Sonny Landreth's Ghost Notes Landreth is a guitarist's guitarist, but he's not well known outside music circles. His latest CD, from the Reach, is his ninth, but audiences have mostly seen Landreth play slide for the likes of John Hiatt, Jimmy Buffett or Clifton Chenier.
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Sonny Landreth's Ghost Notes

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Sonny Landreth's Ghost Notes

Sonny Landreth's Ghost Notes

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the creature of Hollywood finds faith in Ohio. But first, when you call somebody a musician's musician, you're often suggesting they're not well known. That's the definitely the case with Sonny Landreth. He's certainly familiar to the guitar players as a wizard of the slide, a style mostly associated with the blues. But Mr. Landreth draws on many influences, especially the sounds of his native Lafayette, Louisiana. Sonny Landreth sat down with NPR's John Burnett to explain his distinctive sound, which the guitarist calls "the music behind the glass."

JOHN BURNETT: Sonny Landreth lives in a townhouse outside of Lafayette crowded with amplifiers and guitars and overseen by a mutt named Simco.

SIMON: That's my stage manager, my couch manager. He's in charge of security.

BURNETT: Landreth picks up a shiny, metal-body resonator guitar and slips a tubular glass slide onto his left pinky finger. Then the tutorial begins. This is the sound of traditional bottleneck blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESONATOR GUITAR)

BURNETT: This is the slide, Sonny style. Listen for the overtones.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESONATOR GUITAR)

BURNETT: What makes Sonny Landreth different is how he expands the use of the slide. Most guitarists place the slide over the frets and pluck the strings above the guitar's sound hole. Landreth does that, finger-picking in a Chet Atkins style, but he also plays chords on the other side - as he says, on the "wild side" of the slide, up on the neck, creating what John Hiatt calls "ghost notes." It's easier to hear than to describe.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRING BEING PLUCKED)

SIMON: Here's the note that you typically hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRING BEING PLUCKED)

SIMON: Here's a note behind. These are ghost notes. It makes a more complex sound and it opens up a lot of colors because you have harmonics and tones on both sides of the glass.

BURNETT: But there's more. Landreth has perfected a tremolo using the palm of his hand as a baffle over the sound hole, which he combines with the notes behind the glass.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GUITAR)

SIMON: It's kind of an accordion effect so you can manipulate the sound by the motion of your palm.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

SIMON: You can control the speed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)

BURNETT: If you listen to Sonny Landreth, you hear the unmistakable sounds of Acadiana in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: (Singing) I get down because nothing will last You say, this too shall pass Good times come after the bad The best yet to be had I believe...

BURNETT: Though he was born in Mississippi, Landreth's father, an insurance agent, moved the family to Lafayette when he was young. And that's where Sonny began to drink in the music of South Louisiana. Eventually, he held the distinction of playing with what one admirer calls, "The Holy Trinity of Acadian music": songwriter and Cajun rocker, Zachary Richard, the Grammy-winning Cajun supergroup, Beausoleil, and the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.

Sonny Landreth was in his late 20s when he became the first white member of Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band. That, Landreth, says was the beginning of his real musical education.

SIMON: People ask me about it and I liken it to if I'd grown up in Chicago and Muddy Waters had taken me under his wing. That's what it was like for me here in this part of the country.

BURNETT: In the more than 35 years he's been in the music business, Landreth has been known chiefly as a sideman, playing in other bands and on other people's albums. But he's released nine CDs of his own. The most recent features Eric Clapton, Vince Gill and Jimmy Buffet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLUE TARP BLUES")

SIMON: (Singing) Air Force One had a heck of a view...

BURNETT: That's Landreth singing, and Scottish guitarist, Mark Knopfler, playing the opening track, Landreth's ode to Hurricane Katrina. It begins, "Air Force One had a heck of a view looking down on the patchwork of the blue tarp blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BLUE TARP BLUES")

SIMON: (Singing) I went walking through the waters Sprung a leak in my shoes I went walking through the waters Sprung a leak in my shoes Well, that hole in my soul Give me the blue tarp blues I got the blues. I got the blue blue tarp blues.

BURNETT: This summer, that album, "From The Reach," briefly hit number one on Billboard's blues chart - to the extent that it is blues.

SIMON: Sonny's difficult to find a category for. He's unique.

BURNETT: Tony Daigle is a celebrated recording engineer from South Louisiana with four Grammys under his belt. He's worked with Landreth for years.

SIMON: He truly has this Creole-Cajun influence to it, but yet it's '60s and '70s kind of good rock 'n' roll. And he's such a unique guitar player. I mean, nobody else does what he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Next month, Landreth will be featured for the first time on the cover of Guitar Player magazine. The article says it's "a long-due testament to the immense impact that he's had on the guitar scene."

So, at 57 years old, with graying, shoulder-length hair, is Sonny Landreth finally ready to break out? Herman Fuselier is a long-time entertainment writer in Lafayette and host of a radio program called Zydeco Stomp.

SIMON: If a guy ever deserves to break out, it's Sonny. You know, we're in this era now where people are famous for just being famous and don't have an ounce of talent, where here's Sonny with talent running out of his ears and out of his fingers. So he deserves it. But the type of guy Sonny is, he really doesn't need the fame. The people that know who he is and how good he is, they already know that. They really appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY LANDRETH OUTDOOR CONCERT)

SIMON: We got a song about our hometown at Lafayette, Louisiana.

BURNETT: Landreth spends most of his time away from home on the road. This outdoor concert was in Austin, sponsored by radio station KGSR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY LANDRETH OUTDOOR CONCERT)

SIMON: (Singing) I woke up in Mississippi in '51. Migrated next door became a native stepson. I grew up on the rhythm of Clifton and Cleveland and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

BURNETT: Sonny Landreth is pleased with the magazine cover, the respectable CD sales, the emergent buzz about him. But it seems like he gets more excited about coming home and going down to Don's for a cup of gumbo and a Manhattan, or sitting in around Lafayette with the Mamou Playboys.

SIMON: I have to come back to recharge my spiritual batteries, I always say, because that's part of the blessing of living here - the culture. For me, it's about the food, the music, the dance. There's a very soulful undertow to all of this. You plug into it. You don't forget it.

BURNETT: The same could be said for the music behind the glass. John Burnett, NPR News.

SIMON: And you'll find more of Sonny Landreth's fabulous slide on nprmusic.org.

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