulf Wind," which also features a horn chart by Toussaint, which Landreth requested because he's a big fan of the Band, for whom Toussaint also had written horn parts.
Landreth met Toussaint on a Bottom Line "In Their Own Words" songwriters tour that had them onstage swapping songs with Michelle Shocked and Guy Clark (Landreth was recording in Europe when the tour came to Santa Ana; Joe Ely took his place).
"That was great for me, being up there with them, hearing all their songs," Landreth recalls. "And I couldn't help joining in on the songs, being a born sideman anyway."
Although he did made his initial mark backing others, it was his songwriting that landed him a spot on the tour and that sets him apart from other exceptional guitar-slingers who remain in the outfield.
He started doing his own thing early. "My dad was an adjuster for State Farm Insurance and they had these Dictaphones. When I was a kid I used to record stuff on that. By the time I got an electric guitar (at age 14), I had a Panasonic reel-to-reel recorder I could overdub on, and I started putting songs down on that."
He was born in Mississippi; his family moved to Lafayette, Louisiana when he was 8. Though not from a Cajun background, he immersed himself readily in that culture and found he wasn't treated as an outsider.
"One thing people are always impressed with when they come down there is how warm and open the people are. It's very endearing and a very special thing. It's not just the music or just the food. It's all of that, and the way they dance, and the ritual of the way they are socially and their philosophy. You really have to experience the whole thing to get it. It influenced me tremendously.
"Even though I don't speak the (French) language, it's like a musical vocabulary I learned. I think it's given me a unique perspective which has enabled me to branch out in certain ways, especially with my songwriting.
"I was really lucky. I had a lot of influences, growing up hearing Cajun and zydeco and blues and R&B, while at school I had the academic part with classical training and jazz, and of course rock 'n' roll. I just took it all in as a kid."
He initially played trumpet, an instrument he stayed with into his college days, but it was the guitar that really hooked him, ever since he saw Scotty Moore playing with Elvis Presley. (The back cover of the booklet with "South of I-10" is a photo of Landreth at age 14 rocking out in his kitchen with Tommy Alisi, who went on to become the drummer for Beausoleil.)
Like many learning guitar in the '60s, Landreth learned to play along with Ventures albums. Then someone taught him the complex thumb- and finger-picking method of Chet Atkins.