The tropical storm that ripped through east Texas and the Gulf Coast in mid-June left slide guitarist Sonny Landreth's home near Lafayette, La., undamaged. But returning from road and session work in Nashville in the wake of the storm, he was impressed by nature's formidable powers.
"Good God, Almighty. There's plenty of water," he says by phone on his return. "The river's up to 14 feet 2 inches. It's the worst since 1993."
But if the low-lying bayous and plains of Landreth's Southwest Louisiana bend to the occasional storms, the water and the land retain a strong and unyielding majesty that informs the heart of the 50-year-old guitarist's music. A resident of the area since age 7, Landreth says growing up near the swamps was a "blessing," and nowhere is the effect of his home turf more evident in his music than on his latest CD, "Levee Town." Landreth brings his blues and Louisiana country rhythms to Jumpin' Thursday.
"It's a real special place. You look in the environment to find your place. It reflects in your art."
Landreth has been honing his art since he got his first guitar at 13. Turned on to guitarists Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins and Robert Johnson, Landreth was fascinated by the slide style as well as by flat- and fingerpicking techniques.
A local jazz musician taught him chord chemistry, but he became "frustrated with chords" and dove deeper into the mysteries of the slide guitar. One day in 1971, in a "burst of inspiration," he discovered he could find more tones by "floating" the glass tube on his "little" finger over the guitar strings while playing notes behind the slide with his other fingers. He'd never seen anyone play like this before, and he hasn't stopped developing the sonic approach since.
Through the '70s, Landreth toured the South and West. But it wasn't until 1979, when he spent a year with zydeco master Clifton Chenier, that his fortunes turned. He also recorded and played sessions. Through one of these sessions, Landreth met John Hiatt who was on the verge of major international success. In 1988, Hiatt hired Landreth to play on the "Bring the Family" recording and tour and, later, on the follow-up project, "Slow Turning." Word spread fast about the amazing guitarist in Hiatt's band.
Thanks to this exposure, listeners noticed when Landreth recorded "Outward Bound" in 1992 and "South of I-10" in 1995. Now, with soul firmly rooted in the myths and shadows of the swamplands, "Levee Town" delivers Landreth's best singing and songwriting to date. For Landreth, the music springs from a source as secret as the heart of the bayou.
"There's an interesting element of mystery I find really fascinating."