Telling The Truth: An Interview With Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).
In what felt like the blink of an eye, Tedeschi Trucks Band went from buzzed-about curiosity — how are they going to keep a band that big on the road so much? — to one of our scene’s marquee bands, turning out both music and live shows that regularly measure up to the staggering musical talents of its 12 (!) members.
But it wasn’t an eye-blink, it was a whole lot of woodshedding. Tedeschi Trucks Band has been active now for nine years, with five albums (three studio, two live) under its belt and another studio effort coming in early 2019. Along the way, the band — which features power couple namesakes Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks at the helm, and an all-star cast of 10 alongside them — has established its own traditions, such as a fall stand at New York City’s storied Beacon Theatre, which this year kicks off October 5 with six shows.
Long before that, however, the band is headed out for its fourth, summer-long “Wheels Of Soul” excursion, which this year features Drive-By Truckers and The Marcus King Band as opening acts. Wheels Of Soul gets rolling in Jacksonville, Florida on June 29 and concludes at Red Rocks at the end of July. Ahead of the fall, TTB will also be at Lockn’ and playing a few days of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival.
Here’s the always-delightful Susan T., who chatted with JamBase ahead of this Friday’s Summer Tour kickoff.
JAMBASE: So how are you today?
SUSAN TEDESCHI: Good! We have strings here today. We’re making the record and we did the basic tracking and a bunch of overdubs and vocals and horns already. We have five of the songs mixed. But we’re having strings on a few, from the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and some of them came out today. Kofi [Burbridge] is our arranger and he’s the one actually writing the string lines. They’re out there right now.
JAMBASE: Well that’s interesting. Have you been playing a lot of these new tunes already?
ST: We have two songs from the album that are originals that we’ve been playing a little bit, but we’re trying to save songs. It’s really hard when you have a new record and everyone’s heard the stuff from the live shows. It gets out there, up on YouTube. We want to have some surprises and excitement — we want to hold out as long as we can with this one. The record won’t be out until February, but we’ll be done with it by the end of this month, so it’s a long period of time. We want to play new stuff, and we wrote a bunch of tunes that didn’t make the record, so we’ll play some of those as well, and some new covers here and there to freshen up the set a bit.
We’ve also been working up some stuff we haven’t played in a super long time. We have the Wheels Of Soul Tour and I’m so excited. I really don’t know a lot about the Drive-By Truckers and I’m excited to learn about them, so that’ll be really fun. I do know Marcus King — he’s a really good kid, and really talented, with a very soulful voice. And he’s a great guitar player.
JAMBASE: It’s definitely an exciting lineup. As far as songs that the Tedeschi Trucks Band hasn’t played in a while, what’s an example?
ST: You know, we started doing a song off of Layla [and Assorted Love Songs]. It’s always fun to play old Eric [Clapton] covers and we do “Anyday,” which people know, and “Keep On Growing,” but we started doing “Tell The Truth” again. We had never done that in this band, but I think we did it maybe once in Soul Stew Revival. We really enjoy that.
We just saw Eric, actually — I got to play with his band for the first time. I sang backup a little bit when he sat-in with The Allman Brothers, but this was my first real time playing with him. Eric’s band and our band played, we had opened for them and he invited us up to play on “Crossroads.” I got to sing on “Crossroads” and actually be in the band, with Eric and Derek, and Doyle [Bramhall II]. A bucket list item for sure.
JAMBASE: So the Tedeschi Trucks Band has been active for years now. It got going, and then kept developing, and got bigger and is now this powerhouse, eight years in.
ST: You know, it’s been amazing. The band keeps growing. We added Alecia [Chakour] two years ago. We’re a 12-piece band, and we started out as a nine-piece band, and we’re also around the world, going to other countries. The response all over the world has been great; people know the songs and are interested in what we do.
When we do write songs, we stay open-minded and open to interpretation. We have a hint of politics, a hint of environmental topics, but I think you hear the humanity in the songs — what brings us all together. People really connect with that. People want to live in a world where people get along, and there are laws to protect them and keep them safe, and they have clean air and water, and access to healthcare. We’re not a political band, but we try to pull people together through music. Some music is violent and angry. I think we have more of a positive message. We want to continue to make records, write songs that are positive, and help people heal and shed some light.
JAMBASE: You really operate as a collective. I mean, it’s your name and Derek’s on the sign so you have to govern a bit, but you highlight the musical contributions of 12 people, every night.
ST: Honestly, I’m going to give Derek a lot of the credit for that. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of pretty much everyone, whether in their personality or their playing. He knows how to bring the greatness out of everybody, and make them feel important. Everyone in this band is so gifted, and there’s the confidence and the camaraderie, and pure unconditional love we all have for each other.
A lot of bands will be on the road together and may not even see each other except on stage. That’s not us. We eat together, we work out together, we listen to music together, we do laundry together. Someone will come up and say, hey, I have an idea: maybe we can try this, or do this segue, or adjust something in this song. Everyone feels comfortable to bring stuff to the table. It’s really quite a miraculous band. A lot of these guys and gals could spend their time in other bands, easily. So I think we all know how special it is and have a mutual respect for each other.
JAMBASE: Looking across the 12 of you, that’s a lot of background and influences and musical walks of life that come together. Who tends to come to the foremost with new ideas?
ST: Well, I mean Alecia is a wealth of knowledge. She’s one of the younger ones in the band, but that girl knows a lot of music. She and J.J. [Johnson] are similar in that they have a lot of knowledge in not just one category. Tim [Lefebvre] comes from a different world too. He was on the jazz scene in New York for years with people like Wayne Krantz, playing tiny little bars and being totally free in his playing. This band is a lot more structured than what he was used to, but there’s room in it to be free, too, and he finds that. He and Kofi and Derek can get together and explore things harmonically, and they’ll break out on something during a show, and the drummers will pick up on it, and everyone’s listening to everybody and we’re doing things.
JAMBASE: What are some lesser known influences you have? I think folks are very much familiar with your history with blues, soul and R&B, but there’s much more in there.
ST: Really, I’m influenced by other people in the band like Mike Mattison. He’s from Minnesota and went to Boston, and it’s funny, he lived right down the street from me on Mass Ave when I was going to Berklee and he was going to Harvard. I met him through Derek, when he was living in New York City and he joined Derek’s band. He writes the most beautiful songs — “Midnight In Harlem,” “Bound For Glory” — and he has done a lot of writing on this new record. His music unites people and hearing his ideas affects me a lot.
A lot of us have written for the record, actually. And some of the songs maybe just started as a jam with Tim and Kofi and Derek playing something silly that gets turned into a song at soundcheck. Others came from Mike or others saying, here is a tune I wrote, I need some words or an arrangement. Honestly, they all take little turns we can’t imagine — we’re comfortable not being completely in control. Whatever stands up the best stands up the best. We have 16 songs we did for this record, and we had to pick 12, and it was hard to narrow stuff down. It’s going to be great, though. We have some ballads, some really beautiful ballads and some kind of sad, and some upbeat, funky kind of soulful tunes with the whole group going for it and the great horns.
You asked about influences, though. For me, I was influenced by folk music and country as well as blues and gospel, as well as rock ’n’ roll. I am definitely from Boston, Massachusetts, and I definitely know my Aerosmith! But The Stones of course, and everyone from the Dead to Black Sabbath to Peter Wolf. I also had a huge musical theater background. I did over 60 plays and musicals between when I was 6 and 17, and doing that is what helped me learn to memorize songs. I was in so many plays I had to memorize lines. Then again, my brain is a computer – it only holds so much stuff. [laughs]
JAMBASE: So give us a glimpse of that day-to-day family life within the band. When you’re all listening to music together, for example, or some of you, who is DJ?
ST: Oh, various people love to be DJ. I think J.J. and Alecia and Derek are the top three DJs most often. Elizabeth [Lea] also loves to play stuff, as does Tim — everyone just kind of takes a turn. Falcon [Tyler Greenwell] plays us a lot of stuff. He’s been producing and working on records on the side. Kebbi [Williams] is always working on stuff, too, he runs the Wolf Pack in Atlanta. Mark [Rivers] and Alecia are always singing on people’s records and benefits and they share a lot.
When we sit around and play DJ, I know a lot of the songs Derek is going to play, because he has certain tunes he really loves. And it’s always a really eclectic mix of Cuban music and African music mixed with music from Pakistan and India. Then again, he could play some straight up American gospel or soul music, or Jackie Wilson or Willie Nelson. J.J. is another one. He always has bands on like Queens Of The Stone Age that I don’t really know much about. We get a good mix going.
JAMBASE: Do you think you’ll ever return to the Susan Tedeschi Band you had before Soul Stew Revival and then the Tedeschi Trucks Band? I know Derek gets the same question a lot about his old band, too.
ST: There is talk about maybe at some point Derek and I making some solo records. We probably won’t tour with those bands, but it is not out of the question. I can definitely see Derek or I doing stuff on our own just to mix it up, but the focus is on keeping this band going and trying to bring new stuff to the table.
I think about it, though. I’d love to do a gospel or a country record, and I have so many old tunes that I’ve never recorded — it’d be fun to publish some of the stuff that no one’s ever heard. My grandfather, before he passed away, he had always wanted me to record a country record. I’d love to call up Willie Nelson or Herbie Hancock and do some kind of duo record. There are so many opportunities, and we just have to plan well and do it. And sometimes, well, time gets away from you.
JAMBASE: Let’s hear some sit-in stories, although you already mentioned that very cool experience with Clapton a few weeks ago.
ST: In the band here we were actually just talking about B.B. King. When I would tour with B.B. and Buddy [Guy], they would always have me sit-in — what a gift that was. One memory that stands out is getting to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and there was one night where we got to hear B.B. play, and he just sounded amazing — so sweet and down-to-earth, and humble. And he said to me, “Hey, Sue, do you want to come sit-in at the end?” And I was, of course, like, “I’m here when you need me.” So he says, “Great, at the end, have your guitar ready and I’ll call you up.”
So we’re at the end, and he says, “I’m going to invite one of my favorite guitar players in the world to come join me.” And I know that’s not me, so I turn around and there’s George Benson standing right behind me. So George gets up, and B.B. says, “Now, please welcome another favorite guitar player.” So he has me up there with him and George Benson and George Duke was there on keyboards, too. I’m like, are you kidding me?
I’m up there standing between George and B.B., and my amp is almost off the stage. And George stops and goes, “Where’s Susan’s amp? I want to hear that!” So they bring my amp up closer and we’re trading solos — me, in between B.B. and George and George. That’s one of my favorites.
John Lee Hooker was another one — an amazing moment. And of course some amazing moments with Santana, and Little Milton, and Buddy. I was fortunate to have a lot of lucky experiences in my 20s. I didn’t even know Otis Rush, for example, and he told me to get up on stage. He picked me out because I was singing along from the crowd and he heard it.
Let’s see. Another amazing one was with Derek: the two of us got asked by Herbie Hancock to play International Jazz Day at the United Nations years ago. We were there with Herbie, and George Duke again, and all of these amazing musicians. And who comes on to do the encore but Stevie Wonder. He’s there and he wants everyone to come play on the encore. My mic went out, and Chaka Khan gave me hers. She was amazing there, and I remember Esperanza Spalding was there, and Christian McBride, and Jack DeJohnette and Robert Cray, and Wynton [Marsalis] and Ron Carter. Just to watch all of these people try to create something together — just play a riff and see what the others would do with it. Sometimes with that, it’s just fun to be a spectator, though I have to say Derek played great and held his own.
JAMBASE: I have to ask: given all these experiences, who would you like to play with that you haven’t yet?
ST: Oh my gosh. You know what’s funny, when you said that just now, the person that popped into my head was Bruce Springsteen. He’s a wonderful live performer. I dig him, he’s an amazing songwriter. I’d love to play with Neil Young. I have done some stuff with Neil and Willie but not much directly with Neil.
I’ve played with so many of my heroes, but I’d love to sing with Aretha Franklin. We did a show with her years ago where our band played, and she played, and I did get to meet her. She’s a huge hero. So yeah I’d say Aretha. And I’ve sat-in some with Stevie but would love to do something there too. It’d be really amazing to record a gospel record or a country record with people like Willie and Aretha!
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