Derek Trucks & Susan  Tedeschi

Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi
The Traveling First Family of Modern Blues

By Frank-John Hadley
April 2007

Visit artist page

The following recent interview with Derek Trucks and Boston’s own Susan Tedeschi originally appeared in an abridged version as the cover story for the February issue of DownBeat Magazine.

DownBeat interviewer Frank-John Hadley, one of the original BBS gang, grew up in Sandy’s Jazz & Blues Revival club in Beverly, where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, J. B. Hutto, Dr. John, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Big Joe Turner, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Roomful of Blues, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and so many others performed. 

When the extended Trucks family—Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi, their respective bands, their two preschoolers and Derek’s babysitting mother—hit the road, the future of the blues guitar travels with them.

It took just a few hours for two sleek Prevost buses, one owned by Derek, the other rented back home in Jacksonville, to glide I-90 east from concert stop Albany, New York, to the Back Bay.

There’s plenty of time to get the kids and grandma settled into the hotel then head over to the Berklee Performance Center to do a the sound check in preparation for the evening show. A few days into their first co-headlining tour, the musicians are well-rested and feeling pumped for the special gig: Susan’s performing for her hometown crowd at her alma mater.

The Derek Trucks Band opens. Right from the first bars of the Meters’ trance-chant “Look Ka Py Py,” Trucks makes it known he’s a blues guitarist of a different stamp. The former boy wonder, now in his late twenties, uses his Gibson SG guitar and glass Coricidin bottle slide to jolt members of the audience like shots of epinephrine.

His heavy workout on strings speaks the blues of Elmore James and Mississippi Fred McDowell loud and clear but ultimately expresses his own highly individualized musical language with its inventive synthesis of blues, ’60s Blue Note and Impulse jazz, Southern rock, jam band improv, tradition-fixated soul, r&b, gospel, reggae and folk, along with the transcendent music of Africa and southern Asia.

Taking his time in his solo and chording on “Key to the Highway,” Trucks gets closer than anyone in his generation to the strong blues truth underlining the Big Bill Broonzy classic. Truck’s version, so crisp and clear in articulation, achieves a sweet lyricism cut from the same cloth as the late Duane Allman, whose role the pony-tailed Floridian fills in the current edition of the Allman Brothers, and in Eric Clapton’s touring band on Derek & the Dominoes material.

But Brother Duane never brought free-flows of inspiration to Coltrane’s “Greensleeves” or to the standard Piedmont folk blues “Crow Jane” or to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Sahib Teri Bandi” as Trucks does so convincingly in concert.

Out front of her band on self-penned tunes and covers from the likes of Koko Taylor and Ray Charles, Tedeschi proves to be an impressive guitarist in her own right, though nowhere close to the dizzying heights frequented by her husband.

Genuine compassion for the Chicago blues of Jimmy Rogers and the Texas blues-r&b of Johnny “Guitar” Watson pulses through her leads and rhythm parts. A dozen years past the anonymity of Boston blues club jams, and eight since hitting mainstream celebrity with her gold album Just Won’t Burn, she succeeds as the nonpareil pop-blues singer who delves deep into soul and gospel with her own singular personality and sense of style.

Through sixth sense heightened over five years of marriage, Derek matches the affirmations and grievances of his guitar playing to those of Susan’s strong tenor on “Walking Blues” and other songs they perform as a duo between band sets. Guitar emulates voice and vice versa. They communicate volumes of warmth and genuineness, proficiency and risk-taking, poise and sauciness. Their blues sounded completely new and spontaneous, something exceedingly rare these days. For their efforts, the packed house--balding seniors in faded Allman Brothers t-shirts, thirtyish  guitar fanatics, garden variety college students that admire Tedeschi as their parents once did Bonnie Raitt, a light sprinkling of dreadlocked jam band followers, 1227 folks in all—leapt to their feet in a thunderous ovation. Neo-blues as unifier, as common ground.

In a spacious room down the stairs from backstage, Derek and Susan Trucks started off their interview session happily reporting that about all of the dates on their north-to-south East Coast tour had sold out in advance. And there was a good chance they’d be barnstorming the rest of the country via bus sometime later in 2007. Laughing, ever-amiable Derek rolled his eyes in exaggerated exasperation over the very thought of more traveling.

FH: Derek, you’ve been hitting the highways since age 9 or 10, about 17 years now. As a teenager, you told me: “There’s no way to get a handle on touring.” Is that true now?

Derek: It’s still that way. Your schedule is so non-existent that you feel like you’re always camping in the world. It’s insane. [laughs] You just roll your bag into a hotel, do what you got to do, then you run out to the venue. Between the Eric Clapton tour and the Allman Brothers and my solo group and Susan’s group, this year’s been pretty tough keeping things rolling. The last day of this tour we play in D. C. and the next day the Clapton band flies to Japan. So this is a working vacation. [laughs] 

FH: What’s your role in Clapton’s band? Playing blues?

Derek: There’s a lot more lead time than I was expecting, probably at least 60% of the tunes I’m getting a chance to wail on.  I was ready to just be a part of it and take any role he saw fit, but he’s really generous that way. We’re playing a lot of Derek & the Dominoes stuff, a lot of older blues stuff in a sit-down set like “San Francisco Bay Blues” and “Key To The Highway.”

FH: Susan, you’re been hitting Europe hard in recent months. It’s new turf for you?

Susan: I’ve been trying to get over there. It was just a matter of my agent booking anything over there, because it’s hard to make money when you play in Europe and you don’t really have a huge fan base there. I brought the kids over for a while, to France and England, and hung out with daddy while he was touring, and then brought the kids home to Jacksonville, and then I went out with my band when Derek was in Europe still. We had some really cool dates. We did a show with Santana in Italy. That was exciting for me because it was a week after Derek played there with Eric, the same venue.

FH: Derek, not long ago you took your own band over there for the first time?

Derek: You know, it’s interesting - you might play a slightly smaller venue when you’re overseas, but the fans do come out. Because with my band, a lot of these places we’ve never been. They seem to be really hungry for it. They know all the tunes. They know the words to the tunes. Someone comes up to you to sign something and they have every record [laughs]. We did a show on a night off from the Royal Albert Hall run with Clapton. We had my band come over and we played a place called the Mean Fiddler and the audience’s response was just unbelievable. We didn’t know what to expect. And it was the same when we played Poland. Most bands do not travel to Poland, so when you finally go, they’re like “All right!” The people come out in hordes. They pretend you’re the Beatles. [laughs]. It was a lot of fun. It’s virgin ears. They’ve never heard the band and also there’s something about getting in front of an audience that hasn’t seen you grow, where it’s just like a fully formed band. They don’t have any opinions of you. They don’t think of you as a 12-year-old blues player or a Clapton or Allman Brothers musician. They just see the band for what it is. There’s a freshness to it that’s really nice.

FH: Bassist Todd Smallie and drummer Yonrico Scott have been with you more than 10 years. Kofi Burbridge came in on flute and keyboards in 1999, percussionist Count M’Butu about the same time, and singer Mike Mattison in 2002. Four albums. Countless gigs. There are so many stylistic elements in your band’s music. How has the band’s sound evolved?

Derek: It’s definitely blues and folk and soul based. World soul. I don’t know what it is. When we went in the studio this last time, when we recorded Songlines, it was the first time I really felt like we went in as a band and every idea came out seamless. It was really easy and everyone felt comfortable. It didn’t feel like we had to force anything. I think just as far as everyone in the band feeling comfortable with each other and trusting each other musically, it’s definitely evolving that way. But, you know, it’s something you can only get from playing hundreds and hundreds of years together [laughs].

FH: Susan?

Susan: My band is evolving because I’ve had a few different players. The keyboards player has been with me the longest, about six years. I have a bass player who would have been with me about the same amount of time, but, just recently, traveling outside of the country, he didn’t have a passport, so I had to get a new player. So right now…[Derek interrupts]

Derek: We keep a lot of felons in our bands [laughs]. My band can’t go to Canada. We have a hard time traveling. But they let us into Poland [laughs].

Susan: You know, felons are the most soulful, what can you say.

FH: Susan, your background is in gospel and blues. (The) new album Hope and Desire emphasizes soul.

Susan: For sure. Our last record was mostly soul based mixed in with songwriters like Iris DeMent and Bob Dylan and that kind of stuff, with a soul or blues twist on it. The band I have is really roots based: blues and jazz. Some of the guys are more jazz players by nature, but I’m not. I wish I was, but I really don’t have that facility.

Derek: The grass is always greener. We all want to sing like you.

Susan: I want to play guitar like you.

FH: Derek, the press release for your latest album, Songlines, quotes you as saying: “There’s a mission to what we’re doing.” Explain.

Derek: It seems like right now, music is at a pretty rough patch whether it’s recorded music or radio or whatever it is. There’s not much of a scene going on. There are bands out there doing it, but I’ve seen a lot of them, and, not naming names, people come out and it’s like a seed of hope—“yeah, this guy’s going to do it!”—and within a year of any success, they completely change their tune, change their whole purpose of what they do. With my band, we’re really fortunate to be able to play what we play, be as eccentric and esoteric as we want to. We still have a core audience that seems to keep enough fuel in the bus to keep us moving down the road. There’s the whole family aspect of it, whether it’s just within my band, or within Susan’s band, or within the Allman Brothers, too. There’s not a lot of that going on either. There’s not much loyalty. It’s nice when you can keep that trudging along.

FH: As the nephew of original Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, you grew up hearing Duane Allman’s slide guitar on records. I know you’re a big fan of Elmore James. But have you found your own voice on guitar?

Derek: I think you’re always searching for it. It’s rare that I have a night, where I’m…“Yeah! I’ve got it!” [laughs] Even a night where it feels good, there’s always stuff, whether it’s the sound of the instruments or something doesn’t go down the way you want it to. You’re always trying to tweak it. But I think as you go down the road, you can every once in a while, listen back to a recording and hear something and go, “All right! That was acceptable!” [laughs]  It doesn’t force me to run to the dial and turn it off like I used to. So I guess we’re getting somewhere.

FH: How about you, Susan?

Susan: I feel like it’s definitely mine. I don’t know if that’s good or not. I feel like it’s definitely evolving. I’m trying all the time to improve. I’ve recently noticed that it’s more affected by listening to Derek, especially with him playing with Eric Clapton and Doyle [Bramhall III]. Of course, I aspire to be like Derek someday because he can play everything that I think. I would love to be able to have it be a full extension of what I could do vocally.

Derek: The beauty of Susan’s guitar playing is, no matter how much you practice you’re not going to copy that [laughs]. She starts playing a solo and this could completely implode or explode. You don’t know what’s going to happen [laughs]. It’s beautiful, the tension and the release is what I think a lot of schooled musicians lose. There’s no danger. There’s no tightrope, and a lot of times when she really jumps into a solo you’re like, “It’s gonna!?!?…then she makes it…yeah!” When I hear Hubert Sumlin or Albert King or any of those guys, it’s the same thing. It’s so on the edge. They’re standing on the edge of the cliff at all times

Ninety-nine per cent of the time they make it. It’s that one percent that keeps you terrified.

Susan: I’m two percent.

FH: Derek, there’s apparently a real sense of adventure in your playing that keeps the music fresh. Agree?

Derek: Yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Indian classical music, Pakistani Qawwali music, digging into that, as well as spending months and months and months listening to all the great Coltrane quartet recordings and all the great Blue Note records. On the road that’s really what this band listened to forever: the Wayne Shorter records, the Jackie McLean records, the Clifford Brown records, the Lee Morgan records. But, for me, it really was the Coltrane quartet that had the spirit I thought this band should strive for in an electric rock-blues-whatever setting it is. Every time you hear them play a tune, they might state the melody the same, but then it’s off to the races [laughs]. It’s freedom and it’s an adventure and it’s see-what-you-can-do-with-it. There’s a great moment on Coltrane Live at Birdland, on “Afro Blue,” when you feel the room lift. It’s church, you know? I think the band was able to bridge that gap between jazz and religion or devotional music. It really became something else and that’s something to emulate.

FH: You phrase like horn players.

Derek: There was a long time when I avoided listening to any guitar players. It was all horn players and all vocalists—Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Otis Redding and tenors, altos and trumpets. It’s great, especially at about 14 or 15 years old, you get this music addiction and you buy one record, you read the liner notes, and somebody else’s name is in there, so I got to figure out who is this guy and you go buy all of his Blue Note or Impulse records. You get on that train and it leads you to all the, oh, great Gil Evans records and it never stops. Still to this day, I go into a record store and I have to make sure I only bring X amount of dollars because I’ll walk out with a backpack full.

Susan: Well, it’s funny because Derek was mentioning all his vocalist influences and a lot are the same as mine—Donnie and Mahalia, for sure. I was raised in a small suburb of Boston where I was never able to have the opportunity to sing with a lot of amazing singers. But at Berklee I had an opportunity to audition for the gospel choir. I sang with two of Donny’s girls. It was pretty wild and it opened my eyes to what kind of music was out there. It was such a beautiful experience. They really took me in and made me feel welcome. I knew at that point music wasn’t about color, it was about the universal love of music and trying to communicate at a certain level and also to let the music take you over. So when I was in college, gospel was the closet thing I could find to what I was searching for.

FH: After graduating from Berklee, the blues got its grip on you?

Susan: Yeah. One day I heard a Magic Sam blues record. “Ah, who is this?” Like Derek said, you find out about one player and who else played on the record. Well, this guy played with Willie Dixon and Willie played with Muddy Waters and then it was Buddy Guy and then Freddie King and then Otis Rush. I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” I never knew there were so many African-American guitar players. I always thought there were just British rock guys and then all of a sudden I discovered all these guys who influenced them and I was like, “Aha, now I get it!” [laughs]

Derek: Somebody was lying to me all along. [laughs]

Susan: They were lying to me, too. People like Aretha, Etta James and Irma Thomas, Gladys Knight, something about their tones. Those women all have a similar kind of warm belt that I fell in love with. It was about the roundness in the tone, the soul, someone like Otis or Donny could encompass such a warm soulful sound and it’s so big too. Mahalia Jackson didn’t need a microphone. She could sing in front of a huge theatre. Big Mama Thornton would be an influence, too, and Koko Taylor.

FH: You play on the upcoming McCoy Tyner album, right?

Derek: Yeah, two tracks, with McCoy, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. I had met McCoy a few months before the recording. The gentleman who runs the Blue Note in New York [Steve Bensusan] has been really supportive of my group and he had us play the Blue Note and when the New York Times did a piece on me and Susan he let us come in and do the photographs and the interview there. And he mentioned that McCoy was doing a record with a few guitar players as guests and asked me if I’d be interested. ‘Obviously yes! I would be interested and honored at the same time.’ I went in that day. We hadn’t talked about any tunes. (We were doing it by) just the seat of our pants. I had suggested a tune that McCoy had played and written on his record, Today and Tomorrow, called “Flapstick Blues.” So we did that and we did a version of “Greensleeves.” We tracked each one once. It was nice. McCoy’s such a gracious guy. He’s one of those spirits. He reminded me a lot of Hubert Sumlin, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. One of those guys when they’re in the room you’re like…He’s just got that spirit, with McCoy being such a bad ass on top of it. He’s impressive.

Susan: I’ve never met McCoy.

Derek: I asked him to sign my guitar and the Coltrane boxed set that we had Elvin Jones sign.

FH: Tell me about your involvement with Elvin.

Derek: We were suppose to record with him. When I signed with Columbia, they asked me if I wanted to record with anyone, and I was like, ‘Ah, yeah, Elvin and Wayne Shorter.’ They called Elvin and he was into it, so we met him a few times and hung out and talked about the session and had dates posted and that’s when he got sick and passed. It wasn’t meant to be.

FH: Your song “Elvin” on your band album Soul Serenade was for him?

Derek: Yeah, that was before I met him. My younger brother, Duane Trucks, he’s a drummer and a few years back he was just really getting into DeJohnette and he was on this Elvin Jones kick. So for Christmas I was going online looking up Elvin Jones. I was going to find him a T-shirt. I saw on eBay Elvin’s wife was selling Elvin’s tympanis that he played on A Love Supreme and Meditations. It was nine days into a 10 day auction and nobody had bid on it, so I threw in this bid and a week later I get these two road cases at my house that say Elvin Jones Jazz Machine on all five panels--these tympani from the ’60s that Elvin played on. [laughs] I felt guilty. I talked to Elvin’s wife and passed along if you ever need them for a museum or if you ever want them back, they’re fair game. I want to record with them once.

FH: Who’s the most remarkable person you’ve met in music?

Susan: Willie Nelson and B. B. King.

Derek: Willie and B. B., their spirit.<

Susan: They’re so similar and they humble me in a huge way. They don’t just play music to make records and get paid money. They do it because they love it and they love the people. I’ve seen them sit there until every person in the audience has left. They are very loving humans. They really do care. They really do, not just on a musical level, but on a human level.

Derek: It’s great seeing someone that’s been at it for so long and been successful for so long just be completely appreciative of the situation.

Susan: And Koko Taylor. She’s a very beautiful woman. She’s a very humble and amazing woman. Here she is, she was found by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters and taken to Chicago and she still drives around in a little airport bus.

FH: Ever get any advice from Koko?

Susan: No, she’s just like, ‘Get up there and sing!’

Derek: The advice you get from people like that is just through watching them.

Susan: Yeah, just how graceful they are. I love Etta James, but I couldn’t even really get to talk to her, and we did a bunch of dates with her. She’s a little more private.

FH: You start off Songlines with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery.”

Derek: I’ve always been a big Rahsaan fan. I just think the feel of that track, the simplicity of the melody and the lyrical content. I think it’s a great theme. Since we’ve recorded, I learned that his widow, Dorthaan, [works] at WBGO radio in New York. We did an interview there and she came in and it was so great. She was excited that a young group was doing a Rahsaan tune. It was really great getting to hang out with her since then they’ve been really supportive of the group. I think Rahsaan is one of the unsung heroes. There’s thousands of them [laughs]. He was one of those guys that was inside the scene on one level but he was completely outside of it on another. He did not care. Similar to the way Hendrix brings people out, he had that same quality where if you stumbled in on it, you’re like, ‘What planet was this guy dropped from?’

FH: Any chance your band will have horns?

Derek: Yeah, I can see that. We did our New Years Eve show last year and we had a horn section. It was really nice having that up there. At this point it’s a matter of commerce [laughs].

Susan: I have a tenor player in my band, Ron Holloway. It’s such a breath of fresh air having him because he’s such an amazing soloist, as well as he can blend into any situation. I really have grown so fond of jazz through Derek. He’s educated me more than Berklee because they give you that kind of option: rock or jazz. I wasn’t educated enough to think, ‘Oh, I should learn jazz.’ But Derek’s opened my whole world.

FH: What attracts you to jazz?

Susan: For me, it’s like the inspiration behind the melodies and the freedom and the spontaneity of it, but also the intenseness of how the band works together. It’s like they’re all mind readers. I see that with Derek’s band, like with Yonrico and Todd. They know exactly what he’s about to do and go right with him.

Derek: Right.

Susan: It’s sort of like watching Coltrane or Miles playing with Elvin or Jimmy Garrison. They have communication without words.

Derek: The seriousness of the craft and seeing a guy like Sonny Rollins, guys that are still doing it completely on top of their game, 50 or 60 years into their careers. There’s something beautiful about that. Yeah, just the dedication to it. It’s nice seeing a musician that actually put the time in rather than, ‘Alright, I want to be a musician’ and five chords later they’re saying, ‘I’m done practicing. Now I’m going to conquer the world.’ [laughs]. There’s something beautiful about guys like, ‘You know what? I’m here to play and cut heads. Call me if you need me.’

FH: For years, you’ve been tagged a “bluesman.” Still a good fit?

Derek: To me, I think it’s really tough when you’re talking about jazz or blues or any of these labels that were put on a music that spontaneously erupted in a certain time or place. You have the blues, and obviously have the Delta scene, the Chicago thing, but after that it really seems like people photocopy something that was great or something that happened. Those guys were revolutionaries, the stuff Son House and those guys were playing when they electrified it, when Muddy went to Chicago. I mean those guys weren’t playing music that had just been done forever. They were changing it up. I think you have to remain in the spirit of that, you have to dig into it. It’s not about what amp they were using, what guitar, what chord progression they were playing. It’s the same with jazz. The beauty of guys like Ornette and Trane is that they were always searching and moving and ripping down boundaries, crashing walls.

FH: You’re part of the legacy?

Derek: Yeah, man. That’s part of the deal. You see who set the bar the highest and you try to see if you can get there and maybe lift it in some way. Obviously, there are certain guys who set it so high you’re going to have to find a different bar to climb to [laughs].

Susan: I feel very lucky to have been turned on by it, inspired by it. I really try hard not to copy. I really try to play blues and be inspired by the passion of it.

Derek: Yeah, it’s important.

Susan: If I can move somebody, I try to say this is who inspired me and why.

Derek: When you get right down to it, whether it’s jazz or blues or any other form of music for that matter, the reason it was so powerful, [like] the Coltrane band being in the mid- and late-‘60s and all the shit going on in the world and where they were living and the color of their skin, is that life is part of the sound. And it’s the same with the blues. No way someone coming from a suburb of Boston or a suburb of Jacksonville, where I’m from, there’s no way you’re going to play like Son House. You didn’t group up on a plantation in slave labor, basically.

FH: When did you realize you were serious about making music your livelihood?

Derek: With me, I started playing before I even thought about it. I was 9 years old. I was on the road when I was 10. I think I was 14 or 15 years old when I was really listening to stuff and digging it and I realized if you’re going to do it, you got to dedicate your life to it. That was the decision for me. Before that it was just, ‘Wow! This is fun. This seems natural and great. I’m getting to travel and leave the house a little bit, miss a few days at school….’

Susan: I was like Derek. I was like 6 years old onstage and I loved it. I knew I loved it and had fun but it was more like a show, the attention and things like that. It wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I made a conscious decision to play music and go to college for music instead of acting because I had grown up with both.

That was the first time I really made a conscious decision, then once I started playing in bands, I really realized that there was so much to learn. Instead of getting totally overwhelmed by it, I just tried to sink my teeth into as many different styles as I could and try to see what really fit. I felt like once I found the style that I felt most passionate towards, then I would really get serious about it. Really it was gospel music and old Aretha and Irma Thomas and Gladys Knight. It wasn’t until 1993 or ’94 I really started hearing blues music and it really hit me on another level. That’s when I started playing guitar. I got really inspired to play guitar and that opened up a whole new world for me as a performer. I wasn’t just singing, I wasn’t just a vocalist, I could communicate on a new level.

FH: Where’s blues today? Stagnant? Thriving?

Derek: I think on one level it’s inevitable with anything that unique it’s going to have its glory days but it’s not going to disappear. It’s too powerful and it’s influenced too many things.  And there’s, obviously, guys like Corey Harris, who dig into it and get to the heart of it, and he’s not worried about doing this one thing and making it. He plays blues and then it incorporates African elements. He’s digging. I love that about him, this guy’s doing it. It’ll be around.

FH: As more of a hybrid form? Like your group?

Derek: It’ll be a hybrid. The Chicago scene will never be the same. The Delta, the conditions don’t exist. It’s alive and well in what we’re doing, without a doubt. There’s no way at this point I could remove that stuff from what we do [laughs].

FH: How has motherhood changed your perspective on music?

Susan: That’s an interesting question. Well, on one level it allows less time to practice during the day, things like that. But on another level when I go out there playing music… every minute that I’m on stage I’m thankful I get to do what I love to do, as well as being a mom.

Derek: We don’t take it for granted.

Susan: So on that level, I’m more thankful and I also feel more complete because that’s something I always wanted to do, be a mom, with a family. So I feel like my life is a lot more enriched. Charlie [age 4] and Sophia [age 2] inspire me on a daily basis, little beings that they are, with their knowledge….

FH: Would you encourage your kids to become professional musicians?

Susan: They really take to it. Whatever they want to do we’re going to be supportive. Charlie likes to sing and play drums and paint. He wants to be a surfer [laughs]. We’re not going to push music on them because it’s not an easy life style. It’s something you really have to find for yourself. I wouldn’t push any kind of entertainment business on any kid. If they really love it and want to do it, then we’ll get behind them.

Derek: Good luck [laughs].

FH: What’s been your career highlight so far?

Derek: At this point, there’s so much happening right at this very moment that it’s not overwhelming, but it’s hard to step away from it and actually assess where things are. Stuff like me and Susan sitting in with John Lee Hooker on New Year Eve 2000, that was pretty special, and just getting a chance to see guys like Elvin Jones, hang out with guys like that, get a chance to be around a lot of our heroes.

Susan: I have a lot of them that standout. I don’t know how I got so lucky. Early on, I remember Irma Thomas got me up to sing with her and I was so blown away. She was just so sweet. That was something that really stands out, along with getting up and playing guitar with B. B. King. I was petrified because I thought he would only want me to sing. Bob Dylan had me play guitar and not sing. For me, I always think of myself as a singer. So there are definitely some highlights. Playing guitar with Santana, that was a cool moment. Honestly, getting to sing when Derek’s playing guitar during his show if he invites me up to sing, that’s probably the biggest musical highlight for me.

FH: What goes through your mind when performing onstage?

Derek: For Susan, it’s the cute guy in the front row.

Susan: No, definitely not that. In a way I’m kind of like the gospel singers. I do try to sing from a spiritual level and sometimes I’m selfish and I sing to get my emotions out. A lot of times I think about my kids and my husband when I’m singing.

Derek: About her husband on the blues tunes [laughs].

FH: How about you, Derek?

Derek: I mean, same thing. There are moments when you try to separate yourself from the music, try to let it work through you, try to be an observer to what’s going on. Then there are other times when you’re getting stuff out, frustrations in life out, feelings out. There are times if something amazing happens, you play out of gratitude. On a good day, you’re playing emotions.

Susan: It’s usually emotions. I recently had a day when I watched a special on Katrina and every song that I sang I couldn’t help thinking about what people were going through in New Orleans, especially when you’re singing blues or singing music that tells a certain type of story.

Derek: A lot of music has its roots there.

Susan: I couldn’t help being overwhelmed. I had to think about them every second because like you said so much of the recent music comes from there. It’s just kind of a moving thing in itself.

FH: Who’s been most important to you in your career?

Susan: My mom and dad for sure. They’ve been very supportive. They have definitely given their constructive criticism as well along the way, which has made me stronger.

Derek: I think Colonel Bruce Hampton was kind of the turning point. It was at a time when I was on the road. I was playing, and I was probably 12 or 13 years old. We were opening for his band. Some of the music I was into was on the right path, but I had not been introduced to the higher forms of music, the deeper layers, and the Colonel was always there with the right album, the right thing to play, the right way to twist your mind, the right way to look at it, make you almost shatter all the notions you had about your what you’re doing and get back to the heart of it.

I remember one of the first times he took me out record shopping, I was probably 13 or 14. He bought me a Sun Ra live record, A Love Supreme, and I forget what the third one was. We sat down, just the two of us, and we listened to A Love Supreme top to bottom and I remember not really being moved by it till about 10 minutes after it was over. I was just destroyed forever. He was the guy there with the right record and the right book. The Colonel would say, ‘You need to check out Son House.’ He didn’t just tell me about it. It was the way he spoke about it that made me believe it.

The Colonel, he was the one, outside, obviously, my father, who was on the road with me until I was 17. It was his record collection that got me initially interested.  B. B. King, the Elmore James, Derek & the Dominoes’ Layla record, the Allmans’ Live at the Fillmore East. My father’s one of those guys who doesn’t play, but when he hears something he’s moved to tears by it and I think that’s always affected me, knowing that that’s what you’re searching for when you’re playing. It’s not applause, it’s not those things, it’s the actual emotional connection with people and seeing your parent physically moved by music that makes a big difference.

Susan: When you were talking about Colonel Bruce, of course, he was the guy for me too, but being here in this building makes me realize there really was somebody that really changed my life and that was Dennis Montgomery III, who teaches here at Berklee. He was actually like a new teacher at the time. He had gone to school here as well. He was very young. He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana and started conducting his choir at eight years old, and he’s one of those people who made me feel like I had a gift and gave me confidence. When I auditioned for the gospel choir, he was the one. He was really hard-core too, someone that musically demanded perfect pitch and it was very intimidating. As a person you really respected him and for him to take me in as a project and give me confidence, that really changed my life.

FH: What haven’t you achieved that you’d like to?

Derek: I’m kind of lucky. I haven’t had any ambition. I just kind of roll along [laughs]. There’s tons of things I’d like to do. I’d like to do a blues and gospel record with Susan at some point. That’s high on the list. I’d like to do something close to an Indian classical album. I got a chance to do a show with the Ali Bangash brothers, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s sons. Amaan and Ayaan are both sarod players and I did a show with two sarods, tabla and acoustic guitar. It was

classical music. I had met them and 24 hours later we did the concert in Savannah, Georgia. It was pretty amazing being put in that situation, trial by fire. The freedom of that music is really intriguing to me.

Susan: I’ve wanted to do a gospel record for about seven years. Derek and I talk about it all the time.

Derek:  A spoken-word music record and a children’s or Christmas record. [laughs]. This year for me has been full. It’s been getting off of the tour bus with the Allman Brothers and stepping on the bus with my guys and getting off the bus with my guys and jumping on the plane with Eric [laughs]. What a way to travel, but it’s been full. But definitely early next year we’re going to get in the studio. We’ve actually been talking about doing a quote-blues-unquote record with my group, something that’s focused in that realm, not a polished cleanly recorded one but a blues record you stomp on a few times and then re-run it [laughs].

Susan: Whatever. I’ve been writing some on guitar and it’s tending to be more blues and soul based. On the piano it tends to be more songwriterly. I’m still trying to figure it out. I think it’s going to be more of a blues kind of record than the last one because the last one was soul and gospel. The guys in the band and I wrote about 18 songs together, definitely some great tunes there, that we never recorded. But for whatever reason, the record company wants me to do more original stuff, which is fine by me. I just have to get on it.

FH: The guys in your band bounce ideas off you when you write, record, perform live?

Derek: Yeah, they’re great. They have really big ears and they’ve been with me for a long time. Something about that keeps you honest. When you go into something with somebody on the control floor, when you do it for 10 or 12 years, you know each other in a way you don’t let each other get away with things [laughs]. It’s great. It keeps you even and down to earth. They’re like, ‘Look, don’t give me that shit!’ [laughs] It’s nice. With Mike Mattison on board, he’s actually been great in introducing me to music that I had missed along the way.

FH: Like what?

Susan: He missed the Band.

Derek: Stuff that’s kind of obvious but not, like Nina Simone.

Susan: The Stones, some of their rare stuff.

Derek: Bobby Womack.

FH: You’re still in a learning process?

Derek: Yeah, everyday, and we’re digging up tunes all the time. When we don’t have time or don’t have tunes flowing because we’re on the road, we’ll start listening back and dig up obscure stuff to try to either spark the writing vibe or throw in a cover to keep everyone excited on stage.

FH: That helps gives the music its edge?

Derek: Yeah, keeping things flowing through the group keeps it fresh. Todd’s more into the Weather Report fusion area, Kopi’s all over the map, Yonrico’s coming from the R&B and gospel thing and Mike has sort of a soul singer-songwriter background.

FH: I’ve heard you have a Skip James blues print on your wall at home in Florida. There’s a little story about it?

Susan: It’s a Dick Waterman picture of Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House.

Derek: After we did our second record [Out of the Madness] which we opened with a Son House tune [“Preachin’ Blues”], we played in Oxford, Mississippi, where Dick lives, and he came out to the show partly to say “thanks” for recording a Son House tune. I actually got to give some of Son House’s heirs a $300 check or whatever it was. Like he was, ‘it’s something.’ As your career progresses, you keep in mind when you actually record a tune like that that it actually makes a difference. It also keeps Son House and Skip James in people’s minds. They’re the giants. They didn’t get their due in their lifetime and it’s a small tip of the hat to them. So Dick gave me a print. He was actually rounding up a lot of his shots for the Smithsonian. They were doing a Dick Waterman exhibit, and I got to go by his house when he had all his most amazing stuff out—Roland Kirk, Clapton, Son House—some of the most beautiful pictures. He has the shot of the first time Skip James really sang after being rediscovered… the first time he picked up the guitar…

Susan: … at the Newport Folk Festival [in 1964], he got out of the hospital…

Derek: …he has the moment of Skip opening his mouth for the first time and trying to get it back together. Some of these shots are beautiful. He gave us a shot of those three and wrote a little note: With fame comes responsibility, signed Dick Waterman.

Susan: It’s kind of like the Spiderman quote: “With power comes responsibility.”

Derek: We have kids. We have to watch all this. W can give you Dora the Explorer quotes…

Susan:…and Power Rangers! [laughs]

<- back to Features